As most of us are fully aware, a proper understanding of Scripture must be found in understanding the language, culture and worldviews of those who wrote it and to those it was written to. A basic reading, in an English translation, does not always capture the nuances and cultural references that the original audience would have quicky grasped.
This morning I would like to take a look at a parable that you are all probably familiar with, but one where much of the meaning gets lost by our modern thought. While most bible readers these days are quick to just accept their initial surface level reading, gleaning what practical applications they can, and moving on, doing so means we end up missing much of what is actually being taught.
Once we dig in and start to see the cultural understanding of things, we can begin seeing much more and things start to make more sense in the whole scheme of things. Before we jump into this parable, let me just go over some background information on parables as a review.
First off, what exactly is a parable? Here are some technical definitions given by various sources:
…denotes a placing beside…It signifies a placing of one thing beside another with a view to comparison….It is generally used of a somewhat lengthy utterance or narrative drawn from nature or human circumstances, the object of which is to set forth a spiritual lesson. (W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, pg. 830)
The Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period tells us parables are:
Instructional narrative, metaphors, or similes, which appear throughout Mediterranean and Egyptian literature of antiquity.
Important to the discussion today, is that this last definition refers to the fairly common place of the use of parable with ancient literature. Speaking in parables was more of a cultural practice back then that it is in our time, and for that reason, we may not grasp as much from them without a little work in understanding them.
Scholars and historians speak of two types of theologians; the conceptual and the metaphoric. A conceptual theologian is typically what we in the West have practiced for centuries – it is one who constructs theology from ideas held together by logic. Theologians like this tend to be more serious, abstract and write in a scholarly manner, making them harder to understand by the average person.
Paul works with both ideals and metaphors – but in the West we tend to emphasize his ideas and concepts, and push to the side his metaphors – thus making him out to be more of a conceptual theologian in our minds. On the opposite side, most people view Jesus as purely metaphoric – or as Middle Eastern New Testament professor Kenneth Bailey puts it – "a village rustic creating folktales for fisherman and farmers." Jesus's primary way of teaching was through metaphor, simile, parable, and dramatic action, rather than through reasoning and logic.
For some people, this takes Jesus out of the category of a serious theologian or philosopher, and puts him strictly in a category of being more like a dramatist or poet. They turn him into a man who gave lots of nice little teachings about love and good living, and not much about deep theology. However, for those who have seriously examined his parables and metaphors more closely, have found that they are filled with serious theology. Sadly, much of this theology is easily missed due to our minds being filled with our own Western, Greek and modern cultural thoughts which miss much of the application of what he is saying.
Metaphors are used to communicate ideas in a way that rational arguments are not always able to do. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, metaphors are like picture stories to help get points across. We sometimes use them today when we speak using stories and examples to get our point across. A metaphor though, is not just an illustration of the idea, it is a form of theological discourse, and a parable is an extended metaphor that sets the scene for viewing things through a new worldview lens.
We tend to want to view these parables as a good launching point for a general idea being put across, but that is not really the proper way to view them, or not really the way they were viewed historically in that culture. I like the way Bailey states it:
The listener/reader of the parable is encouraged to examine the human predicament through the worldview created by the parable. The casing is all that remains after a shell is fired. Its only purpose is to drive the shell in the direction of the target. It is easy to think of a parable in the same way and understand it as a good way to "launch" an idea. Once the idea is "on its way" the parable can be disregarded. But this is not so. If the parable is a house in which the listened/reader is invited to take up residence, then that person is urged by the parable to look on the world through the windows of that residence. Such is the reality of the parables created by Jesus of Nazareth, a reality that causes a special problem. (Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Pg. 280-281)
He goes on to describe how - when it comes to the logic and reasoning as modern theologians practice, the understanding of the theology involved requires a clear mind and a little hard work. However, for the theology presented by Jesus, grasping what is being portrayed in his stories and dramatic events is not always grasped by contemporary readers, and to fully understand, requires knowledge of the culture of the storyteller. So, we will never truly grasp the nature and implications of his sayings without having a grasp on the surrounding culture of which he spoke those things. In order to truly unlock the truths in the parables, we must first consider a few necessary steps.
