The Parable of the Pounds - Part 1
Malcolm Horlock, Cardiff, Wales
(Unless otherwise stated, all quotations of Scripture are from the New King James Version)
INTRODUCTION AND CONTEXT
The previous two articles focused upon the Parable of the Unjust Steward in Luke chapter 16 verses 1 to 13. There we learned something of our responsibility before God in connection with the money and the possessions with which He has entrusted us. Here, in the so-called Parable of the Poundsi in chapter 19 verses 11 to 27, we learn something of our responsibility in connection with the opportunities for service with which He provides us.
The Parable of the Pounds was spoken either in or near Jericho when our Lord, with set face, was pursuing His way to His suffering and death at Jerusalem. It forms the last section in Luke’s lengthy account of our Lord’s last journey there,2 and highlights His servants’ stewardship in the interval between the time of His departure and the time of His return, when He will evaluate all service rendered for Him.
The section is framed by the opening words of verse 11, ‘Now as they heard these things, He spoke’, and the words of verse 28, ‘When He had said this’, which latter words introduce the following section.
Luke records the parable immediately after the account he gave of the conversion of Zacchaeus at Jericho in chapter 19 verses 1 to 10. Indeed, Luke links the two sections closely together. Having recorded our Lord’s words to Zacchaeus in verses 9 and 10, he opens our section by saying, ‘As they heard (literally, ‘as they were hearing’) these things, He spoke another parable’. One scholar has noted that ‘the present participle [‘hearing’] suggests that the preceding sayings are still ringing in their ears or being turned over in their minds’.3 It was therefore as ‘the multitude is still pondering this word’4 that Jesus told the parable.
And what had Jesus said to Zacchaeus which still occupied the people’s attention? Luke tells us that ‘Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost”’. In the compass of this single sentence the Lord twice referred to the salvation of the lost.
It could be argued, therefore, that one function of the Parable of the Pounds is to draw attention to the faithful and industrious service which the Lord expects of every one who has come into the enjoyment of the salvation which He bestows. Such a connection could be summed up neatly in the much-used pithy saying, ‘saved to serve’.
But, whether or not the Holy Spirit intends us to make such a connection, verse 11 states very plainly our Lord’s reason for telling the parable; namely, ‘because He was near Jerusalem and because they thought the kingdom of God would appear immediately’. And the reference which Jesus made to ‘salvation’ in the house of Zacchaeus may well have played a part in fuelling that expectation. We will consider this in the exposition below.
The historical background
The theme of a rich man leaving his servants in control while he is absent is quite common in the parables of our Lord which Luke records.5 But, as we shall note in the exposition, in this instance there are several close parallels between: (i) the framework of the parable; and (ii) certain events which took place at the time of our Lord’s birth, events which we know had clear associations with Jericho itself. I refer to the actions and experiences of Archelaus, one of Herod the Great’s fifteen children6 and Herod’s principal named heir. The close correspondence between the history of Archelaus and several of the details in the parable suggests strongly that our Lord deliberately chose the (then) well-known events of some thirty years before as the framework for His parable.
Comparison with the Parable of the Talents
Some short time later the Lord told a separate parable which has several features in common with the Parable of the Pounds. This is the Parable of the Talents, recorded in Matthew chapter 25 verses 14 to 30. But even a casual reading of the two parables highlights a number of important differences between them.
(a) We can hardly fail to note, for example, the different occasions on which our Lord spoke the two parables. The first, the Parable of the Pounds, was spoken as our Lord made His way to Jerusalem, whereas the second, that of the Talents, was spoken sometime after He had entered Jerusalem. Again, as we have noted, the Parable of the Pounds was spoken in or near Jericho, whereas that of the Talents was spoken on the Mount of Olives.7
(b) The Parable of the Talents concerns a man with three servants to whom, when he took a journey, he entrusted varying large sums of money.
