I always presumed this was a parable about stewardship of our talents. We must use what God has given until Jesus returns. After reading Jesus and Politics by Alan Storkey, I had a better understanding of the context underlying the parable.
Jesus told the parable of the Minas in the house of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:2). Zachaes was a chief tax collector. He would have controlled all the taxes collected from part of Jericho, maybe the entire city. In Roman times, tax collectors were not benign impartial civil servants. They would often have had paid for the position. They would extract as much money as the get, pay what Rome demanded, and keep the rest for themselves. Tax collection was a path to riches. Only a ruthless man could hold this job, as he had to squeeze tax out people who could not afford it. He would become very rich for his efforts, but would be hated by the people.
Luke explains why Jesus told the parable. This one does not being with the usual expression, "the kingdom of God is like ".
While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once (Luke 19:11).
Many healings and the repentance of key people like Zacchaeus led many people to believe that the kingdom was go to appear straight away. Jesus knew he was going to the cross, so he did not want them to be disappointed. (Some of the disciples still had this view in Acts 1:6.)
The parable gives important insights into Jesus thinking about the Kingdom. He had said all along that it is at hand. He would inaugurate the Kingdom by dying on the cross. However, it would take some time for it to be established throughout the world. Many of his followers would have to suffer persecution first. Like yeast, the kingdom would take some time to permeate the whole of society. On the other hand, he probably did not expect it to take 200 years, but he did not realise how slack the Church would become.
The main character in the parable is a rich nobleman, who went to another to be made king.
A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return (Luke 19:12).
The usual interpretation is that the nobleman represents Jesus, who has gone to heaven and will Return to be made king at a future date. A close study of the background to the parable shows that this view is wrong.
Storkey points out the story Jesus told was based on a recent incident in local politics. When Herod the Great died, his will divided his territory among his three living sons. They had gone off to Rome to dispute the will with Caesar, because each wanted the entire kingdom. Some Pharisees also went to Rome to dispute the will and ask for a Jewish king. Caesar accepted Herod's will and sent them all home with a third of the kingdom. Herod Archelaus, the son who controlled Jericho was so angry when he returned that he rounded up a large group of the Pharisees and had them crucified. Jesus listeners would have understood this historical allusion.
The nobleman had gone to a far country to be made king. This should ring an alarm bell. A ruler in a far country does not have authority to impose on a king on the local people, unless he is an emperor controlling a large empire. This shows that the nobleman was a collaborator with the evil empire. Only God could appoint a king in Israel. By going to the emperor to be made king, the nobleman was denying God's authority and honouring Caesar's authority.
The nobleman gloated about his evil character.
I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in,
and reaping what I did not sow (Luke 19:22).
He admitted that some of his wealth was undeserved. He had become rich by stealing from others. He was also ruthless and violent.
But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them-bring them here and kill them in front of me (Luke 19:27).
This man did not just want his enemies killed. He wanted to enjoy watching them be killed.
The nobleman was an awful character. He was a collaborator, a thief and extremely violent. This man does not represent Jesus. Any interpretation of the parable that assumes that the nobleman is Jesus is a dreadful insult to his character.
Veiled Political Statement
The nobleman in the parable actually represents the devil. He will gain authority that he is not entitled to have. He will use that stolen illegitimate authority to destroy the honest man and the citizens of the kingdom who object to his claims to power. When the enemy has failed to destroy Jesus by putting him on the cross, he will turn on Jesus followers and try to destroy them as well. As long as the devil is allowed to hang on to his illegitimate authority, he will persecute Christians who challenge his authority.
The parable is a veiled political statement. Zacchaeus and his friends were all tied up in the local political system. They had collaborated Rome. Many had become rich through theft and violence. Jesus was reminding the people that those who collaborate with political power and empire are dangerous. Challenging the servants of political power will always be dangerous.