First, we must realize that digging for the true meaning is necessary and important. Sure, anyone can read the Bible and be blessed by much of what is said; we may even receive blessing from a misapplied use of the stories and events we read. However, an ear better trained in the language and culture of the Bible will hear and understand much more from the text and its true intent.
To avoid doing the work required to get this understanding, As mentioned, the modern church tends to "indigenize" them – figuring the first century people thought and acted much like we do today, and we interpret based on modern understandings. We look at these stories as just little ditties that have a universal appeal to all men for whatever they can get from them.
This makes the understanding of the Bible to be more of a relative book of teachings that varies from person to person, with no absolute meaning. I believe this type of mentality is one of the main causes of all of the disagreements, debates, and divisions in the church that leads to a new church on every corner that cannot get along with the church down the street.
We read stories like that of the prodigal son, and we see a rebellious teen, a jealous brother, and a loving father, and we just take the nice story as application for what we can. However, we totally miss the fact that in the Middle Eastern culture where this story was taking place, for a son to ask for his inheritance while the father was still alive, was equal to telling the father you wished he would just drop dead. This greatly heightens the loving response of the father in the story, who normally should have gotten mad and cast the son out of the house.
Secondly, in order to get a better understanding, we need to realize the historical nature of the Word of God. The Bible is truly the Word of God, but it is also to be seen as the Word of God spoken through real people in real historical settings. Ignoring the historicity of it will mean missing the original intent and audience relevance. It is interesting how most people remember and apply the historical settings of other literature we read, but ignore it when it comes to the Bible.
Thirdly, we must seek to find the meanings in the parables that are legitimate, and not seek to stretch the boundaries of the metaphor too far. In other words, we cannot over examine every jot and tittle of a story looking for meanings and parallels in everything it says. This again is where audience relevance comes in – for we cannot force a meaning or understanding into the story that would have been totally alien to the original audience.
People throughout the centuries have found interpretations within the stories of Jesus that have enforced their own views and ideas, ideas like Marxism, Existentialism, etc. – but that would have been totally foreign to anything Jesus ever intended or thought to convey to his audience.
So, in essence, I think Bailey put it best when he summarized by saying:
Simply stated, our task is to stand at the back of the audience around Jesus and listen to what he is saying to them. Only through that discipline can we discover what he is saying to any age, including our own. (Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Pg. 283)
Look with me please at Mat 13:10 where we are told why Jesus chose to speak in parables, or as the literal translation puts it, similes:
Then the disciples came and said to him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?" And he answered them, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
"You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive." For this people's heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.'
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Mat 13:10-17 ESV)
So, we can see from Jesus own words that he was intentionally speaking in such a manner that made it more difficult to understand, because the main target audience he came to speak to, were already pretty much blind and deaf to the truth. And he was instead coming to those who were given the ears to hear, that the plans of God would be fulfilled through them instead.
Now, our attention today will be on the familiar parable of the minas, or pounds, depending on your translation. We'll be examining it in Luke to attempt to get more detail into what is actually being said or implied here. Look with me at Luke chapter 19, starting with verse 12:
He said therefore, "A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.' But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.'
When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business.
The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.' And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.' And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.' And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.' Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man.
You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.' He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow?
Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?' And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.' And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!'
‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.'" (Luk 19:11-27 ESV)
So, on the surface, it sounds pretty cut and dry. And simply a story of faithfulness and investing for gain. But let's look at it just a little deeper than surface level and see how cultural background details can alter the story.
First off, many scholars tie this story in to contemporary events, one of which even happened right around the time of the birth of Jesus, so was still somewhat of a recent happening even thirty years later. So, this would have been fairly common knowledge news to those hearing this initial message.
In the political environment of the time, the scenario was somewhat common, where a would-be ruler had to travel to the main city to receive his new position of authority. It was possible that his enemies would follow him in route, seeking to destroy him along the way meaning he would never return to his loyal people. But also, while he was gone, it was not uncommon for the citizens to rebel and cause trouble in his kingdom. Sometimes this may even lead to an abuse of those who were under his power and were left behind to keep things in order.