The Parable of the Pounds concerns a man of high birth with many servants, to ten of whom, when he ‘went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom’, he entrusted identical small sums of money.
(c) In the Parable of the Talents, the faithful servants multiplied their unequal sums of money in the same proportion, and thereby secured for themselves identical ‘rewards’; namely, their master’s glowing commendation, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord’.
In the Parable of the pounds, the faithful servants multiplied their identical sums of money in differing proportions, and thereby secured for themselves differing ‘rewards’, corresponding precisely to the gains they had made.
(d) In the Parable of the Talents, the Lord made it clear that persons with little ability, if they prove themselves faithful in the use of that which the Lord has entrusted to them, will receive the same reward as others more gifted than themselves. For God will take each person’s abilities into account when providing him or her with opportunities to serve Him,8 and will take full account of how those opportunities have been used when His servants each ‘receive back’ in respect of what they have done while in the body.9
In the Parable of the Pounds, the Lord made it clear that different degrees of faithful labour will yield different degrees of recompense.
Verse 11. The gospels present two main aspects to the Kingdom of God: (i) the present form, entered by repentance, faith and the new birth, and (ii) the ‘future outward form’.10 These aspects are sometimes labelled the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ aspects of the kingdom.
The future form of the kingdom, its appearing and manifestation in power, will be established when the Son of man sits on the throne of His glory and takes the reins of universal government. It is this aspect which is in view here.
When Jesus spoke the parable, He was making His way to Jerusalem (‘the city of the great King’11), and it was commonly believed, by both the crowds and the disciples, that He was going there to establish that glorious kingdom. The hopes of the people ran high that ‘the kingdom of God would appear immediately’. It was for this reason that James and John, with their mother’s support, had made their play for the thrones on either side of our Lord’s.12
But the Lord knew – and had only recently taught the twelve again13 – that He was going to Jerusalem, not to reign, but to die. Had James and John grasped what it would mean to be either side of Him then, they would certainly not have coveted such a place!14
And the Lord knew that He would be ascending from the vicinity of Jerusalem to heaven to receive a kingdom which would not be established on earth for some long time to come. ‘Christ was going away to heaven to receive the kingdom from God there – not about to take it from man now and in this world’.15
As we have seen, the Holy Spirit links the telling of the parable very closely with the story of Zacchaeus. To Jericho’s chief tax-collector our Lord had declared, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham’.16 Salvation had now come, at least to one house. Did this mean that the kingdom in its consummated form had – or was about to – come? Did this mean that Jesus, the Messiah, was about to be given ‘the throne of His father David’ by the Lord God, thereafter to ‘reign over the house of Jacob forever’?17
The Lord told His parable to dispel any such expectation. For although ‘salvation’ had indeed then come to the house of Zacchaeus, ‘salvation’ will not come to the house of Israel until His second advent – until the time spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, ‘Say to the daughter of Zion, Surely your salvation is coming; behold, His reward is with Him’.18
We should note that on no occasion did our Lord rebuke anybody for expecting such a kingdom. For example, although He criticized James and John for their selfish ambition in seeking places at His right and left hand, He said nothing to correct their assumption that He would one day sit on His throne in His manifested kingdom.19 Neither, prior to His ascension, did He correct His disciples’ concept of a future kingdom for Israel; He simply rebuked their unwarranted curiosity as to ‘the times and the seasons’ which the Father has appointed by His own authority.20
At this point, Jesus and the disciples were leaving Jericho, en route to Jerusalem, a distance of no more than seventeen miles away. ‘Jewish tradition indicated that “the kingdom of Yahweh Sebaoth (‘the Lord of hosts’) would be revealed over Jerusalem”’.21 So it is hardly surprising that the proximity of Jerusalem aroused great excitement both in the people and in the disciples. ‘Their expectation was of the immediate manifestation of the Kingdom of God in power’.22
Verse 12. Note the verbal connection of ‘kingdom’ between verse 11 and verse 12: ‘they thought the kingdom of God would appear immediately. Therefore He said: “A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and to return”’. In this way, the Lord Jesus made it clear, (i) that He would first need to go far away to ‘receive’ the ‘kingdom’, (ii) that He would ‘return’ after an interval (during which His servants would need to exercise both patient waiting and active working), and (iii) that then – but only then – would ‘the kingdom of God . . . appear’. Over against the expectation of those around Him, our Lord’s parable therefore ‘predicts an interval of waiting and trial . . . the Messiah is conceived not as coming but as going’.23
And there can be little doubt that the Lord employed a well-known historical incident – connected in part with Jericho – as the backcloth and framework for His story.