This is a parallel to the unjust judge in the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18. In this parable, Jesus had already provided the solution to this problem. The persistence of the saints will gradually the enemy down, and he will have to surrender his false authority to the Kingdom of God.
The nobleman had called ten servants and given each of them a mina to take care of. A mina was coin worth about three months wages. When the man returned as king he called his servants together to see what they had achieved. The first servant had earned ten minas.
The first one came and said, 'Sir, your mina has earned ten more.'
'Well done, my good servant!' his master replied. 'Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities' (Luke 19:16-17).
There are two things to notice about this response.
We assume that the servant had done well, but this needs a closer examination. The nobleman would have been away for less than a year, yet the servant had turned one mina into ten. That was a thousand percent interest. He could not have got that sort of return by planting and harvesting a crop.
Jesus listeners would understand that only people who could make this sort of return were loans sharks and crooks. In those times, it was common practice for unscrupulous people to make loans to poor and despite people. When the borrowers failed to repay the loan their property would be repossessed.
The first servant understood the character of his master well. To get a thousand percent return he must have reaped what he did not sow or taken out what he did not put in.
The reward of ten cities is telling. The king was not making his servant king of ten cities. He would not give up that sort of power. He was giving him tax collection rights over ten cities. The main role of kings like Herod was to collect money for the Roman Empire. The king was appointing the servant as a chief tax collector, just like Zacchaeus. From the king's point of view, the servant was the perfect man for the job, because he had extracted a thousand percent interest from the people who borrowed his mina. That was just the sort of ruthless attitude that an effective tax collector would need.
The second servant had only produced a 500 percent rate of returns. Because he was not as ruthless, he was only given tax collection rights in five cities.
The Other Servant
The third servant was different. He had guarded the mina carefully.
Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth (19:20).
This servant had done nothing wrong. He had cared for the coin that had been entrusted to him. The king complained that he could have taken the money to bankers and earned interest. This was a shallow claim. The bankers in Jesus time were notoriously ruthless, looking after the rich and robbing the poor. If a servant had entrusted the coin to a banker, he would not have been able to get it back. Hiding the coin was a safer option for a poor person. Despite being innocent, this man was castigated as a wicked servant.
This servant represents Jesus. The cloth that he wrapped the coin in was a "suderion". This is a cloth for snot, and for cleaning dead bodies. This pointed forward to Jesus death. He was innocent. He had done nothing wrong, yet he was unjustly and placed among the wicked. His suffering would inaugurate the kingdom.
Suffering to Kingdom
Jesus was explaining how the kingdom would come. He would inaugurate the kingdom by suffering on the cross. Like the third servant, Jesus had done nothing wrong, but he died.
The death of Jesus would be followed by suffering of the citizens of the kingdom. The parable ends with the citizens who had opposed the wicked king being killed. The king said,
But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them-bring them here and kill them in front of me (Luke 19:27).
Jesus was warning that many of those who follow him would suffer as he did. Christians who stand in prayer against the usurped authority of the evil one will face persecution. Those who challenge the false authority of human political power will suffer tribulations before the kingdom is coming into reality. Many of those who challenged the Roman Empire were persecuted and died. It took 300 years for the empire to collapse, and many Christians would die.
The political and economic powers came together to destroy Jesus on the cross. However, Jesus destroyed the political and economic powers by dying on the cross. This is how the kingdom comes. God's people will not impose the kingdom by seizing political power. As they suffer and endure in obedience to Jesus, the kingdom of darkness will collapse and retreat before their bright shining light.
This parable explained the coming of the Kingdom. It was also a warning to Zacchaeus and any other member of the political establishment. By offering fourfold restitution, he was exposing Roman taxation as theft (Ex 22:1). This could only produce an angry reaction from the Roman authorities. Once it was known that he had given money away, and would refuse to take more than he was owed, he would be a soft touch. His days as a tax collector were finished. By exposing the corruption and illegality of the tax system, he became an enemy of the political establishment. Zacchaeus would find himself in the same situation as the citizens who opposed the wicked nobleman. We do not know what happened to Zacchaeus, but we can presume that he would have had a rough time, the next time he met with his Roman controllers.
