Refugees and economic migrants have dominated global news headlines for the last few weeks. The topic came to church yesterday, as the author of this website was the visiting preacher.
She took as her text the parable of the coins, as recorded in Luke 19 – verses 11 to 27, which follow immediately on from the story of Zaccheus. The people had seen the power of the gospel at work in Jesus’s encounter with, and transformation of, the hated tax collector, and “they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately”. Jesus told them a parable intended, it seems, to make the point that the path to the full revelation of the coming Kingdom would be a long and difficult one, in which followers of Jesus would face many challenges. Parables aren’t allegories – they make typically one, or perhaps a handful, of key points. We don’t need to find spiritual significance in every detail in each of the stories
Our visiting preacher took an unusual (to say the very least) interpretation of the parable. For her, the hero of this story is the third slave. By his refusal to be complicit with the shady business dealings of his master and his colleagues, he makes a courageous stand for justice, and is thus an example to us all – first century and twenty-first century disciples alike. Standing up against governments which are cautious about how many refugees to accept is, so we are to believe, following in the courageous footsteps of the first slave.
I was a little surprised to hear this particular interpretation. I got home and pulled all the Luke commentaries off my shelves, and all the books that cover the parables (among them Kenneth Bailey, who offers so much insight on the Middle Eastern settings of the parables). Not one of those commentaries (scholarly or popular) offered a hint of the “whistleblower” interpretation; all treated the story as something about followers of the kingdom, in which the third slave was most definitely not an example to be commended. But still not satisfied I went searching, and found online this book, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed by William Herzog. Fortunately the relevant chapter was available on-line. I read it and came away still unconvinced. It is described as a “liberation theology” treatment, and seems as little revealing of Scripture (as distinct from revealing something of the passions and priorities of the author) as most of so-called liberation theology. Is there any hint in the biblical passage that the third slave is commended? I can’t see even a suggestion of it (and nor in the somewhat parallel passage in Matthew 25). No doubt there is plenty of need for Christians to stand for justice, to speak the truth to power, and at times even to be a whistleblower, exposing evil within powerful institutions. But is that what Jesus is talking about here? I don’t think so.
It is, no doubt, a difficult balancing act for preachers. People don’t come to church for scholarly lectures, but equally preaching should be informed by the best of ancient and modern scholarship. But visiting preachers probably need to be particularly cautious – they have no ongoing relationship with the congregation in question, and no accountability to it. That suggests they (and I did quite a lot of visiting preaching myself in my younger days) should hew closely to the centuries-long teaching of the church, the faith once delivered. I’d have had no problem if our visiting preacher had observed that there are some differences in interpretation among scholars, and had mentioned the liberation theology interpretation as one possibility. But not to the exclusion of the interpretation that so many great scholars, teachers and preachers have handed on through the centuries. On this occasion it seemed that the text had become – what it often risks becoming – a pretext for a cause the preacher herself wanted to advance and felt passionately about. If I get time in the next few days, I might come back to that cause, since I think the refugee/migrant issue is a much more complex one that public opinion in the West really allows (or than our preacher presented), and appropriate public policy responses don’t just drop straight out of alternative readings of an individual parable. I’ve already discussed some of the economic perspectives on my other blog, and do want to come back and deal with what is wrong with this study, allegedly showing large economic benefits from refugees if I get the time. We aren’t compassionate because there are (economic or emotional) benefits to us from doing so, but when economic arguments are advanced they need to be treated rigorously on their own merits (or lack of them).
On more edifying, and rather more traditional note, I’ll end with (the very politically radical, highly devout, poet) John Milton’s reflection
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent, which is death to hide,
Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he, returning, chide