Herod the Great had died a little over thirty years earlier, having fathered many sons. Of these, Archelaus was one of the more fortunate, more fortunate certainly than three of Herod’s other sons, who, along with several other key members of Herod’s family, were murdered by their insanely jealous father.24 In a probably apocryphal story, the emperor Augustus is reported to have wisecracked that it was safer to be Herod’s pig (Greek hos) than his son (Greek huios)!25 If true, Augustus was clearly aware that, although Herod was an Idumean by race, he lived as a Jew and so avoided eating pork.
Archelaus was cited in Herod’s final will as ruler of Judaea and Samaria, and shortly after Herod’s death, he left Jericho26 to go to Rome (the ‘far country’) to push his claim, and (so he hoped) to have his father’s will confirmed by Augustus Caesar and thereby ‘receive his kingdom’.
Josephus records how, in Herod’s final testament, he ‘granted the kingdom to Archelaus’,27 but that Archelaus ‘would not . . . take upon him either the authority of a king, or the names thereto belonging, until Caesar, who is . . . lord of this whole affair . . . confirm the succession’.28
It is likely that our Lord’s story, spoken in or near Jericho, would have come alive to His disciples because, when Archelaus returned from Rome, having ‘come into Judea, he . . . magnificently rebuilt the royal palace that had been at Jericho, and he diverted half the water with which the village of Neara used to be watered, and drew off that water into the plain, to water those palm trees which he had there planted’.29 Although we may not necessarily accept the suggestion that ‘Archelaus had rebuilt the stately royal palace of Jericho, under the very shadow of which the Speaker and the crowds were perhaps standing’,30 there can be little doubt that our Lord’s hearers would have made the connection with Archelaus. Indeed, the aqueduct which Archelaus had constructed ran alongside the road by which our Lord and those with Him left Jericho on their way towards Jerusalem.
Verse 13. ‘So he called ten of his servants’; not ‘called his ten servants’ as rendered by the King James Version. As a claimant to a kingdom, the nobleman (literally, ‘one well-born’) would have had very many servants.31 As far as the interpretation of the parable is concerned, of course, God gives present opportunities for service to all His people.
‘He . . . delivered to them ten minas’; one mina to each servant, that is. ‘The mina was a Greek coin worth 100 drachmas’.32 According to the Jewish apocalyptic Book of Tobit (chapter 5 verse 14), a drachma was paid as a daily wage.33 One mina was the equivalent therefore of little more than three months wages. The relative smallness of the amount stands in contrast to that which was delivered to each of his three servants by the man in the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25. There were 60 minas in a single talent of silver.
In Matthew chapter 25 it is implied that, between them, the three servants were entrusted with the absent master’s whole fortune; he ‘delivered his goods (‘his substance’, ‘his possessions’) to them’.34 Whereas here in Luke 19 the nobleman’s purpose in committing a relatively small sum to each of the ten servants was clearly to test their industry and faithfulness during his absence. Evidently, in doing so he aimed to establish whether or not they would prove themselves worthy of being allocated jurisdiction over the cities in his kingdom when he returned. There is, however, no suggestion that they realized this was what was in his mind.