The parable exposes a flaw in secular capitalism, especially when in collusion with political power. The people watching were surprised at the king's treatment of his servant, and especially that he gave the mina to the one with ten.
Master, he has ten minas already (Luke 19:27).
This was a good question. The Kings answer is surprising.
I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away (Luke 19:26).
We must remember that these words were not spoken by God, but by a corrupt king who reaped where he did not sow and took out where he had not put. The king took words that Jesus had spoken in a different context and twisted for his purpose (this shows Jesus skill as a storyteller). Jesus spoke these works earlier in a gospel context after telling the parable of the sower to explain that those who received the gospel would receive greater spiritual insight, while those who rejected the gospel would harden their hearts. The king takes those words, which were true in a spiritual context, and uses them to justify injustice.
In the worldly system, the political powers collude with the economic powers, and sometimes with the religious authorities for mutual benefit. Those who have wealth will gain more and more. Those who have nothing, often lose what they have to misfortune and economic manipulation. This has happened again and again throughout history.
Zacchaeus is a perfect example of the problem exposed by the parable. A tax collector had to pay for the privilege from the aristocratic families who colluded with the Roman authorities in managing the affairs of the region. Because he had much, Zacchaeus could purchase a position that allowed him to gain even greater wealth. His success in extracting taxes would have led to him being promoted to his position of chief tax collector. This was the way the system worked. Those who could pay for privilege gained greater privileges. At the same time, those who had little or nothing, were lost most of what they had. If they refused to pay, or were unable to pay, the soldiers would come in an steal their livestock and destroy their home. Those with nothing would lose even what they had.
This has happened again and again throughout history. Those who have wealth have gained more and more. Those who have nothing, often lose what they have to misfortune and economic or political manipulation.
This is why the biblical teaching about sharing is important. Without that countervailing tendency, secular capitalism results in unfair distributions of income. Those with much can easily gain more. Those with less slip further behind. The trickle up is more effective than the trickle down. Paul explained God's will.
Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality (2 Cor 8:13).
God does want those who have much to get more and those who little to get less. He prefers the opposite; that everyone should have what they need and no one should have more than they need. This is not a justification for state-enforced income redistribution. The Parable of the Minas exposes the dangers of state power.
Zacchaeus also illustrates God's solution to the problem. It was not democratic socialism. Rather, Zacchaeus repaid everything he had stolen, and gave away half of what he owned. This type of radical give is the proper response to the kingdom. Generous giving will prevent the twisted words of the wicked king being fulfilled. As many Christians follow Zacchaeus' example, the opposite will be true.
Those who have much will give much.
Those who have nothing will be given more
The Parable of the Minas was also a warning that this level of economic restoration would take time. Zacchaeus actions would not stop the poor people from being harshly tax. The fact that Zacchaeus had resigned did not mean that the people would not have to pay tax. That would be wishful thinking, and Jesus reminded them of the harsh reality. If Zacchaeus could not do the job, his collection responsibilities, would be handed over to someone else, like the first servant, who could extract many where it had not been put in. Zacchaeus would be replaced with a chief tax collector who was even more harsh and corrupt. In the short term the situation would get worse.
As long as political powers exist, they will find someone to collect their taxes. As long as they have power, they will look after their cronies. The people would not be freed from their excessive tax burden until hundreds of chief tax collectors had been converted and given away their surplus wealth, instead of handing over to the political powers. Only when no one harsh enough could be found to take on the tax collector role would that happen, causing the entire political system to collapse.
The Zacchaeus incident was a sign that this would happen, but it would take time for it to happen. The unfairness of secular capitalism and the corruption of politicised capitalism will eventually collapse and the Kingdom of God would come in its place. That would take time, and in the meantime many people would suffer under the harsh treatment of a corrupt political and economic system.