Faith Lessons by Ray Vander Laan: Language of Culture (and the Parable of the Minas)

faithlessonsSepphoris was a wealthy city about 3 miles from Nazareth, under construction at the time Jesus was working as a carpenter. Nazareth may have had 300 people, while Sepphoris may have had 20,000 or 30,000 residents.

Herod the Great’s will divided Palestine among this three sons.  Herod Antipas was given Galilee. Archelaus was given Judea. The three sons all contested the will. A groups of Jews traveled to Rome at the same time to prevail on Caesar not to give Judea to Archelaus, as he was known to be a cruel man. When Archelaus came to power, he brutally attacked the people who challenged his rise to power.

Judah ben Hezekiah led certain citizens of Sepphoris in revolt when Herod died, and they plundered the armory of Sepphoris. The Roman governor had the city leveled, but later Antipas made Sepphoris his capital. It was a newly built, beautiful city with an elaborate water system and a magnificent theater. The construction was ongoing throughout Jesus’ life.

Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt with Jesus to escape the threats of Herod the Great. When Herod died, they returned to Galilee to escape Archelaus, who ruled Judea.

Joseph was a tekton (Greek for “builder” or “artisan” and not necessarily a carpenter). If Jesus was also a tekton, what would he have built with? Looking around the ruins, it’s obvious that most things were built of stone — not wood. Jesus therefore may well have been a stone worker. He may well have worked in Sepphoris, as there would have been very little work in Nazareth. Jesus may well have helped build some of the structures that survive in Sepphoris.

Vander Laan asks, how did Jesus afford to live the life of a rabbi? Luke says he was supported by the wife of Antipas’s minister of finance, Joanna (Luke 8:3).

Jesus was often very critical of those who used wealth the wrong way or obtained the wealth the wrong way. But he appreciated those among the wealthy willing to use their money for God’s sake. The key is to see wealth as a tool for God’s kingdom. Wealth, like what we call talents, is a gift from God and to be used for God.

Christianity has a long prejudice against involvement in theater and film. But the Gospels show that Jesus was very familiar with the theater. 

The plays were likely offensive, if not pornographic. However, Jesus knew about actors, due to his use of the Greek word we translate “hypocrite.”  “Hypocrite” means “actor.” No one else in the Bible even uses the word.

 

(Mat 6:1-2)  “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.”

Leading actors going on stage were announced with a trumpet. Thus, there is a double meaning — with the hypocrites in the synagogues acting like the actors in the theaters. The comparison was not just a moral judgment, but a comparison of the hypocrities to pagans. 

Jesus speaks of actors receiving applause. The “actors” painted their faces to look like they were fasting. Again, Jesus compares the hypocrites with (pagan) actors, not just by the use of the word, but by the images chosen.

 

Jesus knew the language of the people he was speaking to. 

Jesus spoke of king in Luke 19. He plainly referred to Antipas. Amazingly, he uses Antipas as an image for God himself!

 

(Luke 19:11-27)  While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once.

12 He said: “A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. 13 So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. ‘Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’

14 “But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’

15 “He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it.

16 “The first one came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned ten more.’

17 “‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’

18 “The second came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned five more.’ 19 “His master answered, ‘You take charge of five cities.’

20 “Then another servant came and said, ‘Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. 21 I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.’

22 “His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?’

24 “Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’

25 “‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’

26 “He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away. 27 But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them–bring them here and kill them in front of me.'”

The tax collectors were headquartered in Sepphoris, and they were commissioned by Antipas to collect taxes. Tax collectors were powerful, envied, and often hated. Tax collectors often got the job through influence and bribery. They were primarily hated because they were collecting taxes for Rome. They were collaborators.

 

Jesus was knowledgeable enough about the world to use the images to make his point. He didn’t run from culture. He used it.

“Isolation from culture is not the solution to cultural change.” Jesus could relate to his audience on their own terms.

For us to change the world, we have to know and understand the world.

The video series itself shows that the tools of the world can be used for Christ.

The Parable of the Minas

It’s remarkable — audacious, really — that Jesus would compare God to Archelaus, who was hated by the Jews, and for good reason. Eventually, the Jews’ unhappiness with Archelaus led to Judea being placed under direct Roman rule and Archelaus being exiled to Gaul. 

In what sense is it appropriate for Jesus to use such an image for God himself? 

Clearly, Jesus wants his hearers to understand that he is deadly serious about this. Burying a mina is a grave, grave sin.

A mina was 100 dinarii, and a dinarii was one-day’s labor for a worker. This was 100 days wages.

While we’re at it, we should also consider the parallel parable of the talent.

