Tag Archives: Parable

Writing It Off

Or paying it back.

Depiction by Jan van Hemessen (c. 1556) showing the moment the king scolds the servant.

In recent years we have from time-to-time had news reports of banks setting aside funds to cover debts that have to be written off. Debts being written off happened in Jesus’ time too, mostly in jubilee years. We hear of it at other times, most notably in The Parable Of The Unmerciful Servant . In those days there is no evidence of money being set aside to cover writing off of bad debt.

The parabable, as they all are, is of course a fictional story to make a point or illustrate a truth. I wonder though if, in this instance, in the modern world the point becomes somewhat lost.

The parable tells of two servants. The first owes money to his master or king and the second owes a smaller sum to the first servant, who we might therefore reasonably assume is of higher rank than the second.

We are told that the first servant owed his master 10,000 talents, a huge sum (equating to thousands if not millions of pounds/dollars et-al today) that he would have no prospect of ever repaying. The second servant owed the first 100 denarii, a trifling sum compared to the first servant’s debt.

The king or master forgives the debt of the first servant but that servant does not in turn forgive the debt of the second. The first servant had the second thrown into prison for his debt.

The first servant’s debt was probably an exaggeration to make a point, but does the exaggeration detract from the point? With such an immense amount of money, the master must have known the servant would have no prospect of repaying it. So why had the servant had been lent so much at all?

The danger is that by focussing on such a large sum of debt, some of the point of the parable becomes ‘watered down’. Today’s generation may well focus more on the money than the hypocritical actions of the servant. Particularly taking into account the ease with which credit (and debt relief) seems to be available today.

 

 

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Talented

A different interpretation of the parable of the talents.

I have already given a few thoughts on Jesus’ Parable of The Talents in Untalented. Here I am revisiting that parable, from a different point  view. 

I think it is generally assumed that the servants were honest, but were they?

We are told in the parable that the servants knew that the master harvested “where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed” It might be inferred from that, that the master is not completely honest?

If the master were not honest, might not the servants, to whom he has entrusted sums of money also be dishonest? How can we be sure that the servants, to whom the talents were entrusted, were honest in how they ‘invested’ the master’s money ?

We know that on the master’s return, two of the servants returned to him double what he had entrusted them with. The third returned exactly what he had been given, but can we be sure the servants did not make more than they returned? Suppose they gave back to the master only what they thought they could get away with, keeping any more for themselves.

Even if they gave to the master everything they had earned, while he was away, how do we know it was earned honestly? Perhaps it was used as seed funding for cons or cheating. Maybe profiteering by buying goods and selling at inflated prices. It might have been lent out at exorbitant rates of interest, like modern day payday loans.

I do not suggest any other interpretation is wrong. I offer a possible alternative interpretation, that does not seem to be contradicted by the text.

 

Dressed For The Occasion

The Wedding Banquet.

14th Century Russian icon of the ‘Parable of the Feast.

Jesus tells the parable of a king who gives a wedding banquet for his son, but no one comes. Some of the invited even murder the king’s messengers bearing the invitations. For which the king extracts retribution.

Since the invited rich and noble did not come to the wedding, the king instructs his servants to go out and bring in people from the streets. In no time at all the wedding hall was filled with guests of all kinds of people.

When the king comes to the hall in which the wedding guests are assembled, he spies a man not dressed in smart, wedding clothes. The king asks the man how he got in, dressed as he was. Then the king had the man bound and thrown outside.

The parable is the invitation of Jesus to the feast and the inappropriately dressed man represents someone who rejects the invitation, but the parable might easily be interpreted differently.

All the guests at the wedding banquet had been drawn in off the streets. The suggestion being that they were taken directly to the banquet and might not have had time to change into their fine clothes, appropriate to a wedding. There is also the possibility that the poorly dressed man was poor and might have been wearing what were his best cloths, or maybe even his only clothing.

It is possible to conclude that the poorly dressed man was quite unfairly treated. While this is not the usual interpretation of the parable, the text is not sufficiently detailed or clear to dismiss this possible interpretation out of hand.

