For those of us in the liturgical and Revised Common Lectionary tribe, the Sunday of the Passion is a preaching problem. Of course, if your worship tradition doesn’t include a sermon on this Sunday, then you likely have a different problem – how to read the Lukan passion account in full without creating a comatose congregation. But for most of us, the problem is too many texts and way too much text. So, we make choices about where to fix our focus.
Let’s begin with the Palm Sunday text in Luke 19:28-44. Jesus has come through Jericho and detours in order to dine at the home of Zacchaeus, the tax collector. “Today,” Jesus proclaims, “salvation has come to this household, because this one too is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9b, my translation). Perhaps we can hear the foreshadowing of Jesus’ promise to one of the thieves crucified next to him – “I solemnly promise you, today you shall be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43, my translation). Or, perhaps, when we hear those words on Passion Sunday or Good Friday (or both), we will think back to Zacchaeus.
This one who brings salvation to tax collectors and sinners, this one who promises paradise to captured terrorists – before he leaves Jericho and finishes the journey to Jerusalem, he tells a parable, often knows as the Parable of the Pounds. We might think this is just the Lukan edition of the Parable of the Talents that we find in the Matthean account. That seems likely in historical terms. The two parables may have a common source in church tradition. But the two versions have quite different uses and meanings in the Matthean and Lukan accounts.
“But while they were listening to this thing,” the Lukan author writes in 19:11 (my translation), “he proceeded to tell a parable because he was nearing Jerusalem, and they supposed that the kingdom of God was about to appear immediately.” Here we have one of those narrative insertions by which the Lukan author makes sure we know what’s what in the text that follows. This isn’t about “stewardship,” as some commentators might suggest. This is about Jesus as the coming King. And it is told to upend expectations — notice the narrative “but” at the beginning of the text.
Gonzalez notes that the parable is not a fairy tale or a just-so story. Rather, it rehearses in oblique form the attempts by the successors to Herod the Great to have their kingships ratified by the Romans. “Given that background,” Gonzalez writes, “the parable is alluding to the political realities of the time, and the cruel and vindictive king of the parable is not an outlandish figure of fiction” (Kindle Location 4191).
We read in Luke 19:14 that the citizens of the country hated the king-to-be and sent a competing delegation to the ruling powers. That delegation protested the rule of their potential monarch and said, “We don’t want this man ruling over us.” In spite of that protest, the nobleman was affirmed as king and returned to the country in his newly-minted role. This part of the parable “would immediately remind the early hearers of this parable of the Jewish delegation that had been sent to Rome, to oppose Archelaus’s bid for kingship” (Kindle Location 4201).
Levine and Witherington concur with this assessment. “Since the only mechanism in Jesus’ or Luke’s context for gaining such a kingdom was the Roman system, the parable invokes images of Roman colonialism. Jesus’ listeners,” they continue, “or Luke’s readers, might have thought immediately of Herod the Great’s trip to Rome to gain his rule in Judea, Samaria and Galilee” (page 513). Other connections might have occurred to listeners as well, but such journeys in Luke often don’t turn out well.
Gonzalez argues that the location of the parable in the Lukan account makes it “primarily a parable about the need to decide in favor of or against a king whose authority has not been confirmed. It is a parable about the ultimate risk of discipleship,” Gonzalez continues, “which is based on the conviction that this one whom the disciples serve is indeed king—a point that will become very much an issue in the rest of the Gospel. It is a parable about being faithful to an absent king whose power is opposed by many in his own land,” he concludes, “and who can give his servants no more than a paltry pound or mina” (Kindle Location 4203).
Levine and Witherington argue that the verse describing the hatred of the citizens toward the would-be king open up multiple possibilities for interpretation. “On the one hand,” they write, “we can see the nobleman as representing foreign leaders who colonize, exploit, and demean their subjects.” This puts us as readers, according to the authors, in the position of resisting that hated king. The outcome of the parable, in this interpretation, gives us a nobleman who triumphs by slaughtering his enemies.
“On the other,” they continue, “we can see the nobleman as representing Jesus, who entrusts his good(s) to his followers and expects those followers to multiply his household by both people and the material goods they bring with them.” This is, of course, the most traditional interpretation in the broader Christian tradition. But it’s not very palatable. “If we take the second option,” Levine and Witherington suggest, “then Jesus is cast in the role of a ruler who damns his opponents to torture and death” (page 514).
This is the option which Robert Farrar Capon explores at length in his parable books. Capon argues that the nobleman is Jesus. The pounds represent unmerited and indiscriminate grace. The responses of the slaves are either trust or distrust. The result of the response is either inclusion or exclusion – determined by the response, not by the gift. “The parable, therefore, declares that the only thing that is to be examined at the judgment is faith, not good deeds,” Capon concludes, “and it declares that the only thing that can deprive us of the favorable judgment already passed upon us by Jesus is our unfaith in his gracious passing of it” (Kindle Location 5502-5503).
Neither option seems consistent with either the Lukan narrative or the broader New Testament picture of Jesus as king. And this, I would suggest, is the real question on Palm/Passion Sunday (and throughout Holy Week, especially in Luke). What sort of king is Jesus? This parable ends up no more resolved than any of the other Lukan parables – unless we impose some sort of resolution on them.
The Lukan account is motivated, in part, by expectations that Jesus would be back soon to set all things right. We have tremors of expectation in the Parable of the Pounds. Jesus has bested his debating opponents on many occasions. Now, he has brought an important collaborator, a chief tax collector, in from the cold. He leaves Jericho and heads up to Jerusalem for Passover – a liberation festival and a prime time for rebellion and revolt. Based on the evidence, those who accompanied him “supposed that the kingdom of God was about to appear at once.”
We get similar tremors later in the Lukan account. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus are depressed because they “had hoped [Jesus] was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). In the first chapter of Acts, the Lukan author reports that those around Jesus still didn’t get it at the Ascension. “Lord,” they ask plaintively, “is this the time [finally!] when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6, NRSV, my emphasis). The Palm Sunday parade participants shout about the blessed king who comes in the name of the Lord (Luke 19:38). The Lukan audience has people who desperately want things to get better and to get better ASAP.
In response to that desperate desire, the Lukan author reports the Parable of the Pounds. I lean toward the first interpretation – the ruler in the parable as emblematic of the kinds of rulers that Jesus’ listeners (and the Lukan audience) knew all too well. These are rulers who seek and maintain power through violence. They may reward good behavior when it serves their purposes. And they are ruthless is rooting out those who either oppose or fail them. Their very unpredictability is another sign and source of their power.
This is the sort of king produced by Herod’s dynasty. This is the sort of king Pilate expects. This is the sort of king that Caesar claims to be – a powerful benefactor to those who play the game and a bloody executioner to those who resist, fail, or happen to get caught up in the workings of the imperial machinery. This is the only sort of king most people know.
As in the case with most of the Lukan parables, we don’t hear the response of the listeners. We are invited to fill in the blanks — for them and for us. I can imagine that they were distressed and disgusted by the behavior of the new king. “What a terrible ruler!” perhaps they said. “We’ve had plenty like that one,” they continued. “Who in the world would want a king like that?”
“Now,” perhaps Jesus smiled. “Now you’re getting it.” Levine and Witherington make the connection to the “triumphal entry.” They write, “A parable containing a ruler whose people do not want him, greater responsibilities for those who serve, and a mass slaughter sets the context for Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem” (page 518).
Thus, the Lukan question for the week is, “If not a normal king, then what?”
Resources and References
Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.
Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.