Who is the rich man? So finally, what can we say about the master. He is described as a rich man (plousios). As an absentee landlord with vast estates, who is complicit in unlawful hidden interest contracts. It is well known by scholars that since the installation of the Idumaean Herod the Great as King of the greater Judean area in 37 BC a large number of his relatives and supporters from the territory of Idumea in the south were awarded prime arable lands in the Jordan valley and the low country of Galilee. They increased their holdings by exercising the financial power of debt and foreclosure, but they did not tend to live on these lands, preferring the town villas of Jerusalem, or the coastal properties around Caesarea Maritima.
We might consider he is someone like the plousios of Luke 12:16 who built a great storehouse and was surprised to meet the judgement of God, or plousios in the story with Lazarus at Luke 16:19 who found himself in some strange place of torment and flames where he met Abraham and the beggar he had ignored in life. He might also be like the master in the story told in Luke 19:22, who said to his slave “you knew I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in and reaping what I did not sow”. This last reference in the parable of the minas is a clear reference to Herod Archelaus (23BC – 18AD), an ambitious nobleman who, according to contemporary historians had 3,000 of his countrymen killed when they tried to prevent him from inheriting his father’s office.
This context, I think, certainly makes it very difficult for us to posit an interpretation of the parable that casts the master (ho kurios) in the role of God. This master commends the unrighteous (adikias) steward because he had acted shrewdly. This master, and this steward, both belong to a system of injustice (adikia), and at no point have they left it. The steward had no intention of dropping out of the system just because some anonymous enemy was passing gossip up to his master in an attempt to undermine him. We can easily imagine the next act after securing his position will be to go after his accusers, and we should not expect him to play fair when he catches up with them. It is important to appreciate that this is no just a story about one landlord and one steward. It is the story of all of them. It is a story of a whole world system that is engineered to protect and perpetuate injustice. Sylvia Keesmat calls this “crucifixion economics” – a system of torture and death through contractual debt, an essential element of the empire that called itself the light to the world, but was to most people a dominion of darkness.
Having understood how the story works, as an example of the way the system of injustice works for the rich, and how the participants in that system might play out if their position was threatened we should bring our examination to a conclusion by returning to the question of why Jesus told this story and what he have wanted his original audience to have understood by it. It is a matter of good hermeneutics that only after that should we think about its application to us. To try otherwise to read the words of the ancient text straight onto our modern context would be an example of Biblicism, which treats the Bible as a form of magic, not scripture and is to be strenuously avoided.
In the next post me move from exegesis to interpretation, starting with the puzzling interpretation of Jesus himself…