Immediately after his encounter with Zacchaeus, and just before he rides a colt into Jerusalem, Jesus tells this parable in Luke 19:11-28 (paraphrased):
A man of inherited wealth aspired to have more political power in his country, but he needed to obtain permission to rule from the colonizing empire. Before he departed, he lent each of his 10 slaves one mina—100 days’ wages—and instructed each of the 10 to manage his business interests while he was away.
Many people despised this wealthy man. They organized a delegation to follow him and staged a protest against his petition for control. They chanted:
We don’t want this man to lead us!
Give us back OUR land and minas!
Even so, the wealthy man got his way. The colonial empire approved his request, against the will of the people, and imposed him as political leader.
When he returned to his country, with newfound power, he requested a report from each of his slaves on how they had handled his money. The first slave was happy to report that he gained 10 times what was lent to him. The new ruler was so pleased that the slave had used his money to make more money that he gave this slave governing authority over 10 cities. The second slave reported a 500 percent increase in business. Proportionally, the ruler bestowed to the second slave political control in five cities.
Out of the group another slave came before the ruler. The slave returned the money untouched. Echoing the protesters’ chant, he told the new ruler, “Your wealth has always come from other people’s pockets. You take what isn’t yours. You don’t care about anyone but yourself. I refuse to play your game because you are a violent, corrupt, and harsh man. I am giving you back only what is yours. I was afraid of you, but I value my integrity more than my security.”
The wealthy man was infuriated. “Keep your integrity. Even a dummy could have put my money in the bank, where I would have at least made some interest on someone else’s business. If everyone believes I am harsh, let it be true: All the money you failed to increase will go to the first slave.”
Several more people stood by the slave and spoke up. They interrupted the wealthy man to say how cruel it was to give more to the one who already had so much. But the wealthy ruler insisted: “This is the way the world works. This is how I do business. This is how I govern. The people who have wealth will be given more—they have proven they deserve it and can be trusted. The poor don’t deserve any investment since they are incapable of managing what little they do have. Also, everyone who has been disrupting my plans will be executed. Bring them here now. I want to watch them die.”
Then Jesus made his own act of protest and rode to the city of politicians and religious leaders. Jesus intended to show what kind of a ruler he was: the kind that gets executed.
Persistence in this scripture
This bold parable is the last thing Jesus says in Luke before entering Jerusalem. And the leadup to this parable informs us how it oozes with meaning.
It begins in Luke 18:1-8, where the widow who keeps demanding justice from the unjust judge is a more obvious demonstration of persistence. Luckily for her, it pays off:
Even though the judge has no respect for God or other people, he grants her justice to get her off his back. Can we be persistent in our conversations with and about God? Won’t God help us more than this excuse for a judge?
There is another wealthy ruler in that previous chapter. He is unable to follow Jesus because it requires selling everything he owns and giving it to the poor (18:18-30). He keeps himself out of Jesus’ kingdom—a kingdom where everyone has enough—so that he can maintain his own kingdom, where he already has more than enough. Who needs God when we are comfortable being the rulers of our own lives? Will our reliance on God persist more than our dependence on economic power?
Jesus then reminds the disciples that the trip they are on doesn’t look successful in the typical sense. Jesus reminds them this trip will look like victory for the powerful leaders in Jerusalem. Jesus reminds his followers, for the third time, that he will be executed. But the political powers that kill him won’t have the last word (18:31-34). How do we get to resurrection except though the struggle and mystery of death? Will we persist in following Jesus even through hard times?
A blind beggar’s persistence is recognized as an act of faith (18:35-43). Will we persist in calling for Jesus to aid us when we are told we are unworthy?
Then, another wealthy man (Zacchaeus), in contrast to the wealthy ruler, thoughtfully redistributes his wealth. In doing so, he provides restitution for the wrongs he committed and welcomes redemption for everyone in his home (19:1-10).
We see throughout Luke passages that emphasize—more so than the other canonical Gospels—the description of Jesus’ kingdom as prioritizing the oppressed and bringing down the oppressors. The Gospel of Matthew has a parallel to the parable in Luke 19:11-18. But the parable in Matthew (25:13-40) makes the third slave an example of bad faith; his fear and inaction make him unprepared for Jesus’ coming kingdom.
Both Matthew and Luke include the speech from the slave that calls the benefactor a harsh man who reaps what he doesn’t sow and harvests someone else’s work. Yet the context in Luke aids in its contrast from Matthew’s telling. Luke does not make the wealthy ruler a stand-in for God.
Instead, God is with the slave who stands up to the wealthy ruler. The slave’s actions are not cowardice but courage. The slave doesn’t sabotage the wealthy ruler or run away. He speaks truth about the injustice he sees. His faith compels him to stand up against corruption. He stands up not to do what is in his own interest—he knew it might cost his life. Instead, he stands up for the interests of many who do not want a ruler of this kind. He could have done the easy thing, put the money in the bank, and been rewarded with political power, status, or more wealth. Instead he persists, like the widow or the man seeking better vision.
Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t function like the kingdom of capitalism— there is not growth for a few at the expense of many. Instead, Jesus’ kingdom, as demonstrated in this parable, is a radical departure from the status quo. It requires us to stand up, even through hard times, and continue doing so until Jesus’ kingdom is realized.
Dylan Dell-Haro, who lives in Beatrice, Neb., is an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren. He works as a case manager, and he and his spouse, Laura, operate a native plants nursery.