Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Learning a New Lesson

Have you ever read a bible story and, when finished, said to yourself, “Wait a minute! That’s not right. Surely that’s not the way the story goes!” Today’s parable from Luke 19—the Parable of the Ten Minas—left my head spinning this morning.

The beauty of biblical interpretation and reapplication is taking a familiar story and stretching it in a way that, while still grounded in the original text, tells us something new. Preachers do it all the time. That’s what preaching is. But, when that act of retrieval and reinterpretation is done by one of the biblical authors, something neat happens. We get to see in scripture itself a reinterpretation of scripture. Usually, that happens when Paul or Jesus quote an Old Testament passage and put it into a new context (e.g. Romans 4:7-8 as a reinterpretation of Psalm 32:1-2). Sometimes, though, one gospel writer retells a particular story in a new way in order to emphasize a new theme (e.g. John’s appropriation of Jesus’ anointing, which is by an anonymous woman in the synoptic tradition—by a repentant sinner in Luke but by a devoted disciple in Matthew and Mark—to Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, in his own version).

Today’s story, though, is startling in its reappropriation. Luke takes the same story behind the parable of the talents in Matthew and makes it the parable of the minas, but the currency (one year’s wages vs. three months’ wages) isn’t the only difference. In fact, that’s a minor issue. It’s the rest that shocks us.

Luke tells of a nobleman who went off into a foreign land to receive a kingdom. But he also tells us that this man was hated by the residents of his land who did not want him ruling over them. When the nobleman returns, the part that immediately follows is familiar—the one who made 10 minas is rewarded greatly, and the one who made 5 minas is rewarded in kind, but the one who hid the minas is punished. But then things get even stranger.

When the king takes the mina away from the one who wasted it and gives it to the one who already had 10, there is an objection from the others: “Lord, he already has ten!” That objection is implied in Matthew’s account, but Luke gives it voice. But, if you thought that was an expression of God’s strange righteousness—“to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away”—then the train comes off the rails when the king declares, “But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them-- bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.”

Bloodthirsty. Hated. Vengeful. Greedy. Powerful. Manipulative. Is that how you would describe God?

The problem (and beauty) of this passage is that it frees this familiar parable from a restricted understanding that may arise when we read Matthew’s more tame version. It’s an instinct to read a parable and think of the “master” or “king” as God, but parables aren’t always allegory—in fact, they rarely are. Instead, they are strange stories designed to teach us something. But what in the world can this disturbing parable teach us?

It’s not a story about how God works. And it’s not a prediction of what God’s kingdom will be like. Instead, it’s a response to those who, Luke tells us, “supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” In other words, it’s a corrective. It’s a way of Jesus saying, “So, you think the kingdom is coming right away? You think you know what you’re getting into? Well, then, this story is for you. What do you think about that?”

As the gospel makes clear through the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the kingdom is coming and is now here, but, as becomes painfully obvious in the succeeding generations, the advent of God’s kingdom isn’t the triumphant celebration many of God’s people expected it to be. Instead, it’s a different urgency—a turning upside of the ways of the world that isn’t forceful or domineering but small and obscure. And what should our response to that coming of the kingdom be? As the parable of the minas teaches, total devotion.

We take what we have been given and do what we can with it. The world doesn’t see what we see. The world can’t recognize what we understand about the kingdom. Still, though, we are called to action. The consequences of inaction are dire. The consequences of opposition are dire—not because God is a tyrant who will slaughter in his presence all who oppose him. That’s allegorizing a parable that isn’t an allegory. Don’t try to make everything line up. Just let the parable speak. Take the mina and use it to make it grow. Take what is given and devote it to the kingdom. Don’t worry about making sense of everything else. Don’t worry about what others seem to say. Just take what you’re given and use it…because the kingdom is coming, and it demands our full investment.

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