Parable of the Ruthless Ruler in Luke 19:11-28

Luke 19:11-28

Parable of the Ruthless Ruler


Jesus and his band of followers are making their way to Jerusalem, the local seat of political and economic power for this provincial region of the Roman empire. There seems to have been some heightened anticipation on the part of the group surrounding Jesus that this was the occasion when the rabbi from Galilee would make a move to take control of the apparatus of authority in Jerusalem.

The series of events that Luke strings together as they journey toward Jerusalem tell a different story. Jesus encounters a variety of people on his way, and he consistently positions himself on the side of the small (children [18:15-17]), the weak (the blind man [18:35-43]) and the outcast (tax collector [19:1-10]), and challenges those with social status (pharisees [18:9-14]) and political/economic power (wealthy ruler [18:18-30]). Those who accompany him, however, seem to see things otherwise. For example, they try to stop those bringing their children to Jesus (18:15), they tell the blind person to keep quiet (18:39); and they grumble at his visit to the home of a tax collector (19:7). Moreover, they appear stunned that Jesus, rather than solicit the support of the wealthy ruler, tells him to redistribute his resources to the poor (18:26).

Along the way, Jesus also offers a prediction of what will befall him in Jerusalem: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. 33 After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again” (18:31-33). His followers, we are told, did not grasp what he was saying, undoubtedly because they had other expectations for this trip south.

The passage immediately preceding the text before us is the story of Zacchaeus, the wealthy tax collector of Jericho. As a tax collector, and therefore a collaborator with imperial political and economic power and its local administration, he was an outcast and despised by the people. Surprisingly, Jesus arranges to stay at Z’s place and so transgresses the line of social stigma and challenges his “outcast” communal status. At the conclusion of their time together, Z promises that he will redistribute his wealth (give half to the poor) and make restitution for anything he has taken unjustly from people, to the tune of 4 times as much.

This prompts the closing statement of Jesus that Z will experience salvation as a result of his actions, that is, deliverance from the soul and community destroying practises of unjust wealth acquisition backed by ruthless political power, and freedom from personal alienation and communal disdain. In this context, salvation constitutes the establishment of justice and equality through redistribution and restitution, and the healing of communal hostility. The episode depicts the shape of deliverance for the managers and mediators of imperial power who are tangled in the structures that serve the interests of the elite, and oppress and exploit the majority.

The setting of the parable

11   As they were listening to this, he went on to tell a parable,

because he was near Jerusalem,

and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.

As Jesus and the company around him leave Z’s home in Jericho to continue their journey to Jerusalem, he takes a moment to utter a parable. Luke prefaces the recounting of the parable itself with indications that it followed quickly on the heels of his conversation with Z (“as they [the people with Jesus] were listening to this [the conversation with Z.] ….”). In addition, Luke tells us that it was motivated by their proximity to Jerusalem on the one hand (“because he was near Jerusalem”), and the crowd’s anticipation of what was about to happen there (“because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately”). The parable is to be understood within these parameters, i.e., they were moving into the realm of concentrated political and economic power in Jerusalem, and those accompanying Jesus imagined that he would immediately take control of this apparatus of power and establish the reign of God. And in light of Zacchaeus’ profound change of heart and practice, perhaps there was a sense in which this kind of personal transformation was about to take hold at the political level as well, and the inbreaking of God’s just reign would overwhelm the leadership and structures of Roman rule and local Judean governance. Their expectation of what awaited them in Jerusalem, however, is at odds with Jesus’ own stated understanding of what lay ahead for him, i.e., arrest, torture, execution.

Into this intense atmosphere, as Luke constructs it, Jesus tells a story that elucidates the dynamics of imperial political power and sets the stage for their arrival in Jerusalem.

The parable

12 So he said,

A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power (a kingdom) for himself and then return.

To begin with, the central figure of the parable is a man who is among the elite; he belongs to the nobility, born into an aristocratic family. He is obviously a person of status, wealth and power within his own local region. The story opens with this person setting off on a journey to a distant place in order to procure for himself royal power, or literally, a kingdom.