As usual, I am not seeking to overturn established wisdom, just give some food for thought.

Weeding

Watch out for the crops.

In Matthew 13: 24-30 Jesus tells The Parable of the Weeds, which he then explains in verses 36-43.

The owner of a field has sown a field of wheat and and “enemy” has sown seeds of weed in the field of the wheat crop. “Enemy” is I think perhaps too strong a term. I suggest that business rival, or competitor might be nearer to a correct description.

What is not explicitly stated in the passage in the NIV UK Bible, is that the particular weed sown amongst the good wheat was Darnel, which may also be called Tare. This particular weed looks similar to wheat until it is fully grown. So similar that in some places it is called false wheat.

Darnel is mildly poisonous. It is highly unlikely to kill you if you consume it, but you will feel ill for quite a while.

From the rival farmer’s perspective, that sowed the bad seed, the benefit continues after the season in which the good farmer’s crop is blighted. If the good farmer’s crop mildly poisons someone because of the Darnel, people will be more wary of purchasing from that farmer for a number of years.

When the farmer’s workers discover that the weed Darnel has been sewn with the crop, they ask if they should pull it out. The farmer says no, it is too young to be able to separate it from the good plants. They must wait until it is fully grown to separate the good from the bad.

Jesus explains to his disciples that at the end of the age, when the weeds and crop have grown together, it is possible to separate the good from the bad, the good people from the bad. The bad crop or weeds to be burned.

While not explicitly stated, it seems to me that there is a secondary lesson in that parable. It is found in the action of the farmer letting the crop and weed grow together. By acting too soon the farmer would lose much more of the crop than by waiting, letting the weeds grow amongst it. Patience was needed to know which to keep and which to discard.

God has infinate patience, unlike humankind, who want everything now.

As a minor point of interest to end, I do not think that parable could be applied today, because of the mechanised farming methods. Farm machinery could not, as far as I know, separate the wheat from the darnel.

Faith Without Thinking

But not unthinking faith.

Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant. 1893

I’ve been nominally a Christian since I was baptised as a baby. It’s in recent years that I’ve taken it seriously, trying to live by Christian principals. I’ve not done anything criminal or deliberately hurt anyone, nevertheless I’m probably not what you might call a good Christian.

I go to church each Sunday. I meet with Christian friends and discuss what being a Christian means. I read the Bible, sometimes. That might be part of what makes me Christian but not necessarily a good one.

Often on weekdays and when I’m not with my Christian friends, I am not thinking about behaving as a Christian. Of course it shouldn’t be necessary to be thinking about it all the time. Which is the point I probably need to explain a little more.

This post was inspired by a paragraph from a book, Unveiling A Parallel (To be reviewed later on Entertaining Angels Bookshelf). The passage is:

“Do you often hear an upright man professing his honesty? It is part of himself. He is so free of the law which enjoins honesty that he never gives it a thought. So with the man who is truly religious and no longer needs to guide himself bit by bit and rein, or measure his conduct by the written code.”
– From Unveiling a Parallel by Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant 1893.

The book is fiction. We can still learn something from it, just as we learn from Jesus’ parables which were fiction but contained a truth.

The person referred to in the quoted passage never thinks about his religion which, in the book, we are not told what it is. The point is that he doesn’t need to think about it. Its principals are so deeply ingrained within him, that he doesn’t need to think about them to live by them. It is, or has become, his natural way of living, of conducting himself.

As Christians, shouldn’t we be aiming to live by Jesus’ teaching, to the extent we do not need to constantly think about it?  I’m not suggesting we should not think about or discuss The Bible and God and Jesus, just that living by its principals ought to become second nature to us, or that we should aim that it does.

Part Timers

A brief look at the parable of the vineyard workers, Mat. 20: 1-16.

Painting of the parable, by Jacob Willemszoon de Wet, mid 17th century.

When Jesus told the parable of the vineyard owner hiring workers, did he know he was drawing unexpected parallels with the modern world?

