Once again I have been reminded that our context plays an important role in how we hear and understand the biblical stories. People who have been marginalized read biblical stories differently than people who have been a part of the dominant culture. This is a point made by Lloyd Pietersen in his book Reading the Bible After Christendom.
The example he uses are two familiar stories from Luke chapters 18 and 19. The first story is the account of the rich ruler who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. The questioner has kept all the commandments. Jesus tells him to do one thing more — sell all he owns, distribute the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus. We understand this as one of the “hard sayings” of Jesus. If we want to follow Jesus we are asked to part with all we have that is valuable to us, to trust and follow Jesus — that God will provide.
The second story is found shortly later in the next chapter, beginning with verse 11. This is the parable of the talents/pounds. A nobleman goes off to seek royal power. Before leaving he gives 10 slaves each a pound to do business with while he was gone. When he returns he asks the servants how they fared. One made 10 pounds and was richly rewarded by his master. Another made 5 pounds and was similarly rewarded. The third one buried his pound because he knew his master was a “harsh man,” taking what he did not deposit and reaping where he did not sow. So that he would avoid punishment if perchance he lost the pound, this servant had buried it and returned it to the master. The master is furious with him, gives his pound to the one who generated 10 and punishes the conservative servant who risks nothing.
For those of the dominant culture, we understand this second parable as rewarding industry and risk-taking, while chastising sloth and laziness. Somehow the dissonance with the former story (not a parable but a personal encounter) does not bother us. We who are part of the dominant culture expect to be rewarded for our good work, not expected to give it all away.
But a closer look at these two stories should give us pause about that understanding of the second story. First, if the parable is designed to have the master be a Christ-like figure, then the master’s anger and punitive action is hardly consistent with the life of Jesus. And rewarding some who already has with more (even the bystanders question the wisdom or fairness of this in verse 25) while severely punishing others doesn’t seem anything like a kingdom one would want to aspire to unless one is already part of the dominant culture. But if one reads the second story noting why Jesus tells this story (verse 11 “…because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately”) then we may come up with an entirely different understanding that might be consistent with the earlier story of chapter 18. This is especially true if one remembers that Archelaus, a ruler in this region, did exactly what the “nobleman” of the parable did. Archelaus was a hated leader who sought from Rome to gain more power and authority. In telling this parable, Jesus may be saying, “Look, the kingdom I’m talking about is not coming immediately. How I’ve asked you to live in chapter 18 is what I still am calling you to do. It is countercultural to how the leaders of this world work and think. And it may cause difficulty and suffering in this world.”
The people who heard Jesus’ words of Luke 19 and lived under the harsh rule of Archelaus would not have missed the connections. But if we are far removed from the historical situation, or are living in the dominant culture in which our power and authority tends to accumulate, often at the expense of others, then we hear and understand Luke 19 very differently.
Pietersen’s book invites us to read the Scriptures in light of the era in which we currently live, one in which Christianity is not a part of the dominant culture. We may have more opportunities to feel like the marginalized people of Jesus’ day as Christianity no longer has the respect or power and influence that it did only a generation earlier in the life of our country.
This is excellent example of Jesus’ teaching and the early church’s understanding of the “already and not yet” nature of the Kingdom about which Jesus taught and embodied. Chapter 18’s story invites us to begin living a Kingdom lifestyle right now. Chapter 19’s parable reminds us that God’s Kingdom has not yet fully come. The world may not always respond kindly to a Kingdom gesture. But the marginalized people of any era experientially already know that!