The dynamics here are simple: the local elite go to the imperial centre of power in order to gain for themselves authority to rule their own region in royal fashion. The Roman empire controlled many of its outer regions by empowering local political rulers to carry out Rome’s imperial demands for resource extraction from the local residents, and adherence to Roman authority through submission to its ways. This is what Herod, an Idumean aristocrat, did in gaining the title “King” for himself, and so did his sons. In particular, Archelaus fits the role of the protagonist in Jesus’ parable very well (cp. Josephus, Jewish Wars 2.6-7)

The theme of rule over a kingdom is key to this passage (the words basilei/a or basileu/w occur 5x in our passage; note also that the impetus for the story was the expectation of the imminence of hJ basilei/a touv qeouv). We are told that the people with Jesus were expecting the appearance ( ajnafai/nomai ) of God’s kingdom, as happened in the home of Zacchaeus, to take place in Jerusalem. The parable paints a different picture; it exposes the ruthless nature of local kingdoms sanctioned by distant imperial power, and it makes visible the violence and exploitation at work in such political arrangements. It is into this realm of inevitable conflict that Jesus and his company were now moving.

13 He summoned ten of his slaves,

and gave them ten pounds,

and said to them, ‘Do business with these until I come back.’

This particular nobleman had a number of personal servants, a common feature within the household structure of the elite. These servants were given authority to manage the household and business affairs of the master, and to ensure that his interests in maintaining status and wealth were actualized and promoted.1

The sum of money handed over to the servants is relatively small, the mnav being worth 100 dramchas, or the equivalent of what a laborer would earn for 100 days of work (= 1/60 of a talent). The servants are told to carry out the business of the master with this money until he returns. Undoubtedly, they would have known the ways and means of the master’s practices, and made use of the funds entrusted to them to further his interests and increase his wealth in accordance with his expectations.

14 But the citizens of his country hated him

and sent a delegation after him,

saying, ‘We do not want this man to rule as king over us.’

Enter another and unexpected set of actors onto the stage. In contrast with the noble’s servants, who work for him and carry out his desires, there stands the general population of the region, who have experienced the local ruler’s abusive and exploitative power, and have come to despise him. They are no doubt fearful that should his trip be successful in procuring imperial authorization to impose upon them despotic royal power, their hardship would be unbearable. So they act to subvert his mission by sending their own delegation to persuade the imperial authorities that this man should not be given imperial endorsement. They might argue that given the local anomosity between the ruler and the population, this would only cause trouble for the empire (cp. the speech before Caesar by those opposed to Archelaus’ rule, Josephus, Jewish War 2.6.2). In any case, the people send their representatives, in a bold move, to stop the man’s bid for imperial authority to rule them like a king (basileuvsai e˙f∆ hJma◊ß).

15 When he returned, having received royal power, he ordered these slaves, to whom he had given the money, to be summoned so that he might find out what they had gained by trading.

16 The first came forward

and said, ‘Lord, your pound has made ten more pounds.’

17 He said to him, ‘Well done, good slave!

Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing,

take charge of ten cities.’

The delegation, it seems, was unsuccessful; the man was given imperial approval as he wished. He returns to his region as a king. In order to solidify his rule, he needs to establish an administration for his kingdom, and so he summons his household servants to determine their compliance to his instructions and so ascertain their loyalty.

The first servant reports a tenfold profit that he gained from the resources entrusted to him. No doubt this increase entailed business tactics learned from the master, which (judging from the response of the citizens to the noble) entailed aggressive and exploitative means.

The master praises the servant, using language of affirmation and approval. He has done his work to the satisfaction of his employer and shown himself to be trustworthy even in the small matter of one mina. This loyalty and trust will be rewarded by a promotion within the new royal administration. This servant will be given 10 cities to govern, having authority to manage their political and economic affairs in line with the rule of the newly inaugurated king.

