In the women’s Bible Study I lead, we have an ongoing debate about a statement I frequently make: a parable is not an allegory; it’s not about casting real people, or God, in a particular role, I say, it’s about teaching something true using real life situations easily understood by people in the time and place for, and from, which it was created. We could do the same with trending stories we see on Twitter or Facebook, turning them into object lessons, or expressions of dismay about the world as it is.
In reading parables, I fear we have a fiendish tendency to cast God as allegorical King, or landowner, or rich man, trying to make sense of what we don’t apprehend immediately because we are not first century Palestinian peasants. Preachers take a parable out of the larger context and use it to prove the point they want to make.
And there is one person in my Bible Study who wants it to be that way. (Hi, Ruth Ann!) She is, after all, Presbyterian, and they like things to be decent and in good order. Interpretations of the whole are harder to be sure of than carefully analyzed roles and plot points. I understand. Still, I disagree.
In Luke 19, we start with Zacchaeus, that wee little tax collector. His wickedness is a trending story in town. Depending on whether you look at the NRSV or the Greek, he steals from the poor and will pay it back, or he already makes up for things, but the point of the story for me is that Jesus upsets the expectations and preferences of everyone else by even talking to the guy. He is not a standard hierarchical religious leader, showing a preference for the pious or the acceptable.
And then Luke has Jesus tell his version of the parable of the talents. And it is tough. Go read it. I’ll wait. (Luke 19:1-28, CEB)
It ends this way.
He replied, ‘I say to you that everyone who has will be given more, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for my enemies who don’t want me as their king, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’ (Luke 19:26-27)
This is not a story about making the most of the gifts and graces God has given us. It’s a story about the cruelty of earthly kingdom values. It’s foreshadowing what will happen to Jesus. He is seen as an enemy by the king, by that fox, Herod, who takes from the poor and privileges the powerful. He is seen as an enemy by the religious leaders, who see him as a danger to the status quo they are trying to maintain, hand in glove with the Romans. Who is this cruel? It sounds like the punishment meted out by a dictator.
Our trending stories this week show us contemporary leaders who care nothing for the little ones, for the marginalized. We’ve seen it in Syria, where innocent children and others died terribly at the hand of their leader. We’ve seen it in the way women and trans people will be impacted by Executive Orders and legislation. We’ve even seen it in a Pepsi commercial, co-opting BlackLivesMatter.
If you think God is the king in that story because naturally the powerful figure in an allegorical interpretation must equate to God, and if you are therefore tempted to use this parable to try to get people to work harder for the church, or to toe some line of your invention, I ask you to look at these two verses that end the Zacchaeus story and conclude the telling of the parable.
“The Human One came to seek and save the lost.” (v. 10)
“As for my enemies who don’t want me as their king, bring them here and slaughter them before me.”
After Jesus said this, he continued on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. (vv. 27-28)
Jesus is going to his fate, to be slaughtered before the earthly powers who hate him: the religious leaders, the king, the governor, Rome. Let us not be like them, focused on earthly power, financial results, and winning at all costs. Let us not be like them.
Holy One, we are getting close to Jerusalem, to the wicked events of the holiest week. I see the way the world is trending. Help me resist, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
I’m reading and blogging about Luke for Lent. Want to read along? The full schedule can be found here.