Political Parables – Can Systems Change?

In this mini-series, I am not going to look at all of the parables that Herzog covers in his aforementioned book “Parables as Subversive Speech” – it is a meaty and in depth study and is packed full of punches. Rather, I will focus on the ones which impacted me the most, which caused me to sit up and take notice and forced me to re-examine how I had read it up to this point. I love it when an author/teacher does that – forces you to see something you have never seen before….it’s so good! I hope that whatever your faith background there is some stuff to really engage with here……

As a backdrop, it is important to make three brief statements:

Firstly, Herzog does an incredible job in the early part of his book in peeling back the layers to reveal what was the sociological context of the parables. If we do not understand the nature of the oppressive systems both of the temple and of Rome, then we will miss what Jesus is addressing. Herzog calls this ‘codifying’, a term also credited to Freire in his work with the ‘peasant’ classes in Brasil. These are not twee stories to make us think about cute scenarios. These are hard hitting metaphors which strike at the heart of society and call it to account. Jesus wasn’t crucified because he simply decided to hand himself in, as if all along this was his plan. He was crucified because he challenged the powers head on and there was nowhere else for them to go but to kill him (more on this another time).

Secondly, Herzog asks us to really get to the issue that Jesus was speaking to, not how we choose to clumsily interpret it today nor even how Matthew or Luke emphasised a parable one way or another. He asks us to be faithful to the text by being faithful to the speaker…..

Thirdly, any interpretation of scripture, from my point of view, must begin with Jesus, it is what is called a Jesus hermeneutic. If one starts anywhere else, it is possible to end up with a very different version of God than the One Jesus reveals the Trinity to be. Therefore, when characters are given the role of ‘God’ in these stories, we must ask ourselves if this really represents a true understanding of what Jesus is telling us that God is like i.e. exactly like him.

So, here is the parable of the Unmerciful Servant:

Matthew 18:21-35English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.[a]

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.[b] 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.[c] 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant[d] fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii,[e] and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers,[f]until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Footnotes:

  1. Matthew 18:22 Or seventy-seven times
  2. Matthew 18:23 Greek bondservants; also verses 2831
  3. Matthew 18:24 talent was a monetary unit worth about twenty years’ wages for a labourer
  4. Matthew 18:26 Greek bondservant; also verses 2728293233
  5. Matthew 18:28 denarius was a day’s wage for a labourer
  6. Matthew 18:34 Greek torturers
English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

For a far better and in depth study and exegesis, you really are going to have to read the book! But here is my clumsy attempt to pull out some of the key challenges as I see them.

If it is true (and I believe it is) that Jesus is constantly speaking ‘good news for the poor’, causing people to see things they had not seen before and setting people free in the process, then we must ask what he is hitting on here.

The suggestion is this. The ‘ruler/king’ is not initially to be understood as God, but as representing the royal court of the day, which was hugely harsh on its ‘lords/managers’ and expected them to do exactly as ordered in dealing with the peasant classes so as to maintain the status quo. The first servant, who represents a manager type role has somehow got himself into a bit of a pickle and is unable to pay his debts. Jesus then invites the listeners to imagine the unimaginable. Imagine that instead of the usual, same old story of dismissing this servant, the ruler chooses to be unbelievably kind, cancel the servant’s debts and forgive him! WHAT? Totally unthinkable. That would NEVER happen in a Royal Court. There are so many others vying for the position of that manager. He would be out on his ear and the position filled by someone else who would be a more efficient bully (I wonder how many instances we find, of this latter more likely situation, in the NHS/education/MOD/businesses of various sorts….?).

Then, this same manager who receives a ‘get out of jail free’ card, goes out and finds someone who owes him a whole bunch less of a debt than he has just been forgiven. And instead of passing on the same grace and enacting a new way of being, he goes back to the same old bullying culture he has always known and been schooled in and kicks the guy whilst he is down to ensure he doesn’t lose face and his department can keep running smoothly.

The thing is, the manager is only acting in the way that he has always been taught. Top down, top dog-style leadership, running a tight ship, not taking any nonsense etc etc.

Jesus is hitting two things very hard. The first is a reality check. He is saying that it would be entirely possible for the Messiah/God himself to come and enact a whole new way of being, a modus operandi of forgiveness and mercy and for nothing to change, because we have grown so comfortable with the ways that things are that we don’t really want to change or know how to. 

Walter Brueggemann highlights something similar in his comparison of Moses and Solomon. Moses hits at and critiques the entire world system of the Pharaoh, challenging head on the numbing effects of Empire. But by the time we reach Solomon in Jerusalem, Pharaoh is back on the throne in a different guise. Solomon has become the antithesis of all that Moses was about. And so, when Jesus comes to challenge the perceived ‘wisdom of empire’ by revealing an entirely different kind of king and kingdom, the previous system is so well rehearsed and imbibed hook, line and sinker that it is highly possible nothing will change……..unless…….

Secondly, I believe Jesus is revealing the very reason why he didn’t come as the ‘Emperor of Rome’ or a ‘King of Judea’. Perhaps it is nigh on impossible to undo a system from the top down……unless…….

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