In 40 BC, Herod the Great made such a journey to Rome, as was common, to be appointed as king. In 4 BC, Herod died, and his son Archelaus was expected to become the new king. He began ruling upon his father's death, but he was still expected to make the journey to be officially deemed the ruler by Caesar Augustus. Unfortunately, there was opposition to his being the ruler, and when he arrived at Rome, he found that some of his own family members had filed rival claims to the throne. Also, on top of that, about fifty Jewish rulers had come from Jerusalem, seeking to let Caesar know why they thought Archelaus was unfit to govern. In other words, they would not have this man to be king over them.
So, the travel to receive the authority was required, but it was not an assurance that the authority would be given, since it could be challenged. So, when a would-be ruler made the trek, their would-be potential uncertainty in the land while he was gone, and it could lead to chaos and turmoil among the factions involved. In the case of Archelaus, his return took longer than expected, but in the end he was given the kingship, as Caesar wanted to give him the chance to prove himself. Of course, when he returned with the power, he rounded up those who had opposed him, and executed swift punishment against them.
So, with this little bit of historical background as a foundation, we should be able to see how much more relevant this parable was to those that heard it. Another potential issue many modern readers may have, especially American ones, would be to use our own capitalist cultural eyes to view this parable as an issue of money, investments and returns, when that is really not the issue here at all.
The political climate back in the day was quite turbulent, and at a time when there was a change of power like that, those loyal servants to the one coming into power may have it tough when their leader is away. They may be assured of their leader's success in achieving the power and authority, but other factions may not. Would those faithful followers stand up and continue to openly profess allegiance, and do "business" in the name and authority of their soon to be ruler, or would they hide and keep quiet until he returns in power and is there to protect them? That is more of what is being spoken of here.
First off, let's back up just a little to see what kind of starts this whole parable. They had just left the house of Zacchaeus, where Jesus stated:
Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. (Luk 19:9-10 ESV)
This would have set off eschatological and apocalyptic red flags in the minds of the Apostles, for if salvation had come to someone like a tax collector, then surely it was there for the nation. Plus, with Passover being near, this was the perfect timing – and he was speaking clear kingdom talk in their minds. We know this because of their response in the next verse:
… because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. (Luk 19:11 ESV)
So, salvation has come, Passover is near, they are heading to the center of their world, Jerusalem, so surely the arrival of the kingdom in all its glory is right around the corner. But, with this parable, Jesus throws a wrench in their ideas, by showing them that there will be a bit of time before the fullness of the kingdom. He must leave, receive the authority, and return with that authority.
As we stand in hindsight, it is clear who the parties of the parable are, and the general idea of the story, but again, with the cultural understanding, we are able to see it a bit more clearly for what it is. As the nobleman is about to leave to receive the kingdom, he distributes gifts to his followers; this is in affect saying to them, be faithful while I am gone, and promote my good name to those around you. Yes, it is easy to be bold while the leader is there to protect you, but when gone, and they are encircled with the enemies, how will they conduct themselves publicly then?
After giving them the gifts, he tells them to "Engage in business until I come." Now the word used for "until" is the little used Greek expression en ho, and some scholars state that this literally means "in which." While it can legitimately be translated as "until" as it often is, and as we see here in the ESV, it is also another option to read it as a causative, meaning it is producing something – so we could see it as
"Do business because I come [back]."
By turning this phrase en ho into the time reference – until – it becomes more of a command to go do business in the short time they have, and make as much profit as they can. Yet if this is the case in this parable, then why upon returning does he commend them for their faithfulness - and not their successfulness in much profit?
And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.' (Luk 19:17 ESV)
So, it is probably better to read this phrase as more of a causative, meaning he is telling them to do business in a situation in which he is coming back. So, in essence, he is telling them to stand firm and boldly proclaim his business, for he is indeed coming back to examine their faithfulness in it. Are the servants willing to take the risk of openly declaring continued allegiance and loyalty to the soon to be king during his absence, in a place and time where many surrounding them oppose the new king's rule, and threaten the safety of the servants?
