Bible Study: Two Subversive Parables

[NOTE: This is the substance of a message offered at Spring Friends Meeting this morning, March 5 2023.]

“[T ]he one thing about Jesus that can be known with certainty,” wrote the late New Testament scholar William Herzog II, “was that he was executed as an enemy of the state and the Temple.”

Yes. We’re talking about the Roman imperial state, and the Second Temple of priestly Judaism.

And there’s at least one more thing we can almost certainly know about Jesus: he told stories.

They’re called “parables,” and at least thirty are in the gospels (some expansive scholars stretch that to almost sixty by including shorter bits).

William R. Herzog II 1944-2019.

It’s likely that the parables provided some, or maybe most, of the “evidence” that got Jesus in enough trouble to get him crucified. But in many versions of the New Testament, it’s not easy to figure out why. As Herzog explained,

If [Jesus] had been the kind of teacher popularly portrayed in the North American church, a master of the inner life, teaching the importance of spirituality and a private relationship with God, he would have been supported by the Romans as part of their rural pacification program.

Rome’s colonial policies permitted subject peoples who clung to local cults (e.g., the Jews) to maintain their weird distinctives (such as monotheism), as long as their local rulers paid the imperial taxes, and held back their tribes from plotting rebellions.

Herzog: That was exactly the kind of religion that the Romans wanted peasants to have. Any beliefs that encouraged magic, passivity before fate, and withdrawal from the world of politics and economics into a spiritual or inner realm would have met with official approval.

[For that matter,]Had Jesus’ parables indulged in apocalyptic speculation or threatened the end of the world, he would have been watched but left alone. The Eastern Empire had its share of astrologers and visionaries.

[Or] Had he merely proclaimed any or all of the [literary/existential] themes attributed to him by [many recent academic theologians], he would have inspired arguments but not malice. . . .

But malice he did inspire. And Herzog argued that much of the basis for it can be found in his story/parables.

Spring Friends Meeting, North Carolina.

But for it to be seen, the stories need to be scrubbed of their interpretive camouflage, much of which is almost two millennia thick.

“The great difficulty with so many of the contemporary models imposed on Jesus,” Herzog says, “is that they fail to explain his crucifixion.” He believed his work “offers a model subversive enough to account for Jesus’ humiliation and public execution.”

He thinks his model does .  To test it, we’ll look at two examples, familiar to most readers who have been subject to a Bible school regimen.

The  first parable is, The Widow and the Unjust Judge, from Luke 18: 1-8:

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.

[Jesus] said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. A widow in that city kept after him: ‘My rights are being violated. Protect me!’

 “He never gave her the time of day. But after this went on and on he said to himself, ‘I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something and see that she gets justice—otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her pounding.’”

6-8 Then the Master said, “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying?


Is this story really only about “persistent prayer” and endless faith in God’s ultimate [pie in the sky] redemption? What threat to the empire would such piety pose?

Herzog’s studies of historical sociology filled in some very enlightening pieces of context: in that culture and time, widows (and women in general) had few “rights.” A widow, particularly of a certain age, had very little to depend on beyond an inheritance (if any).

But someone else wanted the inheritance also. ( A greedy relative who knew a lawyer? Are there are echoes in many cases today?) The plaintiff may not have had a good case; but the judge, clearly, had a good price. It was many like him whom the angry prophet Amos had denounced much earlier:

For I [God] know how many are your [Israel’s rulers’] offenses and how great [are] your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. (Amos 5: 12)

Not to ignore Proverbs, 17:23:  The wicked accept bribes in secret to pervert the course of justice.

Or 29:4 : By justice a king gives a country stability, but those who are greedy for bribes tear it down.

So Jesus’ hearers would know the deck was stacked against the widow. And the stakes were high: if she lost, she’d likely face starvation; no welfare or Social Security.

So is the option Jesus describes persistent private prayers? Nope: Instead, the widow  raises hell. All she’s got is her voice and the gumption to openly unmask a corrupt icon of a rotten system. She makes the most of them.

Even then, the odds aren’t even; the happen ending Jesus adds is upbeat, but hardly assured IRL. But can we now see how the story is subversive of the established order? Hmmmm.

