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by David G. Duggan
Special to Virtueonline
November 2, 2020

The Episcopal lectionary for this season is heavy into the parables recounted in Matthew, and I thought I would offer the following thoughts on several of the more well-known. Part of this is prompted by the near-perpetual inquiries into whether that recorded in the Gospels can properly be attributed to the Word Incarnate (pace Jesus Seminar), and the other part can be attributed to what can be the ultimate meaning of these words.

The parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18: 21) is among these. This parable appears only in Matthew's Gospel, but is one of many appearing throughout the synoptics that bear on debt, repayment, investment, and ultimately forgiveness. Without limiting the number, included among these are the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27); the parable of the tenants of the vineyard (Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-18); the parable of the hidden treasure (Matt 13: 44-46); the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-12); and the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16). Curiously, the Gospel of John has no parables.

I have no insight into the mind of the Word Incarnate why He taught in parables and why three of his four evangelists included these in their Gospels, and the last did not. Parables, like allegories are susceptible to endless re-interpretation, and perhaps Jesus recognized that His followers needed continuously to examine the texts against not only their contexts, but also the context of their present time.

Think for instance of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In 1st Century CE, Jesus' hearers would have understood this to be an accusation against the Temple authorities who condemned Samaritans for having intermarried with Gentiles after the Assyrian (Hittite) empire had seized the northern kingdom (Israel) and exiled its inhabitants (2 Kings 15:29). That is implicit in the depiction of the priest and the Levite passing by the injured man on the road to Jericho.

A leading New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt (improbable, I agree) offers an "originalist" interpretation of these parables: how were they understood at the time of their utterance. More recently, people have seen the Samaritan as sort of a proto-Christ, an outcast who steps into humanity to heal their wounds. Dr. Martin Luther King suggested this interpretation in his "I've been to the Mountaintop" sermon delivered the day before his death.

To understand the several parables involving debt, repayment and forgiveness, we may need to dive into how ancient Judea handled land ownership and farming.

Of the five parables which address relations between the wealthy and the working poor (the hidden treasure parable contains no human interaction), two involved a monarch (the unforgiving servant, and the talents [Luke; Matthew describes him only as a person with property going on a journey]), two involve a landowner (the rented vineyard and the workers in the vineyard), and one involves a rich man (the shrewd manager; the source of his master's wealth is not revealed but the context suggests that he dealt in agricultural commodities). Exodus (22:25) and Leviticus (25:35) both prohibit the lending of money to the poor at interest, yet no agricultural economy can exist without advancing funds at planting time then hoping that the harvest is successful with the lender receiving more than the equivalent value of the debt in the product at time of harvest. Put simply, this is interest by another name. And because the priestly tribe of Levi owned no land (Joshua 13:14), the Temple authorities had no way to exact income from the farming masses. Depending on voluntary offerings was not a long-term way of funding the Temple.

Except. Every seven years, debts were to be forgiven (Deut. 15:1-2), but that applied only to the original creditor. In that seventh year, the Temple Levites took over the notes and then tried to collect them in the eighth year. In each of the two versions of the parable of the talents ("minas" in Luke, a lesser unit of measurement), the pledger goes away for a while (Matthew says "for a long time"), and in each one of the servants returns with only that which with he was entrusted. In each, the fearful servant says that the pledger was a "hard man" who reaped where he had not sown. And in each, the pledger takes the original asset and gives it to the servant who had earned the most: "For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have even what he has will be taken from him." (Matt 25:29) And in each, the pledger asks why the "wicked and slothful" servant had not put the money on deposit with the bankers and earned interest. Only in Matthew is the fearful, wicked, slothful servant thrown into the darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.

The conventional reading of this parable is that we servants of God have a duty to use our talents to further God's kingdom. God as the king or owner going on the journey (i.e., absent from our present condition like an impersonal God leaving us to our devices) is the pledger of these talents to our use; our talents are our gifts, and if we bury our gifts, we are not being faithful servants of our divine benefactor. But that is far too simple. How could Jesus condone the lending at interest as a way of returning more than had been entrusted, when lending at interest was forbidden to observant Jews? How could the Lord of mercy and forgiveness counsel be taking the fearful servant's talent and giving it to one who already had an abundance? If this parable is a prefigurement of life at the end times, how does this square with the "reversal of fortune" between rich and poor suggested in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31)? We must be missing something.

A recent interpretation that I find compelling completely upsets the conventional reading. The pledger of the talents is not God the Father, but the Temple authorities who bestowed franchises (money-changing, selling animals to be sacrificed) on those deemed worthy. In contravention of the forgiveness of debt in seven years, they exacted repayment with more as an incentive to reward the franchisees. This is the way the world works. Nothing exceptional there. But the servant returning only that which he was entrusted is penalized, thrown into the place of darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth, commonly understood to be sheol. That is Jesus who received the punishment of the Cross for having challenged the Temple authorities and descends to hell. This parable's appearance in both Matthew and Luke immediately before Jesus' triumphal entry on Palm Sunday gives theological support for this conclusion: knowing of his impending death, Jesus skillfully masked his accusation of a system of falsehood by the Temple priests. His listeners may have grasped His purpose, but there was enough fog around the narrative that He could not be nailed simply because of it. That is why we still read parables and why they are important to our faith.

David Duggan, is a retired attorney living in Chicago

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