A real-life situation similar to this is told in Bailey's book, and I find worth relaying to you:
It has been my privilege to teach short courses for the Lutheran Church of Latvia. While I was at the Lutheran Academy in Riga, I observed the interviewing of new students for the academy. I asked the interviewing committee what kinds of questions they asked the applicants. They told me, "The most important question is ‘When were you baptized?'" And I asked, "Why is the date of baptism such an important question?" They answered," If they were baptized during the period of Soviet rule, they risked their lives and compromised their futures by being baptized. But if they were baptized after liberation from the Soviets, we have many further questions to ask them about why they want to become pastors." (Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, pg 401)
This is the thrust of the discussion in this parable – will the servant be bold and public, using the resources given them to continue doing open business in his name, unafraid of the enemies, and being confident in the success of their leader's future?
Now, in verse 15, I prefer the way Young's Literal translates it, as it does translate it more in the way of faithfulness and not financial gain.
…commanded these servants to be called to him, to whom he gave the money, that he might know what any one had done in business. (v 15)
He wanted to know how they had conducted business, or how much business was conducted. Other translations, like the ESV state it as:
…he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. (Luk 19:15 ESV)
See, they make it sound more like he is asking how much money was gained by doing the business, making it again appear to be about business practices that lead to profit and not simply about doing the business faithfully itself. The term used here is diepragmateusanto, and this is the only appearance of it in the Greek Scriptures. The primary meaning of it is "how much business was transacted," though some do list it as "how much has been gained by trading" as we see in many modern translations.
From the second century onward though, the Syriac and Coptic versions of the text have all consistently chosen the first meaning, as have most Arabic versions. It may sound minor, but the difference is pretty critical. Is the master concerned with the amount of profit, or with open loyalty and assurance of success during his absence? The primary meaning tends to lean towards the suggested view that the master was asking about their obedience and faithfulness during uncertain times.
This same idea of being faithful publically is what we see throughout the Scriptures time and time again:
In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matt 5:16 ESV)
So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. (Matt 10:32-33 & Luk 12:8-9 ESV)
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matt 7:21 ESV)
Faithfulness in doing and proclaiming before men – that was the desire of the day – not how much was accomplished. The disciples were being told of tough times coming after his departure, and were being instructed that they must remain faithful – even to the death.
Now, when we look back at this parable, we can see the main characters to be Jesus, who is the one going away to receive a kingdom and return, and then there are those servants who he left behind and commissioned to work in his absence. As mentioned, we see in the verse prior to this parable, that the disciples assumed the Kingdom was to fully come real soon, like any day now. However, Jesus in turn, tells this story of a going away for a time, and a return that was to happen first.
He gives his servants the gifts, and we are told that the other citizens of the nation were of the opinion that they will "not have this man to rule over" them. This scenario is easy to see. You have the followers of Jesus, surrounded by the citizens of the supposed Kingdom of God – those national Israelites who should have known their Messiah when they saw him, but in fact, they did not.
They thus became the very enemies of Yahweh and His people, and rejected this Messiah and what He had to offer, and persecuted his followers, especially once he was gone. This Jesus was not their king. It is they who have blood on their hands for the torture and crucifixion of Jesus. Now, for His disciples, the imminence of the Kingdom was understood, but the timing was not so much understood. So, this going away and returning kind of threw them for a loop. But even so, they still knew it was right around the corner, and would be something they would see and experience.
