The Man Who Would Be King

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Scholarship has recognized the similarities between the Parable of the Talents and the historical account of Archelaus’ attempts to inherit the kingdom of his father, Herod the Great. When Herod died, Caesar Augustus divided the kingdom between Herod’s three sons, Archelaus, Antipas and Philip.

Revised: 23-Feb-2009

Traveling through Israel, one is sometimes provided with new insights that the physical setting of the land gives to familiar passages. As is often the case, Jesus chose precisely the right place or occasion to reveal a spiritual truth. On the occasion of the Last Supper he used the customary practice of a sage serving his disciples at the Passover meal to reinforce his charge that his disciples should serve one another. Immediately prior to telling the parable, Jesus used popular criticism concerning his dining with a tax collector, Zacchaeus, to emphasize that people should not limit the Father’s ability to restore and redeem those who are lost.

The Parable of the Talents as depicted in a stained-glass window that ornaments the sanctuary of the Thomaston Baptist Church. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.

On a journey with a group of British students, Dr. David Gill, a lecturer in Greek and Roman archaeology in South Wales, presented me with a novel suggestion concerning the setting for Jesus’ telling the Parable of the Pounds/Talents (Luke 19:11-27; Matt. 25:14-28). According to Luke’s version of the parable, it opens with an unjust nobleman who has left for a foreign land to be crowned king. His subjects send a delegation behind him with a message that they do not want to be ruled by him. Meanwhile, he has given his servants talents to invest. Some are diligent with the nobleman’s investment, while others are not faithful and hide the talents out of fear.

Jesus’ parable echoes other “King” parables that are found in rabbinical literature. The king is almost always intended to represent God. In this instance, the message of the parable is to encourage the hearers to be faithful with what God has entrusted to each one of us, i.e., our souls. At some point in the future we will all need to give account for that with which we have been entrusted.

By the way, the reader is not intended to understand the wickedness of the nobleman to suggest that God is wicked. Instead, the unspoken moral of the parable is: If the servants are expected to be faithful to a would-be king who is wicked, how much more should we be faithful to a King (i.e., God) who is good.

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  • R. Steven Notley

    R. Steven Notley

    R. Steven Notley is Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the New York City campus of Nyack College. A member and past director of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research, Notley earned his Ph.D. in Comparative Religions at the Hebrew University (1993).…
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