18 Then the second came,

saying, ‘Lord, your pound has made five pounds.’

19 He said to him, ‘And you, rule over five cities.’

The second servant, though not procuring the same level of profit as the first, also shows himself to be trustworthy in promoting the master’s economic interests, and as a result is given a position of administrative oversight within the new kingdom. He assumes authority over 5 cities in the region.

20 Then the other came,

saying, ‘Lord, here is your pound.

I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth,

for I was afraid of you,

because you are a harsh man;

21 you take what you did not deposit,

and reap what you did not sow.’

The story doesn’t proceed through the list of all ten servants. One imagines that most of the servants entrusted with resources by the master proved faithful to him by producing some degree of profit. The story now focuses on one of the remaining 8 servants who stands out from the rest. This servant, rather than use the single mina to make more money for the master, wrapped it in a cloth and kept it safe. He did not multiply the master’s wealth by using the mina in money-making schemes at the people’s expense; rather, he took the master’s money out of circulation completely so it could not be employed in oppressive or exploitative ways.

In addition, while the other servants offered no explanation for their cooperation with the master’s economic interests, this servant gives an account for his unusual action. He claims that he was afraid of the master, and he accounts for the basis of that fear. The master, from this servant’s perspective, is a harsh, austere person, who makes money from unjust investment schemes and exploits others, reaping the benefits of their labor, demanding beyond what is fair.

This servant exposes the master’s oppressive use of power to gain wealth, and at this moment of reckoning, he choses a path of non-conformity to that system of oppression. His act of removing the mina from the business practices of the new king was a refusal to further the interests of abusive power and economic exploitation. He defects from participation in the oppressive practices of elite power, and his non-compliance with the master’s demands and his articulation of the master’s mode of operation sets him on a trajectory of action aligned with that of Zacchaeus .2 This is the first step in managerial defection from the empire.

22 He said to him, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave!

You knew, did you, that I was a harsh man,

taking what I did not deposit

and reaping what I did not sow?

23 Why then did you not put my money into the bank?

Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.’

The master, however, is not impressed. The slaves that brought him profit were designated “good” by the newly minted king; this slave is called “wicked.” He denounces the servant and shames him, vilifying him for not acting out his economic interests. He thereby reinforces the behavior of this servant as deviant and reprehensible within the status quo of elite interests.

Curiously, the master admits that the characterization voiced by the slave is correct, and repeats it fully: yes, he is a harsh, austere man who is unjust in his business dealings and exploitative of others. But given this, the servant should have at least deposited the money where it could have generated interest, and the profit, though small, would have benefited the master to some degree (cp. Lev 25:35-38). It reveals his relentless pursuit of economic profit, and his expectation that those in his administration do the same.

24 He said to the bystanders, ‘Take the pound from him

and give it to the one who has ten pounds.’

[25 And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten pounds!’ ]

26 ‘I tell you, to all those who have,

more will be given;

but from those who have nothing,

even what they have will be taken away.

27 But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—

bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.’”

The closing scene of the parable discloses even more the brutality of the local-elite-turned-king and the nature of his kingdom. He punishes non-conformity to his ways by taking the money from the deviant servant and giving it to the one who displayed greatest business ability and administrative loyalty – a move that even shocked local observers. It is not about fair and even distribution, but about rewarding those most effective in promoting and expanding the system of power. In a maxim that lays bare the basic principle of political and economic domination, those who prove themselves successful in the structures erected to benefit elite privilege will acquire ever increasing wealth and power, while those who struggle to survive in such a regime or who oppose it will experience increasing loss and hardship.

In the final instructions from the master, he turns to the delegation of the people who argued against his installation as king. He construes them as his enemies, opposed to his position of power because they knew only too well the hardship and abuse that it entailed. For such people he orders a violent execution, to be carried out in his presence – perhaps to be sure his orders were fulfilled, and perhaps as an indication of his own intoxication with his new fully-legitimated power to destroy.

