In the last post, I used Brueggemann’s distinction between the royal consciousness and the prophetic imagination to suggest that Jesus’ fundamental identity is prophetic. I want to extend that observation in this post. The royal consciousness serves the interest of the status quo, and so seeks order, describing the world in wisdom tropes. Jesus, in contrast, does not come teaching wisdom for the world as it is, but offering parabolic speech designed to upend the way things are currently arranged in favor of the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ parables in Luke are notable in a couple of ways. First, the Lukan theme of reversals is prominent in parables unique to Luke. For instance, the parable of the two debtors (7:36-50) is told in the context of Jesus receiving a sinful woman in a banquet hosted by Pharisees. The point of the parable is that the one who is forgiven the most, loves the most. He then applies the parable directly to the welcome provided by the woman in contrast to the welcome of the Pharisees, making her closer to the kingdom of God than the Pharisees, who think they have little need for forgiveness. Their positions have been reversed.
In another table scene with Pharisees (14:1-24), Jesus heals a man with dropsy on the Sabbath and critiques the table practices of the Pharisees at the banquet, namely the way they seek places of honor at the table. Jesus suggests that they should take the lower seat instead, because in the kingdom of God “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” This reversal becomes very concrete related to the guest list of those invited to banquets. Jesus tells them that they should not invite their rich friends or relatives, namely those who can repay them, but should instead invite the poor, the blind, the lame, namely those who cannot repay them. At this point, one of the guests blurts out, “blessed is anyone who eats bread in the kingdom of God,” the religious equivalent to “all lives matter.” Jesus responds with a parable of a great feast where those first invited are too important to attend, making excuses for their refusal of the invitation. So, the host of the banquet tells his servants to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame so that the room is full. “For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” The insiders have become the outsiders, and vice versa.
Reversals are also present in the unjust steward (16:1-8), the rich man and lazarus (16:19-31), and Luke’s version of the wicked tenants (20:9-18). A few of these we will return to.
The second feature I want to point out in Luke’s parables is the way Jesus casts himself as a hidden character in the story. In particular, a few parables foreshadow his death and resurrection. For instance, the parable of the wicked tenants needs to be heard against the backdrop of the prophets who came before Jesus and were killed, all of those from Abel to Zechariah (11:47-51). In the parable, the tenants beats the vineyard owner’s servants who come to collect the proceeds from the vineyard. So, the owner of the vineyard sends his son, thinking they will have to respect him. But instead he is killed by the tenants who mistakenly think, “This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.” The parable ends with the vineyard owner “destroying” the tenants in an act of retributive violence. It’s not hard to read this parable assigning roles to the chief priests, Jesus, and God.
A chapter earlier, we find Luke’s version of the parable of the talents (19:11-27). Jesus tells the parable against the expectation that the “kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” It is not hard to see Jesus in the figure of the nobleman who leaves to receive royal power and then to return after a delay, and who will judge the actions of those left with responsibility for the nobleman’s realm. It’s not hard to identify the chief priests with those who bury the talents in the ground and fail to earn anything with the nobleman’s money. The nobleman will judge them “by your own words,” being a harsh man who will have them “slaughtered in my presence.”
I want to address the violent images associated with “God” in these parables after we look at a few more. As we noted in the parable of the wicked tenants, we have the killing of a son after the vineyard owner has already sent a number of servants (prophets) who have been beaten. The parable prefigures Jesus’ death. In the parable of the talents, Jesus may be seen in the one going away to “receive royal power” and who will one day return. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31), the rich man appeals to Abraham to send warnings to his father and brothers concerning the horrible fate that awaits them if they ignore the poor. Abraham says to the rich man, “If they did not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (16:31). Here the death and resurrection of Jesus is foreshadowed.
The most tantalizing character who seems to represent aspects of Jesus’ own story is the prodigal son (15:11-32). Here is one who travels to a far country, associating with sinners, and receiving a royal welcome from a father upon his return. The father orders a banquet because “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” Later in the parable, in response to the reaction of the older son, the father replies “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life.” Are these twin sayings related to a son who is dead and is now alive a foreshadowing the resurrection? We hesitate to do so because of some of the characteristics assigned to the son. He demands his inheritance and squanders it in dissolute living. He appears repentant, indicating wrongdoing. His father not only refers to him as dead, but now alive, but also lost and now found.
These the same kinds of concerns we should have by assigning to characters resemblances to Jesus and or the Father in the parable of the talents and the wicked tenants. Though the nobleman is Jesus like in some ways, he is described as a harsh man and has his enemies slaughtered before him. Similarly, the vineyard owner might easily be imagined as God in the parable, but visits retribution on the tenants. This seems incongruous with other depictions of both Father and Son, and the kingdom of God in Luke-Acts. What are we to do?
Let’s look a little closer at the parable of the prodigal and its setting. The parable is third and culminating parable in a collection that includes the parable of the lost sheep and lost coin. But the setting is more completely understood in 15:1-2: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'” Here we have tax collectors and sinners coming near and listening to him in contrast to Pharisees and scribes who are grumbling and lumping Jesus in with sinners.The parables are designed to confirm this authorial characterization, and within the story, to turn the tables on the Pharisees by turning their own evaluative criteria against them.
The first two parables demonstrate God’s concern for those things that are lost. The lost sheep and the lost coin demonstrate the great value of those considered lost in the estimation of others. The parable of the prodigal son includes a grumbling older brother who is invited to the celebration, but finds himself on the outside looking in. This is the rhetorical bullseye of the three parables, locating the grumbling of the Pharisees in the figure of the older brother. I believe the parable is told mirroring how they view Jesus as he eats with tax collectors and sinners. He cannot be the beloved of the father because he is squandering the inheritance of the kingdom of God with what they perceive to be dissolute living. Imagine their surprise when the one who eats with tax collectors and sinners is received by the Father with the robe, ring, and fatted calf. The one who died is now alive! And as with other parables, the Pharisees will find themselves on the outside looking in.
Now let’s see if reading the parable through the perspective of the Pharisees helps us with the other parables as well. The best clue that this might indeed be the case is in the parable of the talents, when the nobleman says to the one who has buried the talent in the ground, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave!” (19:22). Again, the drama of Luke can be explained to a great extent by Jesus’ alignment with the prophets before him who have been killed by leaders like those in Luke-Acts. When the nobleman who has travelled away to get royal power for himself returns, he say to “these enemies of mine who do not want me to be king over them–bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.” What I am suggesting is that this is the way those who have killed the prophets and who are about to kill Jesus would act if they were in the position of the nobleman. They are being judged on their own terms, foisted upon their own rhetorical petards. If they received in kind what they have felt justified to do in God’s name, they would be slaughtered in the presence of the one who returns with royal power.
This would apply also to the parable of the tenants in chapter 20. If the roles were reversed, they would avenge the death of one of their own. Perhaps we are prepared for this interpretation by the opening scene of Jesus’ ministry in Luke 4 where Jesus suggests that Gentiles, the enemies of God’s people, have often been the location of God’s saving activity. This enrages Jesus’s hometown audience who seek to kill him by throwing him off a cliff.
In contrast, those who kill God’s son are offered repentance, forgiveness, and the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. God’s way, it turns out, is not the same way as those who have killed God’s prophets from Abel to Zechariah. The one who has returned with power will not have his enemies slaughtered in his presence or visit destruction on those who killed the son. However, the resurrection of the one who squandered his life in dissolute living with tax and collectors and sinners will be vindicated and those who have been excluded and considered lost by other systems of power will enjoy the celebration of the one who was dead, but is now alive.