Towards a canonical reading of the parable
I would argue that a canonical reading of the parable should be attempted. This is one which both pays close attention to the details of the story which would have been deeply resonant to its first audience, but which are alien to us two thousand years and half a world away. It is also a reading which pays attention to the place of the story within the Gospel of Luke and within the Bible as a whole. Such an approach will in turn shed greater light on the difficult text and perhaps lead to fresh challenges in our modern day discipleship of Jesus.
Starting with the canonical setting. Luke is the only Gospel writer to include this pericope and he places it in a long section of teaching (15:1 – 16:18) delivered on the way to Jerusalem, which is the dramatic climax of the whole story, the point to which all lines of perspective lead. This extended sequence contains the well known parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin and Prodigal Son and ends, shortly after our parable with the well-known teaching that it was easier for the land and the sky to pass away than for a single apostrophe to fall from the Law of God (16:17).
Our parable is laden with Lukan themes, of debt and debtors, of rich men and their actions, of taxes and tax collectors and of the context of life in an advanced agrarian iron age society. These themes can be seen throughout Luke’s gospel, and the more closely you read it the more you will see them, but for a quick survey take a speed read through Luke 1:53 “he has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty,” Luke 4:18 “the Spirit of the Lord is on me, for he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor,” Luke 6:24 “woe to you who are rich for you have already received your comfort,” Luke 9:3 “take nothing for the journey – no staff, no bag, no bread, no money,” Luke 11:4 “give us enough bread for the day, forgive us our sins for we also forgive everyone indebted to us.” Luke 12:32-33 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor,” and Luke 14:13 “but when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind”.
Furthermore, in Luke more than any other of the Gospels, Jesus’ teachings are full of the material details of peasant life in Galilee – we often miss the impact of the imagery of fig trees, wine presses, harvests, storehouses, making bread, sowing seed, hiring workers and the like. Lest we foster an image of a bucolic reverie, with every family farming its own mixed arable fields, with a big farmhouse and large flocks of livestock, we should factor in some of the known characteristics of life under Roman rule. The vicious cycle of swingeing taxation, systemic indebtedness and cyclical foreclosures meant that large tracts of quality land were in the hands of a class of mostly absentee aristocratic landlords, who turned the fields over to commoditised export cash crops such as grain, olive oil and wine. These fields would often then be worked on a day labour basis by those same people who were earlier dispossessed in the foreclosure of their mortgages. Begging was one of the few means of subsistence for anyone incapable of day labour, such as those with a disabling medical condition. In such a society women were particularly vulnerable, whereby a divorce, which was easy for a husband to obtain became a virtual death sentence and the many encounters of Jesus with sex workers can be more easily understood.
In summary the context to which Jesus was speaking was not merely of an agrarian society, but one gripped by the fear and insecurity of a debt driven financial crisis, leading to a broader social crisis, set against the backdrop of a military crisis, which gave rise to a nationalistic crisis of deep psychological and spiritual impact.
In the next part I’m going to take a closer look at the textual elements of the parable.