“Talent” is badly translated. In modern English, we hear “inate ability, such as the ability to play the piano.” In the First Century, they heard, “A bar of silver having great value.” In fact, a talent was worth $1,000 to $20,000. A talent was 6,000 dinarii. It was 20-years wages. In an agragrian society, common people didn’t have talents. This was kingly money. (Comparisons are very difficult. If you take 8 hours US minimum wage as a dinarius, a talent was over $250,000.)

What, therefore, does a mina or a talent of silver represent? [anything of value to God; it’s not just our abilities. It can also be, for example — obviously enough — our money.]

Why choose something of such great value as the metaphor? [To show how highly God prizes what he gives us. This is one reason it’s so wrong to bury our talents. And to remind us that they come from God — we could never come up with something so valuable by ourselves.]

For the last man, what was the king’s complaint?

[v. 23 “Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?”]

As we’re learning, even today, puting money on deposit is hardly a safe bet. Back then, in an age before the FDIC, the Federal Reserve, and other protections, giving money to a bank was a risky venture. 

Notice that the only choices God approves involve risk — either the risk of investing in a private, unregulated, uninsured bank, or the risk involved in realizing a gain of 10 times or 5 times. In any economy, how much risk is required to gain a 500% or 1,000% return in the course of only a few months?

[A lot of risk!]

God rewards risk takers. He punishes those too afraid of his wrath to produce any return on his money (ironic in a parable that emphasizes his wrath. That’s the point. Respond correctly the other wrath!) Those who simply return what they received are punished.

It’s not entirely clear, but there’s no point in the statement at the end that those who opposed his kingship would be killed unless Jesus is referring to the man who refused to invest. And this parallels the parable of the talents.

If that’s right, then Jesus’ implication is that those who refuse to take risk and invest what God gives are actually opposing the kingship of God! They are saying, in effect, because I’m afraid of you, I’m not willing to serve you. Nothing could be more foolish.

What would the king have done if his servant had invest the mina prudently, but the investment had turned out poorly? Risk means that this might happen.

[God is not Archelaus. He rewards obedience, and the outcome of obedience is not the issue. The return on the risky investment that matters is God’s own blessing of the investment (or the decision to invest).]

In terms of church, what is a mina? [Everything that has value to God. Our money. Our time. Our friendships. Our houses. Our worship.]

What sort of risks does God want us to take? [Whatever risk is required to generate a return.]

What are some examples of where we refuse to invest out of fear of God? [When we fight over the church treasury and so won’t give money where it’s need. When we are so afraid to worship right that we barely worship at all.]

The language of the culture

The parable of the minas is a pretty severe critique of Christians (and churches) that are so inwardly focused they fail to provide Jesus a return on his investment.

Vander Laan suggests that one key to being effective as a Christian (or church) is to learn to speak in the language of the culture. This is classic missional theory — a missionary must learn the local language and the local culture.

Church people often fail to effectively interact with world because they don’t speak in the local vocabulary — not meaning just words but other ways in which we communicate with one another. What are some examples?

[“church building” rather than “church”, church jargon: redemption, justification, etc.

but more importantly —

Stamps-Baxter music rather than music that speaks to modern (or post-modern) people, which could be classic or even Gregorian or contemporary Christian, but can’t be Stamps-Baxter. Ever.

Failure to use technology — websites, blogs, videos

Failure to do community service — nowadays, the lost are as likely as most Christians to do volunteer work. Indeed, we sometimes seem to be training our kids to care less than unchurched kids.

Fighting over things that people don’t (and shouldn’t) care about, power plays, personality disputes, denominational infighting

Failure to be multi-ethnic

Discrimination against women

All these things scream “hypocrite”‘ and “out of touch.”]

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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8 Responses to Faith Lessons by Ray Vander Laan: Language of Culture (and the Parable of the Minas)

  1. Nick Gill says:

    What if Jesus isn't just using Herod as a model for God generally?

    What if Jesus is intentionally relating HIMSELF to Herod?

    Parables about a master going on a long journey and coming home are routinely used in the 1st century to warn about YHWH, or the Messiah, coming to Jerusalem. I agree with NT Wright that this parable is not primarily about Judgment day, but about Jesus himself coming to Jerusalem as the incarnation of YHWH.

    His questioners did indeed believe the kingdom was going to appear at once: and it did! In Christ. Christ being raised, and being raised again, and being raised AGAIN.

    So the master in the story is Jesus, trying to warn his hearers that because they've buried their talent in the ground for so long, the coming of the kingdom will not be to their liking.

