This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS)
11 Then as the crowd still listened attentively, Jesus went on to give them this parable, For the fact that he was nearing Jerusalem made them imagine that the kingdom of God was on the point of appearing.
12-24 “Once upon a time a man of good family went abroad to accept a kingdom and then return. He summoned ten of his servants and gave them each ten pounds, with the words, ‘Use this money to trade with until I come back.’ But the citizens detested him and they sent a delegation after him, to say, ‘We will not have this man to be our king.’ Then later, when he had received his kingdom, he returned and gave orders for the servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, so that he could find out what profit they had made. The first came into his presence, and said, ‘Sire, your ten pounds have made a hundred pounds more.’ ‘Splendid, my good fellow,’ he said, ‘since you have proved trustworthy over this small amount, I am going to put you in charge of ten towns.’ The second came in and said, ‘Sire, your ten pounds have made fifty pounds.’ and he said to him, ‘Good, you’re appointed governor of five towns.’ When the last came, he said, ‘Sire, here are your ten pounds, which I have been keeping wrapped up in a handkerchief. I have been scared—I know you’re a hard man, getting something for nothing and reaping where you never sowed.’ To which he replied, ‘You scoundrel, your own words condemn you! You knew perfectly well, did you, that I am a hard man who gets something for nothing and reaps where he never sowed? Then why didn’t you put my money into the bank, and then when I returned I could have had it back with interest?’ Then he said to those who were standing by, ‘Take away his ten pounds and give it to the fellow who has a hundred.’
25-27 “‘But, sire, he has a hundred pounds already,’ they said to him. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘and I tell you that the man who has something will get more given to him. But as for the man who has nothing, even his “nothing” will be taken away. And as for these enemies of mine who objected to my being their king, bring them here and execute them in my presence.’”
Well, this is not a very nice story. Moreover it’s a little different from the same story as reported by Matthew ( in Ch. 25) who doesn’t have the detail about the nobleman receiving the kingdom and the punishment of his enemies, but only the narrative about the pounds. What’s going on here? My own guess is that Matthew thought Jesus’ story was about “teaching.” The master leaves teachings with his disciples. Some put these into practice (and may find they have to change the form of the teachings so that they can be fruitful in the world), whereas others try to preserve the teachings in their purity without risking contamination by the world. Matthew’s Jesus is telling a parable about how to handle tradition wisely: good teaching is meant to take its place in the hurly-burly of society, amongst competing teachings, and in the midst of events, where it can be fruitful in the lives and thoughts of people. It is not wise to maintain it in fundamentalist isolation, however respectful that may seem to be.
Luke, on the other hand, sees it as a story about how disciples should treat the “word of Jesus” in the interim period between his resurrection and his coming again. That’s why he adds the bit about “going away to receive a kingdom.” As he sees it Jesus was urging his disciples, as he often did, to be “doers of the word” as well as hearers. They have not to become a closed sect (like the Dead Sea Community and many others in history) living in isolation, holding fiercely to the revelation of a departed teacher until he returns to rescue them from the world. No, the teachings of Jesus are given to be practised in a world where his kingship is still in dispute, bearing fruit in individual and community living. On the day when the king returns, he will reward his active servants and slaughter his enemies.
The J.B Phillips translation above gets the tone of Luke’s ironic narrative right. “Splendid, my good fellow!” The nobleman in his story is an upper-class thug who gets lucky and becomes a puppet king. Luke is not saying Jesus is like this man. He’s saying, “If upper class thugs (some of whom you’ll know) expect their resources to be working for them in their absence, how much more does our Lord Jesus expect us to make his teachings work for the kingdom which is to come!”
Both Matthew’s and Luke’s version of this story are useful for Christian people today.
Matthew’s story encourages us to believe that fearful fundamentalism is not the way to defend the Jesus’ tradition: it’s meant to be put to use and to take its chances in the world as it is. This will involve creative decisions about issues that the tradition ignores: like, for example, stem cell research and homosexual marriage. It will certainly involve creative translations of the tradition itself: what is “daily bread” in a rice or cassava culture? There are real risks in this sort of engagement but in Matthew’s view, it’s the only way the tradition can be fruitful.
Luke’s story warns against sectarian isolationism. In a world where the legitimacy of Jesus’ rule is contested, Christian people may think it best to opt for a quiet life, shielding themselves and Jesus’ precious teaching from the world. This is a barren strategy according to Luke: Jesus’ words are designed to prosper in the world, creating goodness amongst people and building up the wealth of the contested kingdom.
I can follow Matthew’s message by writing this daily blog, doing my own small bit of business with the treasure Jesus has left, interpreting the tradition for my own time and place. The profit may be marginal but at least it’s being put to work. Luke’s message, on the other hand, takes me beyond the computer: I am asked to obey the teachings of Jesus in my own life and to cooperate with others who are doing so in order that God’s goodness may flourish on earth. After a lifetime of trying I can only say that if I half-succeed in doing this on Monday I’ll fail altogether on Tuesday….and Wednesday? Well that’s today, there’s still time….
Unlike those super-Christian people who say that the life of faith is not a matter of rewards and punishments, Jesus promised both, which gives me some incentive to get moving.