Then, Jesus is crucified, something else the disciples didn't fully understand as part of the plan. Three days later, he rises from the grave, and ultimately returns to their presence for a time. So, was this the leaving and returning that he had told them about? It seems they might have thought so, because real quickly afterward, the disciples hit him up with the questions again:
So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. (Acts 1:6-7 ESV)
Again, they knew it had to be soon, and they wanted it to be now. But He again tells them that is not the case. His leaving to "receive the Kingdom" was to take place at his ascension that soon followed. He instead tells them in the next verse:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." (v. 8)
Bingo, here it is. This should have taken them right back to the parable we're discussing. Here he is, about to leave to receive his Kingdom in all of its fullness, and he says they will be bestowed with power – or gifts - to do business and be His witnesses until he returns, just like in the parable. Before moving on though, I do want to explore this imminency of the timing that the disciples had in this matter. I want to bring to your attention a little point that should be fairly obvious to most, but due to traditional presuppositions, gets simply glossed over by most, or actual contrary views are taught to help them line things up with their view. on the timing of events.
I'd like to set this up by reading a couple sections from a recently released – 2009 – commentary on Luke. This section is in response to the initial Apostles question in Luke where they asked if the time was now for the Kingdom:
It is easy to see why people would make this mistake. The more they heard what Jesus said and saw what Jesus could do, the more certain some people became that he was the promised King. Jesus was healing the blind; he was saving sinners, including the kind of rich people who almost never repent; he was preaching the kingdom of God. Soon the gathering masses would sweep him right up to Jerusalem in a frenzy of messianic expectancy. It was almost Palm Sunday, when people would shout, "Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!" (Luke 19:38). Is it any wonder that they thought the kingdom of God was coming right away?
This all backs up everything I have said before, and we can see why there may have been some confusion for the disciples about the events to come soon. He continues:
At the same time, it is easy to see why Jesus was careful to correct their false expectations. The kingdom had come, but it had not yet come in the fullness of its final glory. Jesus still needed to suffer and die on the cross. He still needed to rise from the dead and ascend to heaven. Perhaps most importantly, he still needed to do his gospel work among the nations through the church. The kingdom had come, in one sense, but in another sense, it would not come until Jesus came again.
All good stuff and I can agree with his comments in all of this. However, the very next paragraph is where he seems to ignore a key point of the parable. He states:
Some Bible scholars seem troubled by the fact that although the New Testament says that Jesus is coming soon, he still hasn't come.
Uh – YEAH! That is a big issue. If he implied he is coming soon – and he did – then a non-occurrence of that would and should be an issue. BUT WAIT! There's more. He continues:
Thus, they treat the delay of the kingdom as some sort of biblical problem. But this certainly wasn't a problem for Jesus, who knew there would be a gap between the present and future reality of the kingdom of God. This was an important aspect of his teaching about the kingdom. Even before he died and rose again, Jesus prepared his disciples for his long absence by telling them that there would be a delay between the departure and his return.
I can fully agree with the statements here, as Jesus did clearly teach of a gap – a period of absence – before his return, we see exactly that in the parable and His words we just covered. This is obviously a general understanding of the situation, because others make the same connection. For instance, on the video post for Bob's recent message in July on "Why Preterism is Important" someone made a comment, simply sharing an link to an essay by Fred Zaspel, on the site The Gospel Coalition. The article was entitled "Preterism: Has All Prophecy Been Fulfilled?" The article was the typical type of response you'd expect, with little to no real depth or meat to even deal with the topic, but the most telling and sad weakness was in the closing paragraphs where he said:
The parable Luke 19:11ff is in fact given specifically to correct this mistaken notion that his return must be very soon.
So, the parable we're dealing with, they both say, is clearly showing that his return would not be soon. But how soon is soon in their mind. To them, his lack of return for 2000 years and counting, still qualifies to fit in this parable. The problem is, they are both missing the clear connection in the parable, and the commentator is even missing his own very clear point - that Jesus did prepare his disciples for this absence. His disciples – the ones standing their listening to him – they were prepared for a gap – not soon to them, but still the gap was the amount of time before they would see him return as clearly shown in the parable.
Think back to the parable. The future king prepared to leave, and he gave ten specific servants money to do business with in his name. He left for a time and returned. Who did he return to meet with? The same ten servants or their distant relatives? Obviously, it was to the exact same people with whom he had given the gifts to begin with. The gap between the leaving and returning was long enough to not meet the disciple's imminent expectation, but short enough that he was returning to the same people he had given the money to, and it is them to whom he asks to give an account.