‘Do business till I come’. The nobleman gave clear and precise instructions to his servants, requiring each to employ his mina in trading (the basic meaning of the word translated ‘do business’).
I suspect that being entrusted with a capital sum of only three months wages meant that each of the servants faced the challenge, not only of energetic and demanding activity, but of humble and commonplace activity. For they would be operating, not as top-notch merchants with vast sums to invest, but as modest small-time traders.
There is no evidence of which I know that when Archelaus left Jericho for Rome he acted in any way similar to the nobleman in the parable by committing small sums of money to any of his servants as a means of testing their business and administrative capabilities.
Yes, it is true that, before he set out to Rome to seek Caesar’s confirmation of his succession to Herod’s kingdom, Archelaus did undertake to ‘make abundant requitals, not to the soldiers only, but to the people, for their alacrity and goodwill to him, when [Caesar] should have given him a complete title to the kingdom’.35 But, as Josephus very realistically observed when recording this promise in another place, Archelaus merely ‘pretended to do all things so as to get the goodwill of the multitude to him, as looking upon that goodwill to be a great step towards his preservation of the government’.36 This incident therefore provides no counterpart whatever to the central role played by the minas in our Lord’s parable.
Verse 14. ‘But his citizens hated37 him, and sent a delegation after him, saying, “We will not have this man to reign over us”’. Historically, Archelaus was detested by the Jews, having, in a Jewish uprising immediately following his father’s death, felt compelled to slay 3,000 of their number.38 It was hardly surprising therefore that the Jews dispatched a delegation to Rome to plead with Augustus for freedom from the reign of Archelaus, preferring to come under direct Roman rule.39
The record of Josephus shows how closely this detail in the parable accords with those events of thirty years before.40 ‘Archelaus . . . had new sources of trouble come upon him at Rome . . . for an embassage of the Jews was come to Rome . . . Now the number of the ambassadors that were sent by the authority of the nation were fifty, to which they joined above eight thousand of the Jews that were at Rome already . . . Now the main thing they desired was this: That they might be delivered from kingly and the like forms of government, and might be added to Syria, and be put under the authority of such presidents of theirs as should be sent to them’.41
The statement of the delegation in the parable, ‘We will not have this man to reign over us’, doubtless echoes the desire of the Jews in the days of Archelaus that they be freed from any ‘kingly’ form of government of their own and that they be brought under direct Roman rule.
It would be difficult not to see the close parallel between this stated desire (made on behalf of ‘the nation’) and the response which the Jews and their chief priests made a few days later when, with reference to our Lord, Pilate declared, ‘Behold your King!’ The Jews then ‘cried out’, we read, ‘Away with Him, away with Him! Crucify Him!’ And when Pilate replied, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ the chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar!’42
And yet there was one obvious difference. For, in the case of Archelaus, there was at least some justification for the Jews’ hatred. But, in contrast, the Lord Jesus could say, in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, ‘They hated me without a cause’.43
But, given that the delegation was sent after the nobleman had left to ‘receive for himself a kingdom’, it may well be that our Lord had in mind rather the fierce hostility shown by the Jews towards His apostles and the early church following His ascension. That is, that the persecution of believers throughout the period covered by the Book of the Acts was in effect the ‘embassage’ which the Jews sent ‘after Him’, rejecting His claims and making it clear that they did not want Him as their King. ‘Thus the Jews, when Peter sets their sin before them, and declares to them that if they repent, Jesus would return, and with Him the times of refreshing,44 reject the testimony, and, so to say, send Stephen after Jesus45 to testify that they would have nothing to do with Him’.46
But there is no suggestion in our Lord’s parable, of course, that the plea made by the delegation would prove successful, as events had proved (in part at least) in the case of Archelaus. For, in the event, Archelaus was not granted the whole of Herod’s kingdom; Caesar ‘gave the one half of Herod’s kingdom to Archelaus, by the name of Ethnarch . . . Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, were parts of the ethnarchy of Archelaus’.47 ‘But as for the other half, he divided it into two parts, and gave it to two other of Herod’s sons, to Philip and to Antipas’.48
Verse 15. Having filled in the details of (i) the Receiving of the Kingdom, and of (ii) the Return of the Nobleman, this verse sets the scene for (iii) the Review of the Servants. Whereas, as we have seen, the first two of these events have a basis in historical fact, the third does not. This, the Review of the Servants, is introduced by our Lord to pinpoint the situation which will face His followers when He returns, bringing His reward with Him, ‘to give to every one according to his work’.49
God willing, in the next issue, we shall consider: (i) what happens to the three servants who are singled out for mention by our Lord; (ii) the significance of the minas (in particular the significance of the transfer of one of the original minas from one servant to another); and (iii) the meaning of the tantalizing words which Jesus put into the mouth of the nobleman, ‘From him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him’.
