The kingdom of heaven is like a lazy servant
For the past several weeks the New Wineskins community I lead has been reading my friend Josh Scott’s first book, Bible Stories for Grown-Ups.
I first met Josh at the Wild Goose Festival in 2021 and we hit it off over our shared Appalachian heritage and desire to help folks see how cultural context influences the way the stories of the Bible were written and have been interpreted.
He’s been a guest twice on our podcast (Season 3, Episode 8 & Season 4 Episode 11) and in his most recent appearance alluded to his take on what we call the “Parable of the Talents” in Matt. 25:14-30, which he covers in Chapter 4 of the book.
One of the things that drew me to Josh was his ability to look at the various contexts in which familiar Bible stories take place and reinterpret those passages through the lenses of cultural oppression and marginalization that would have been the reality for those who first heard them…poor, exploited people living under the boot of the mighty Roman Empire.
His take on the Parable of the Talents is next level stuff, y’all. That chapter alone is worth buying the book for. And I’m really not exaggerating when I tell you it’s blowing my mind.
What’s THAT like?
Just to set a little context of our own, a parable is a kind of teaching device based in storytelling. It’s a way of saying, “I can’t exactly explain to you what this thing is, but I can use something familiar to you to tell you what it’s like.”
For example: A few years ago I took my dad to Yellowstone National Park for his first time. Even though I’d made the trip a few times before, there was nothing I could do to fully prepare him for the experience of actually being there.
I could describe the sights, sounds, smells, and all the other various sensory inputs. I could show him photos and videos.
But none of that could actually relate the experience like, well, actually experiencing it.
And that’s what parables do. They invite us into experience.
In the Gospels, Jesus frequently uses parables to tell his followers about a thing he calls the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God (depending on which account you’re reading). Those parables often start with a statement that says something like, “The kingdom of heaven is like….”
A treasure in a field…
A mustard seed…
The assumptions behind our assumptions
In many of these parables we find a character of authority: the master of an estate, a king, a bridegroom, a father.
Now, for any of us who have read or studied the Bible, or even just been around churches for awhile, we’ve mostly been taught that when we encounter a parable containing one of these characters, we should automatically assume that character represents God.
Which makes sense, right? I mean if God is the ultimate authority, surely that’s what the parable means.
In fact, I’d argue, that particular interpretive lens is so pervasive that most of us have never even considered that it might not be true.
We read “the kingdom of heaven is like a king…” and we just immediately say, “Okay that means God.” And we interpret the rest of the story according to that basic assumption.
But what if we’ve missed something?
I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what it wears
The first time I heard Josh speak at Wild Goose he talked about another parable about a king who threw a wedding banquet that nobody wanted to attend. That particular parable ends with the king inviting people off the street, then kicking out one of the guests who was wearing the wrong clothes (you can check out the full talk here).
And then Josh asked the most interesting question: What if God/Jesus is NOT represented by the king, but by the guest who got excluded for not going along with the king’s expectations?
In fact, what if the king was not only NOT God/Jesus, but instead represented Caesar?
I’ll give you a second to process that.
It changes the whole point, doesn’t it?
Instead of a narrative about accepting God’s invitation to a “heavenly banquet,” on God’s very dogmatic terms, it becomes this beautifully subversive story about not accepting the ways of the empire as the necessary status quo.
Who’s got talent(s)?
Okay, spoiler alert if you haven’t read the book yet, but Josh has a similar take on the well-known Parable of the Talents.
If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a quick synopsis:
A wealthy landowner leaves for another country and entrusts three of his servants with significant sums of money while he’s gone (in First Century Israel a “talent” was a unit of currency equal to several years’ worth of wages). Two of the servants invest the money and double their returns. But one, who was given the least amount, buries it in the dirt until the master returns. The master congratulates the two investors on their ingenuity and faithfulness. The third is cursed and called “wicked and lazy.”
Most of us have likely learned that what Jesus is talking about is what we do with the gifts God gives us.
Those who invested the money are the good Christians who use their skills to serve their churches by sitting on committees or writing fat checks or putting away chairs after a fellowship dinner. The one who didn’t is the ne’er-do-well who just occupies a pew on Sunday and refuses to help out with anything.
And God sees the committee leaders and big donors and chair stackers as “good and faithful servants,” while the pew-sitter is “wicked and lazy.”
A wolf in wolf’s clothing
But there’s a problem with that interpretation…and even for someone like me who has learned to look for more compassionate, generous angles on such stories, it took hearing Josh and reading his book to see how obvious it is.
A god who congratulates the “winners” and berates the “losers” is nothing like the God that Jesus describes anywhere else in the Gospels.
In fact, that god sounds a whole lot more like an emperor.
“This master isn’t a lamb,” Josh writes. “He’s a wolf, and he takes what he wants, when he wants, from whomever he wants.”[i]
God bless America?
Sadly, a lot of modern Christians are perfectly comfortable with this wolf-like god, especially here in the US where unchecked capitalism has become the default economic setting.
We simply take it for granted that our capitalist economy reflects the divine will. “[I]f you aren’t producing wealth to continue to expand the empire, what good are you?” Josh continues.
“The third servant must be expelled from the master’s presence and thrown into the ‘farthest darkness’ where there is suffering and agony. […] [O]ur interpretive lens for this story has been shaped by American values. It‘s all about success, after all. To be faithful means to work hard and reap a reward. I don’t think this story by Jesus is affirming that lens. He’s actually challenging it”[ii] (emphasis mine).
’Cause the Bible tells me so…
There’s a whole lot more to Josh’s reinterpretation of this parable, and I encourage you to read Bible Stories for Grown-Ups to learn what else he sees going on there.
One of the most vital things my own religious deconstruction has taught me is that the narratives, prose, poetry, song, legal codes, genealogies, histories, etc. accumulated in the Bible were, in their original context, literature for the oppressed.
That’s the reason it has been so powerful in liberation movements throughout human history.
Those collected writings were never intended to bolster systems of power and privilege. They were never meant to justify the exploitation of anyone for the benefit of anyone else.
They’re meant to show those who have been excluded, exploited, and marginalized that they have value beyond the ways they can contribute to someone else’s wealth.
They’re intended to unmask the evil behind systems and structures that benefit the few at the expense of the many.
They’re designed to encourage those who suffer to discover the divinity implanted in everyone and everything in the cosmos, and to bring us all together to flourish fully and abundantly.
And they’re written to hold the feet of the privileged and powerful to the fire, to convict us of our many abuses, and to invite us to turn toward better possibilities for our collective future.
When we turn the Bible into a playbook for American capitalism, we miss the point entirely.
It’s time we went and buried some coins, y’all.
[i] Bible Stories for Grown-Ups, p66
[ii] Bible Stories for Grown-Ups, pp67, 69
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