Now, before any one screams about it, I understand that we cannot force a strict literalism into a parable. People want to take this parable as a general story about believers everywhere, who are given gifts by God and held accountable to use them in His name while He is gone. But this is missing the imminency of all of the parables, as they are dealing with current real-world persecution, and enemies of God that would soon be destroyed. They are written to real people who are listening for guidance, and they are written about real people in that first century world that were being condemned by Jesus' teaching.
With this and other similar parables, it needs no forcing at all to make the point of it being to the same group before and after the return, not in light of the many other things the disciples were told would take place. What did Jesus himself tell his disciples elsewhere about things that would happen while he was gone?
…and you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Matt 10:22 ESV)
Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake. (Matt 24:9 ESV)
Well, that seems to fit pretty nicely in the view of the parable as I have mentioned. Sure, some may say "but these are just general statements about what Christians everywhere, in any time period, will have to deal with in their life." But one thing to remember – Jesus is speaking these things to people, out loud, warning them of things to come for them before His imminent return. He is not writing a book and sharing it with them as a general handbook for Christian living thru the ages. He tells stories where the audience is them, those people in their time, and things about to happen in their time. What else did he promise to those who suffer during his absence?
And every one that hath left houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall inherit eternal life. (Matt 19:29 ESV)
There is another slight tie in to the parable - those who are faithful to the king shall be given more? What else did he tell those people standing there, about how much work they would be performing before his return?
When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (Matt 10:23 ESV)
Over and over again, Jesus is instructing his present followers to do things in their lifetime, and not just laying out generic tasks that all people everywhere and thru all times will do. And the final point on this – to who did he say would be there to see him return with the promised Kingdom?
Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. (Mark 16:28 ESV)
The imminence is in relation to those people living and hearing these things spoken to them at the time. And we can plainly deduce from all of this, that just like in the parable, the future King (Jesus), gave gifts to his servants (gifts of the spirit to his disciples), and told them to work in his name faithfully until he returned, a returning which would be during the very lifetime of those who he gave the gifts, just like in the parable. So, I see no real need to force something onto the parable that has not already been plainly linked there by Jesus himself, however most scholars miss this key point in the parable story and gospels in general.
The very last line in that paragraph I quoted from the commentary sums up the whole problem that result from his missing these points:
Therefore, we find ourselves in the interim between the already and the not yet, between what is now and what is to come. (Philip Graham Ryken, Reformed Expository Commentary: Luke Vol. 2, Pg. 317.)
As so - we all commonly hear from this very pulpit, the commentator has misunderstood one major point. What has this commentator forgotten? WHAT TIME IT IS! Blow it off with the already but not yet concept, that is the way to get around the clear teachings found here. This parable and all of the associated words of Jesus regarding it, are dealing with a specific time and specific event in the near future of his hearers, and unlike modern commentators, those hearers knew it was coming in their lifetime. Another popular commentator gets around this in a totally different manner, but is able to at least keep those same people included in a round about way:
So Jesus commands his disciples to "improve" their talents; to make the most of them; to increase their capability of doing good, and to do it "until" he comes to call us hence, by death, to meet him. (Albert Barnes, Barnes Notes on the Old and New Testament)
So while he at least finds a way to keep some of it applicable even to those who he originally told it to, he makes the second meeting in the parable to occur after the servant's death, thus extending its application to anyone in anytime. How this conclusion can be reached from the parable is really beyond me though. It, of course, becomes required by them, and they are forced to come up with such explanations, because in their view, the return of the king in his kingdom did not happen in the lifetime of the same servants, but has actually still yet to happen even to this day.