To be continued
- The title ‘The Parable of the Pounds’, made familiar to many by the King James Version, should more literally be ‘The Parable of the Minas’. But, on account of its very familiarity, I retain the common title for the purpose of these articles.
- The record of our Lord’s last journey to Jerusalem stretches from the closing section of Luke chapter 9 to the middle of Luke chapter 19. Luke inserts several travel notices into his narrative of the journey; between the ‘bookends’ of Luke chapter 9 verse 51 and chapter 19 verse 28, see Luke 9. 53, 56; 13. 22; 17. 11; and 18. 31.
- I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke in the New International Greek Testament Commentary series, page 703.
- N. Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (NICNT), page 474.
- See also Luke 12. 35-38, 42-46; 20. 9-19.
- The names of the fifteen known children, together with details of their mothers can be found at http://www.livius.org/he-hg/herodians/herod_the_great02.html
- Matt. 24. 3.
- ‘To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability’, Matt. 25. 15.
- 2 Cor. 5. 10 (literal translation).
- David Gooding, According to Luke, page 300.
- Ps. 48. 2; Matt. 5. 35.
- Mark 10. 33-35; cf. Matt. 20. 20-21.
- Luke 18. 31-34; cf. Matt. 16. 21; 17. 22, 23; 20. 17-19.
- See Mark 15. 27-28.
- W. Kelly, Introductory Lectures on the Gospels, on Luke 19. 11-27. Compare the words of J. G. Bellett, ‘The Lord has gone to the distant heavens to transact many things. One of these is to receive for Himself a kingdom. In Daniel 7 you see the nobleman in the distant country’. (Quoted from Notes from Meditations on Luke.)
- Luke 19. 9.
- See Luke 1. 32-33.
- Isa. 62. 11. (The words, ’His reward is with Him’ are appropriated by the Lord Jesus in Rev. 22. 12.)
- Matt. 19. 28; 20. 21.
- Acts 1. 6-7. Note also the key word ‘now’ in our Lord’s words to Pilate concerning His kingdom, John 19. 36.
- Laurie Guy, Tyndale Bulletin 48.1 (1997), page 126.
- G. Campbell Morgan, Parables and Metaphors of our Lord, page 218.
- William Manson, The Gospel of Luke, page 212; italics mine.
- The three sons were Alexander, Aristobulus IV and Antipater III. The fate of these three sons is noted briefly in ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’, Precious Seed, 1986, Volume 37, Issues 4 and 5.
- In the fourth century, the Roman philosopher Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius commented, ‘When he (Augustus) heard that Herod king of the Jews had ordered boys in Syria under the age of two years to be put to death and that the king’s son was among those killed, he said, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son”’, Macrobius, The Saturnalia, Book 2, Chapter 4, Paragraph 11. (Available at http://www.scribd.com/doc/9713913/Macrobius-Saturnalia-trans-P-Davies.)
- It was at Jericho that Herod died: Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVII, Chapter VI, Paragraph 5, and Chapter VIII, Paragraph 2; Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book I, Chapter XXXIII, Paragraph 6. Archelaus attended his father’s funeral there before setting out for Rome.