    PS – This is not to say that applications about the second coming and the coming judgment cannot be made; but rather that that is all we EVER hear about the parable of the talents, and those things aren't what Jesus was primarily talking about, IMO.

  2. Jay Guin says:

    Thanks, Nick. Your point is well taken.

    Teachers,

    The idea that Jesus "came" at the destruction of Jerusalem is commonly accepted by many scholars. The language is borrowed from the OT prophets, and laid out at http://oneinjesus.info/2008/07/12/surprised-by-ho

    This certainly doesn't mean that there won't be another coming of Jesus at the end of time. There will be. Just that, in prophetic metaphor, he can speak of returning to Jerusalem and be understood as coming in destruction via a pagan army, which is how the prophets spoke.

    The fall of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar would be a classic example.

    (Jer 27:6) Now I will hand all your countries over to my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; I will make even the wild animals subject to him.

    At the time, Nebuchadnezzar was not a God worshiper — but he was unwittingly God's servant in that he accomplished for God what God wanted, the destruction of Jerusalem.

  3. Alan says:

    Surprisingly or not, some people like Stamps-Baxter. While we're trying to be multi-cultural, are we going to exclude those folks?

  4. Reggie says:

    Please define "Stamps-Baxter" music. That term may mean different things to different people. Why do you dislike it so strongly?

  5. Stamps-Baxter has two definitions. Specifically, a reference to Christian hymns written and published by J.R. Baxter Jr and Virgil O Stamps (Stamps/Baxter Music), mostly in the 1920s and 1930s.

    More generally to addition songs with follow in the same style.

    It could also be a reference to Christian hymns from a different generation.

  6. Jay Guin says:

    Ahem …

    Regarding Stamp-Baxter. What to say? Okay. Let's go with …

    First, I actually enjoy S-B music. I grew up with it in a small North Alabama church, and to me, it's nostalgic. The lyrics are often very pertinent. And my church has members who love it. However …

    Second, the topic here is speaking in the language of culture, and SB is most definitely not 21st Century culture — except maybe in some very rural churches.

    Let me explain. "Stamps-Baxter" here in the American South refers to a style of music made popular by the Stamps-Baxter publishing house (and often written by the same two men).

    S-B music is designed for a quartet to sing — with numerous bass, tenor, and alto leads and lots of syncopation. It's designed for showmanship, back in the day that gospel quartets traveled from church to church and sang on the radio. (Those days aren't entirely gone).

    The music was written in the 1930s and 40s, which is to say, pre-Elvis and pre-pop fusion. It's country in a deeply country sense (which is my roots and I enjoy it).

    But it's nothing like what you hear on the radio or TV today. And it is not at all attractive to the unchurched. It's only attractive to those of us who grew up with it, and we aren't the target audience when we speak of the language of the culture.

    Not long ago, in my church, on Missions Sunday, we had a guest speaker (might have been Patrick Mead) and lots of visitors. I happened to sit behind two visiting college-age students.

    Our song leader, after leading several perfectly good songs, decided to lead "RIng Out the Message" a S-B song with very much the perfect theme for the day — but not remotely the right kind of music for visitors.

    Here's the only example of that song I can find on YouTube —


    Well, the two young women in front of me started to laugh. They didn't want to. They knew it was disrespectful, but the music seemed so corny and out of touch to them, they couldn't stop.

    Now, if you watch the linked video, you'll see what my home church was like. That kid would be just like me when they stood me up to lead singing — except he does a much better job than I did.

    On the other hand, S-B is not utterly beyond redemption. This video is from the Harlem Church of Christ, and I'm thinking of transferring my membership.


    Why do I dislike it so strongly? Because it creates a barrier to bringing the lost to Jesus by giving the impression that the church is out of touch. But if that's not true in your community, or if you can lead it like Paul Williams does in Harlem, ring it out!

    On the other other hand, don't ever sing "Watching You" (so bad it's not even on YouTube) —

    There's an Eye watching you
    Ev'ry step that you take
    This great Eye is awake,
    There's an Eye (there's an Eye) watching you …
    There's an all-seeing Eye watching you.

    That song gave me, and many others, nightmares. Now it just makes me think of Mordor and Sauron.

  7. Chr1sch says:

    How ironic… a Malaysian church sings South-American Stamp-Baxter songs. =)

  8. Jay Guin says:

    Who knows? Maybe the music speaks to the Malaysian heart. Or maybe some missionary transplanted country music to a place where it doesn't belong.

    (Strictly to help with your mastery of English, "South American" refers to the continent south of Panama. "American South" refers to the southeastern portion of the USA, also known as Dixie.)

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