While we may indeed glean a general concept from this parable for being faithful servants to the Kingdom in our own life, it is a great error when we see ourselves as working for a still future returning King and Kingdom that was promised to those original servants. For those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, this parable clearly teaches us about an event to start and finish within the span of one lifetime, fulfilling the expectations of imminence that have been laid out elsewhere in Scripture. These events would begin soon - within the life of those listening. It spoke to the soon to come time when Jesus would ascend to the right hand of the Father to receive the fullness of the Kingdom:
This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, "'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool."' Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified." (Act 2:32-36 ESV)
It speaks of the time when he would send his servants out with the gifts of power to work at spreading the message of the kingdom:
And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Mat 28:18-20 ESV)
Those listening to these words and stories of Jesus were expecting, based on His words, that He would return within their lifetimes, within that generation, to be revealed in the fullness of the Kingdom. We find this teaching of imminence all throughout the NT scriptures. Over and over, he spoke of the soon coming judgment and end of the age, events soon coming upon their generation and their enemies.
Many parables clearly teach that he would return to those enemies of God who heard Him speaking, those who had broken covenant, turned from the ways of Yahweh, and were persecuting His son and/or people. He would destroy them and their whole system – and we, readers in their future, can look back at history and see and understand how all of this occurred in the events surrounding the Jewish was and destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
These would-be servants of God had ignored the work they were supposed to do for centuries actually, and now refused the reign of the Messiah, and in the end they would be cast out and destroyed. Other parables talk of these bad servants – the Pharisees, priests, scribes and Jewish leaders and teachers thru time, who were all given gifts from God, and should have been gaining returns for centuries using these gifts. Instead, historically they hoarded them, wrapping them up in a napkin as it were, and built a system which only favored their nation and tribes - and that reign of abuse was quickly coming to an end as Yahweh was now calling them out.
This napkin, or handkerchief as some translate it, is seen by some scholars as no ordinary wrapping, but as the piece of cloth that wraps the face in the burial of a dead body. Like we remember from the scene with the raising of Lazarus:
And these things saying, with a loud voice he cried out, `Lazarus, come forth;' and he who died came forth, being bound feet and hands with grave-clothes, and his visage with a napkin was bound about (Joh 11:43-44 YLT)
As well as that found in the tomb of Jesus:
Simon Peter, therefore, cometh, following him, and he entered into the tomb, and beholdeth the linen clothes lying, and the napkin that was upon his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but apart, having been folded up, in one place; (Joh 20:6-7 YLT)
The Jews had in fact turned the ways of Yahweh – ways that were to be used as a blessing to all of the nations – into a dead religion filled with nothing but burden and fear. Israel was established to be a group through which
…all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen 12:3 ESV)
But they failed to do the things they should have, and some of the parables deal with their disobedience. Jesus is speaking to these covenant breakers, and condemning them and warning of a soon coming judgment. Most all of these parables of Jesus are dealing with topics and events related to those listening to him, and were soon to come upon them, in their lifetime, in that generation, before all of those hearing Him would die.
So, in our parable, we find that at the King's return, it would be a day of judgment to determine which of the servants truly had boldly worked and advanced the Kingdom in his absence. The major separating factor of the judgment is between those who were faithful and those who were not. Faithfulness, not necessarily the amount of return - that is the key. Those who were faithful would receive more, in proportion to their faithfulness; those who were not faithful, would have what they were given, taken away from them. While not necessarily directly related to the events in our parable, we find a similar reaction described earlier in Luke:
Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away. (Luke 8:18 ESV)
This is the tail end of the section of verses condemning the covering of the lamp rather than putting it on a lamp stand to be seen. Historically we know the people of Israel had taken the light from Yahweh and kept it hid, rather than taking it to the world to see and believe. So, they were to be judged, and what they had been given, would be taken away and given to the faithful.