The parable exposes a king and a kingdom marked by heirarchical power, exploitation, oppression and violence. Those who dissent from it will be punished, whether that be middle managers who fail to follow the dictates of economic aggression and success, or members of the population who oppose the injustice and brutality of official imperial arrangements.

  1. After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

Luke appends to the parable the simple narrative comment that they continued their journey up to Jerusalem, whose proximity sparked the telling in the first place. They were going up to a place where the dynamics of power revealed in the parable were fully operative. The kingdom of God, announced and embodied in Jesus, and evident in his liberating actions in Jericho (healing the blind man and Zacchaeus), was marked by solidarity with the outcasts, the weak, and the poor, and challenging the dominant structures of power, and those who perpetuated and benefited from them.

Jerusalem would be the site of a clash between kingdoms and loyalties, and rather than seize the apparatus of authority, as his followers expected, Jesus would experience the brutality and violence of state-sanctioned execution. Yet against this apparent triumph of imperial power, the death of the Human One would not be the last word. The movement of liberation that he launched, the order of outcasts he inaugurated, would continue to disturb and disrupt the contours of elite political power through a strategy of non-conformity, and communal practices of solidarity with the poor, just and equitable distribution of resources, and compassionate care for one another.


Parables offer new ways of seeing. They expose realities that are often hidden from view through social and cultural processes of normalization, and in that exposure they challenge them. If we employ this parable as a lens through which to see how political and economic power operates, and what happens when people dissent or defect from it, what do we see? Of course we don’t live in a culture of kings and royal power, but we do inhabit a world of other kinds of concentrated power, whether that be corporate executives, political leaders, top level bureaucrats, chief military commanders, media magnates, wealthy entertainers, enforcement personel, judicial authorities, academic experts, etc.

The parable challenges us to consider how power operates, who wields the power, whose interests it serves, who plays the functional roles of mediating that power, who suffers from the way it is organized and employed, etc.

The parable, and its surrounding context, also helps us to visualize our own loyalties, assists us to determine where we stand in the contours of dominant power, how we are related to it, and what defection might entail. If our fundamental loyalty is to the alternative reality of the kingdom of God, as Jesus enacted, then where does that place us in relation to the kingdoms of this world.

Like the followers of Jesus, we might want to assume that the two kingdoms could be fused in some way, that his disciples could simply take over the mechanisms of power offered by the systems of power now in place. But the early witnesses of Jesus testify to his place as victim not heir of the dominant political structures in Jerusalem. Where then does that position us, as followers of Jesus, in our relationship to the reigning political and economic power systems of our world?

Like Zacchaeus, salvation means defection from the system of exploitation and abusive power; and it takes the form of alternative practices of just redistribution of resources and restitution for crimes committed. Defection is possible, but the cost is considerable.

What would this look like in our world? Only in our solidarity with the outcasts and the excluded, with those who suffer most from the dominant system of power, can we imagine resistance and the path of liberation. Most of us reinforce the system of power, mediate it and extend its reach through the ways we participate in it. How might we embody a life of defection, one step at a time? How might be establish communities of resistance and dissent, and the embodiment of alternative practices?

Realizing our embeddedness is the first step to liberation, but it must be followed by taking up ways of non-compliance and alternative modalities of living, marked by inclusion, generosity, justice and compassion. In this way, the other kingdom, the one inaugurated by Jesus, will seep into the world and with it the experience of life in abundance rather than scarcity and death.

We need imagination and courage to live into this reality, and we need to undertake this way of life together, collectively, as well as individually.

1 “The household bureaucracy, in imitation of the imperial bureaucracy, was organized heirarchically, the most competent and trusted retainers rising to the highest level. … A large household staff was a sign of status and power. … Individual households could become the centers of great concentrations of wealth, requiring a fully developed bureaucratic heirarchy…” William R. Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed [Louisville: Westminster / John Knox Press, 1994] 157.

2 While this servant’s action is not as radical or extreme as that of Zacchaeus, it is similar in its expression of dissent or non-cooperation with patterns of exploitation.

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