Each of the men the owner hired was paid one denarius for the day, no matter the time of day he was hired. This, of course, seemed unfair to the workers employed from early in the morning and had worked longer for the same pay as those hired later in the day.

The point of the parable isn’t just about fairness to the men hired, but also about the owner having the right to choose how he spent his money. He was not being hard on the employees who worked long hours. He was being generous to those who he employed later.

The parable is an allusion to God and the world, where everyone will be given the same riches of God’s grace, no matter when they come to Christ. It is also an illustration of another of Jesus’ teaching of the last being first. Although for some workers it looked unfair, it was not. Fairness need not be measured by comparison to another, but by what is contracted for.

God does not contract with us; we have a covenant, based on trust, with Him which He has never broken; we have, many times

Untalented

Another perspective on the parable of the talents.

The Parable of the Talents” (1906), artist unknown.

In the parable of the talents told by Jesus, related to us by Matthew (Matthew 25: 14 – 29 NIV)the master entrusted some of his wealth into his servants’ stewardship whilst he went away and he did so ”each according to his ability” (Matthew 25: 15 NIV). I assume he considered them all to be honest.

On this basis, he gave each of three servants a different sum of gold (Talents). The amounts are relatively unimportant the point being in the difference of amount he gave to each, the third servant receiving the lowest sum, only 1 Talent.

It is worth noting that a Talent would equate to about 20 years worth of a day labourers wage at that time, so even a single talent entrusted to the steward of the gold, like the third servant, comprised considerable wealth.

I assume, although we are not told, that the servants in the parable were the only three in the master’s service, so there were no others whom he might have judged unfit to receive any Talents, because he doubted their honesty or ability.

When the master returned from his travels, two of his servants each presented him with a healthy profit on the money he had left with them, having doubled their amount. It is perhaps worth note that the two who increased the sum given to them, both doubled or added 100% to what they were entrusted with. On this basis it is reasonable to assume they were both equally astute in their investments and I suggest that if their proportion of the master’s wealth been split equally between them, they would have returned equal amounts to their master on his return.

The third servant returned only what had been left in his care to begin with, for which the master called him “wicked” and “lazy”. Was this really fair to that servant? There is no suggestion that this servant was in anyway disloyal.

If we consider for a moment how this might be today, by drawing an analogy with The Apprentice television program as was suggested during a sermon I heard recently, then the third ‘candidate’ would indeed have been dismissed. I do not though consider this to be a good comparison. In the case of The Apprentice, the selection criteria were based on what was perceived to be required of a new employee, whereas in the parable they were all existing employees for which the master should already have had a good assessment of their abilities.

We have already noted that the master had given to each servant a sum of gold “according to his ability” and the master himself had been the judge of that ability. Since there is no suggestion of dishonesty by any servant, whilst the master might have been disappointed in the third servant’s stewardship, was he right to treat him so poorly on his return? Could the master’s reaction have been using that servant as a scapegoat, to hide his own poor judgement? Each according to his abilities, remember and it was the master who assessed those abilities. 

And what of the master’s own honesty, since we are told that he harvests where he has not sown and gathers where he has not scattered seed. Might this not be thought by some to imply that he was not adverse to stealing bits of a neighbours’ crops to boost his own?

The third servant may not have been wise, might well have been lazy but there is nothing but his master’s word to suggest he was wicked and he was evidently not dishonest. There are plenty of people around today whose idea of stewardship of wealth, is to hide it under the mattress.

I have also heard it suggested that in the parable, the man who went away was meant to be Jesus himself, who was telling the parable. His return therefore might have been a prophecy of his second coming. I also do not agree with that suggestion because if it had been Jesus, wouldn’t he have forgiven the third servant? 

However since it is a parable and can’t be taken literally there is yet another way we might think of it. Jesus could be telling us that we should invest in the future. Unfortunately, too many of us behave like the servant entrusted with only one Talent; we’re too worried about protecting what is, keeping the status quo, than investing for the future and I’m not just referring to money.