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. (Mat 21:43 ESV)
As it turns out, part of these historically disobedience "servants" also make up the group who would not have this man to be King over them. They would capture him and turn him over to the authorities for torture and execution. When Pilate wrote the sign "King of the Jews" and hung it on the cross, the Jews quickly told him to not do it:
So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, "Do not write, 'The King of the Jews,' but rather, 'This man said, I am King of the Jews.'" (Joh 19:21 ESV)
So, they just wanted the sign to say that this man claimed to be their king, but they would not acknowledge him as so. Instead, they denied him and plainly stated "we have no king but Caesar!" (John 19:15). Joel McDurmon has this to add to the scenario:
The masses of the citizens in this would-be Kingdom actually hated Jesus as well, and in merely a few days the priests and scribes and leaders among the people would lead the multitude in shouting to have Him crucified. These wicked Israelites stood no chance at all when the nobleman returned. They are not even considered servants. Yet they were in open opposition to the nobleman; they were his avowed enemies. As such, their judgment was severe: "But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.'" This is a clear reference to the slaughter of masses of Jews that would occur when the Old Covenant servant system would be destroyed in that generation. (Joel McDurmon, Jesus v. Jerusalem, Pg 132)
These enemies screamed against Jesus, and said:
"His blood be on us and on our children!" (Matt 27:25 ESV)
This should take the reader back to what was said just a handful of chapters earlier in Luke:
Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, 'I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,' so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation. (Luk 11:49-51 ESV)
Again, note it clearly points out that the judgment will fall on THAT generation – the one being address by these words. They would be judged and condemned for the blood of Yahweh's servants spilled thru all times by those unfaithful people, including the very Son of God that was sent. The kingdom privileges that they had were being removed and given it to the faithful, and they would be cast them out and utterly destroyed.
Now, all of this was being told to the disciples, because as they approached Jerusalem, and in their thoughts the Kingdom was coming immediately, possibly as soon as they arrived. But instead, Jesus was correcting them, and letting them know of things to happen first, and teaching them the ways of the Kingdom, so they would be better prepared for the work to come for a while longer.
Because there is a vast difference in the cultures between those first century hearers and us, it is of utmost importance that we study to understand the audience relevance in all things. Sadly, so many modern "scholars" and "theologians" who write commentaries and books on these subjects do not seem to understand this, and so we continue to see out of context and misapplied readings of these things.
This parable tells of the duty and faithfulness of those who were to stand up boldly and work for the kingdom while He was away to receive the full kingdom and power. He would return to them, and they would be rewarded for their faithfulness. And those who had refused to acknowledge him as king over them, they would be utterly destroyed. During the time of His absence, the disciples spoke on much of this coming scenario, like Paul to the Thessalonians:
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2Th 1:5-12 ESV)
This judgment and destruction came upon those rebellious and Christ denying people who would not have Him be king over them, when Jesus came on the clouds, in His glory and power, and destroyed the city and people of the former city of God, Jerusalem. With so many of the parables of Christ having spoken about and against these unfaithful people, it was no real surprise to those who had ears to here, and eyes to see the signs of the times that Christ told His hearers to watch for.
For us, on this side of the return of Christ in all His fullness and kingdom – we are in that age to come that was spoken of as about to take place for the audience in the first century. For us, we are to still stand up for His kingship, we are to go forth spreading the here and now kingdom authority into every nook and cranny of the world, spreading the message of peace, love and redemption that were brought unto mankind through the work of the heavenly Father and his Son.
We are under His kingdom and power, so we are to go forth in confidence of his accomplishments in all things, and the strength he provides to all of his servants to accomplish his desires. We are his hands and feet, His image bearer to a world that needs answers. As a church, we are not to sit idly by and make our existence here comfortable, and hide away in our big churches and huge ministries, just awaiting for a rescue from this world. We should look to stand boldly for the truth in a similar manner as that of the disciples in Acts 4 when they were commanded not to preach Jesus any longer:Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, "'Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed'—for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus. (Act 4:24-30)
We look around and see that the kings and leaders of the earth still set themselves against the Lord and his anointed. We see the attacks on every side. But, the Lord is still here – he is still sovereign – thru His people, and the power and authority of His kingdom, He is still able to overcome all that those false kings and rulers try to bring against his people. If his people would stop being dormant, if they would get active in obeying the Lord, and stop hiding their light and faith under a bushel, then we will begin to see a turn for the better; if not, then we will continue to receive and deserve the judgment that continues to fall around us.
May the Lord bless us and keep us in out endeavors. Amen