And now to the other story, a very familiar one, known to me as The Parable of the Talents; here it’s more vernacular, “sacks of gold.” In Matthew, the telling was provoked by the persistent question to Jesus about what the “kingdom of heaven” he kept preaching about really amounted to:

Matthew 25:14-30

14 For the kingdom of heaven is as a man traveling into a far country, who called his own slaves, and delivered unto them his goods and money.

[NOTE: in most translations I’ve seen, the term is rendered “servants”;  but slaves is what they were. Slavery in Jesus’ world was not a skin-color system: some were born enslaved; some were enslaved as a punishment for crime; others had been captured in wars; still more sold themselves into bondage due to debt. Even so, slavery was still slavery. And it took Christianity most of two millennia to put any flesh on the apostle Paul’s bromide about “There is . . . neither slave nor free . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).]

15 And unto one he gave five bags of gold, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.

16 Then the one that had the five bags of gold went and traded with the same, and made them five more talents.

17 And likewise he that had received two, he also gained another two.

18 But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money.

19 After a long time the master of those slaves returned, and reckoned with them.

20 And he that had received five bags of gold brought the five more bags, saying, Master, thou delivered unto me five bags of gold: behold, I have gained five more.

21 His master said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy master.

22 [Then] He that had received two bags came and said, master, thou delivered unto me two bags: behold, I have gained two more.

23 His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy master.

24 Then he which had received the one bag came and said, master, I knew that you are a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have  not planted:

25 And I was afraid, and went and hid your money in the earth: lo, there thou hast wthat is thine.

26 His master answered, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not planted:

27 Thou ought therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.

28 Take therefore the bag from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.

29 For unto every one that hath [profit] shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not [profit] shall be taken away even that which he hath.

30 And cast ye the unprofitable slave into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

To me, and most other interpreters I’ve read, the message here is plain: the “bags of gold [more often “talents”] we are given come with a command to “invest” them in the world, in ways which will show increase, aka profit. Thereby we’ll obey and glorify God, and qualify for “heaven.”

But Herzog contends, persuasively to me, that this traditional notion is upside down. The master here is not “God,” but the villain (Satan?)

The wretch with one bag is the hero, albeit a tragic one: he faces up to the truth that what the slaves are really being tempted to do is join in reinforcing and benefiting from the system of exploitation which has oppressed and enslaved them and their people for so long. Among them, only he refuses to play along. But Jesus declines to repeat the widow’s “happy ending,” and the resister pays a terrible price. (In this reading, “God” is curiously absent.)

Herzog’s book presents similarly stunning reinterpretations of several more parables . But this is enough for us here.

I’ve seen a few current theologians try to build on such revisionism a case for Jesus as planning a sort of uprising against the Temple authorities who were in league with the Roman imperialists.

But the ones  I’ve seen don’t really add up; Jesus emerged from their pages looking too much like an NPR tote-bag carrying campus leftie. Like a farm-raised turkey; they had wings, but didn’t fly.

Yet perhaps we can expand our few certainties about Jesus, beyond that he was executed as a subversive, and that he told stories.  Now I include Herzog’s insight that many or maybe most of his stories were indeed subversive enough, in the direction of justice, to get him into fatal trouble.

That’s good; but it still leaves the man from Nazareth still a figure of many mysteries. Not least, to satisfy my few surviving teetotaler Quaker buddies, is it true that Jesus’ second  miracle, at the Cana wedding party, was turning all that wine back into water?

3 thoughts on “Bible Study: Two Subversive Parables”

  1. This presupposes that the use of crucifixion was rational and politically motivated. The references to it in Petronius’ Satyricon suggest elements of arbitrariness and casual cruelty. Pilate’s flippancy reminds me of remarks apparently made during the UK Covid crisis that we should “let the bodies pile high.”

    1. Reminded of when, in the US, when we were pushing for universal healthcare, and supporter Congressperson Alan Grayson from FL said “don’t get sick, and if you do, hurry up and die”. He lost re-election, to profiteering big medicine advocates.

  2. An interesting exploration of what we really know about Jesus, including from the stories he told

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