Parable of Pounds

By Thabo Makgoba

A Reading from the Gospel of Luke 19:11-27       

11 As they were listening to this, he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. 12 So he said, “A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return. 13 He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, ‘Do business with these until I come back.’ 14 But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to rule over us.’ 15 When he returned, having received royal power, he ordered these slaves, to whom he had given the money, to be summoned so that he might find out what they had gained by trading. 16 The first came forward and said, ‘Lord, your pound has made ten more pounds.’ 17 He said to him, ‘Well done, good slave! Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities.’ 18 Then the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your pound has made five pounds.’ 19 He said to him, ‘And you, rule over five cities.’ 20 Then the other came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your pound. I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ 22 He said to him, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave! You knew, did you, that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then did you not put my money into the bank? Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.’ 24 He said to the bystanders, ‘Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.’ 25 (And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten pounds!’) 26 ‘I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 27 But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them — bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.’”

Meditation

Reading this parable in the 21st century is complicated by our instinctive reactions to the way in which society was organized in the Holy Land during the Roman occupation. It is a particularly difficult passage for one who was brought up in a society, as we were in South Africa, in which exploitative rulers and their agents arrogated to themselves the right to take over other people’s land, and to employ those people to make huge profits to be distributed on the exclusive say-so of the landholder.

As a consequence, I find it easier to discern the lessons of the parable by setting aside for now those aspects of the story which all of us find offensive today — elements such as the ownership of slaves, the right of a nobleman to exercise royal power by fiat, and the huge earnings in value extracted by and from slaves.

As I understand the context of the parable in the time for which it was written, the disciples of Jesus were hoping — as his ministry moved to its climax — that a worldly revolution was about to take place and inaugurate the reign of God. They expected the Messiah to appear in power and glory and to set up his earthly kingdom, defeating all their political enemies.

This parable was meant to be a corrective to this attitude by warning that the Messiah was going to be rejected by the world, and that there lay ahead a period when the disciples of Jesus would have to serve faithfully during their Master’s absence until he returned to power. Jesus is the nobleman, and the disciples are those left behind to be good stewards of God’s gifts while Jesus is away.

On this reading, those who seek spiritual gain in the gospel, for themselves and for others, will become richer, and those who neglect and squander what is given will become impoverished, losing even what they have.

The Most Rev. Dr. Thabo Makgoba is Archbishop of the Diocese of Capetown, South Africa; metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Southern Africa; and chancellor of the University of the Western Cape.

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