- Josephus, Antiquities, Book XVII, Chapter VIII, Paragraph 1.
- Josephus, Wars, Book II, Chapter I, Paragraph 1.
- Josephus, Antiquities, Book XVII, Chapter XIII, paragraph 1. Schürer links Archelaus‘s magnificent palace reconstruction scheme with his blood descent from Herod, who was famed for his many impressive building projects, ‘Archelaus as son of Herod engaged upon great building enterprises. The palace at Jericho was restored in the most magnificent style‘, E. Schürer, History of the Jewish People, Volume 1, Part 2.
- H. D. M. Spence, Luke in the Pulpit Commentary.
- For the Lord’s use of ten as a representative number in a parable compare the ‘ten virgins’ of Matt. 25. 1.
- I. Howard Marshall, ibid., page 704.
- The Greek ‘drachma’ was equivalent in value to the Roman ‘denarius’. For the value of a denarius, see the comments on Luke chapter 10 verse 35 in my exposition of the Parable of the Good Samaritan on the centre pages of Precious Seed International, Volume 64, Issue 2, 2009, and the latter section of footnote 22 in my exposition of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard on the centre pages of Precious Seed International, Volume 65, Issue 1, 2010.
- Matt. 25. 14.
- Josephus, Wars, Book II, Chapter I, Paragraph 1.
- Josephus, Antiquities, Book XVII, Chapter VIII, Paragraph 4.
- The word ‘hated’ is in the imperfect tense, in contrast to the aorist tense of the word ’sent’. The use of the imperfect tense denotes the continuous and ongoing hatred of the nobleman’s citizens for him.
- Josephus, Antiquities, Book XVII, Chapter IX, Paragraphs 1-3.
- The Jews were determined at all costs to frustrate Archelaus’s desire to ‘reign over’ them; ‘According to Nicolaus of Damascus, the Jewish delegation was willing to consent to Antipas’ rule if direct Roman rule was impossible’, Harold W. Hoehner, Herod Antipas, page 27.
- Archelaus arrived at Rome in the summer of 4 BC, received his ‘kingdom’ in early or middle November, and returning to Palestine shortly after. See Hoehner, ibid., pages 33-39.
- Josephus, Antiquities, Book XVII, Chapter XI, Paragraphs 1-2. A parallel account is given in Josephus, Wars, Book II, Chapter VI, Paragraph 1.
- John 19. 14-15. ‘This was going way beyond merely rejecting Jesus. They were now repudiating Israel’s messianic hope, including the messianic kingdom, and rejecting Yahweh’s sovereignty over their nation’, Thomas Constable, Notes on John 19. 15.
- John 15. 25, quoted from Ps. 69. 4. The expression ‘their law’ clearly covers the Old Testament scriptures in general; cf. John 10. 34; 12. 34. That is, their ‘own scriptures condemn their position’, D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, page 527. The expression ‘without a cause’ translates a word signifying ‘gratuitously, as a gift’; compare its use in Romans chapter 3 verse 24, where it is translated ‘freely’.
- Acts 3. 19-20.
- Acts 7. 57-60.
- J. N. Darby, Synopsis of the Books of the Bible, Luke chapters 19 and 20.
- Josephus, Wars, Book II, Chapter VI, Paragraph 3.
- Josephus, Antiquities, Book XVII, Chapter XI, Paragraph 4. Archelaus is mentioned by name in the New Testament only in connection with our Lord’s birth. We read concerning Joseph that, ‘when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee’, Matt. 2. 22. (Together with Perea, Galilee had been allotted by Caesar to Antipas.) For the relevance of these details (together with the crucial last minute change made by Herod to the terms of his will) to the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, see the articles ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’, Precious Seed, 1986, Volume 37, Issues 4 and 5.
- Rev. 22. 12.