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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Parable of the Minas

Jesus' parable of the minas (pronounced m'NAH or in Aramaic m'NAY) in the Gospel of Luke is parallel to but not quite the same as his better-known parable of the talents in Matthew.  Here are some various observations on the parable of the minas (perhaps better entitled "the parable of the citizens and the slaves").  Go ahead and read it first or better yet have the text available to refer to.

1. Jesus' kingship takes time.  Jesus tells this parable because the people with whom he was traveling to Jerusalem, expecting him to be the Messiah, "thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately" (v. 11).  This is a classic example of the "already but not yet" pattern in New Testament theology.  It was not unusual for Jesus to talk about the kingdom as already here (see for example Matt. 12:28), but at the same time it hasn't come yet.  He indicates here that it will take a while to happen, even though it is "near."  The coming of the kingdom requires both urgency and patience.  It reminds me of the saying, "Hurry, but don't rush."

2. Jesus brings his kingship.  You and I don't.  Nor do missionaries or social movements.  Nor governments or armies, nor marchers or wearers of hemp.  Jesus brings the kingdom.  Does he work through his church?  Of course.  But in the parable the slaves are working with what their master has given them while waiting for his return.  But his securing of the title and authority of king is really not their business.  He is fully adequate to take care of that himself.  The slaves' job is not to "usher in," "spread," "build," or "expand" his kingdom.  Their job is to be faithful with what is his until he comes back—and to the extent that they do, they are bearing witness to the legitimacy and reality of his kingdom in their own lives and actions.

3. Kingdom is kingship.  You may have noticed that I've been using these terms interchangeably in the foregoing paragraphs.  If you don't know why, it is because the Greek word basileía, generally translated "kingdom," does not mean a place (like the United Kingdom) but the right and authority of the king to reign, the king's "kingness" or kingship.  The situation in this parable reflects the Romans' willingness to manage their empire through cooperative client-kings like Herod the Great when possible rather than installing their own nobility as governors everywhere they went.  In Jesus' story an aristocrat in a Roman client-state is traveling to Rome to make a bid to be appointed as the next king of the territory by the emperor.  But "his [fellow-]citizens" (compare the Greek in Heb. 8:11), men of the same class as he, hate him and don't want him to be in charge of them, so they send a delegation urging the emperor to choose someone else to be their king.

4. Citizen or slave?  Everyone, and certainly Jesus' hearers, would naturally rather be the former than the latter.  But what distinguishes the two is that the citizens are unwilling for the aristocrat to be their ruler while the slaves (well, nine of them) obey him loyally.  There are two kinds of people in the world.  One sees Jesus as their fellow citizen, a human being not only just like us but merely like us with no authority to tell us what to do, and they live accordingly.  The other kind faithfully and humbly submits to whatever he wants.  When the aristocrat returns as king, the roles are reversed, and the divide in status is made more extreme than before.  The slaves, who were once despised, become rulers.  The citizens, who were once respected, become meat.  Which would you rather become?

5. Life is a test.  Each slave had a mina to work with—one to one-and-a-quarter pounds of silver, which today is worth $567 and then was worth about four months of wages for a day laborer.  It was not impossible for slaves, especially those who had sold themselves, to have this kind of money—some slaves bought their own freedom for five or six times as much—but it was still a lot, and some slaves weren't allowed to have money at all.  A mina might have seemed like an enormous amount to manage to a slave, but from the perspective of the wealthy aristocrat, it was "a very little thing" (v. 17).  It was simply a test given by a prospective king who would need trustworthy men to help him govern his kingdom.  The master didn't give the slaves minas to make money but to make rulers.  Proportionate to the skill, savvy, and most importantly faithfulness of his slaves he made them governors.  All that we have—our wealth and possessions, our relationships, our power, our health, our skills, our experiences—seem so huge to us; they are our entire world, all we can usually see.  But our worlds are tiny and rather insignificant compared to God's unfathomable wealth.  They are small gifts to test our faithfulness to Christ.  When he returns as King and recreates the earth, he will give us stuff to manage beyond our wildest imaginations exactly according to what we do with what we now have.

6. Opportunities are made to be multiplied.  What the aristocrat gives to each slave is intended to be multiplied.  The typical interpretation of the minas are things that God has given us (like talents—our English word comes from an interpretation of Matt. 25) to use for him.  I partly agree with this.  However, since the minas are to be multiplied, this can't strictly be the case—it isn't an application of this text to take one house we own and multiply it into ten houses or turn an ability to speak English into an ability to speak ten languages.  But all of these things that we possess do create opportunities to serve Christ; they can be used for him.  I think that each person's mina is the sum total of the opportunities to serve him.  Invariably, as we serve Jesus in all of our opportunities, the number and scale of the opportunities that we have increase.  If we make the most of the one person we have to touch with God's love, it won't be long before we have two, and so on.

7. Stewardship requires risk.  The one slave who isn't rewarded by his master is chastised for not investing the money he was given.  Let's think about the dividends yielded by the other slaves: as much as ten times what was invested.  That rate of return is astronomical.  The only way the first slave could have gotten a return like that was if he took big risks, gambles even, with the aristocrat's money and they paid off.  The one who took no risk in order to preserve what he was given was the one who remained a slave instead of becoming a governor.  Very often in my experience "being a good steward" is code in Christian circles for buying cheap toilet paper and keeping the thermostat turned down to 56°; it functionally means spending as little as possible.  But Jesus wants his servants to invest what they have in opportunities for him with abandon.  Jesus may be conservative in the sense of holding more tenaciously than anyone to the heart of Torah (see Matt. 5:17-20), but that must be the only sense in which he is conservative.  He doesn't want his servants to conserve but to take smart chances with what they have, even if that risks failure and waste.  Aggressive, high-yield, faith-straining attempts to give him glory and love the world are what stewardship is, and that certainly includes the choices we make with our "mammon of unrighteousness."

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