In Luke 19:27, the Parable of the Minas, the king orders his servants to arrest those who rejected him "and slaughter them in front of me." I remember seeing a debate where a Muslim cleric stopped a pastor dead in his tracks with that one. What do you say? -- K. W.

Agreed: the end of the parable, if read in isolation and out of context, makes it sound like it's talking about God -- and that God is egotistical and harsh. When he doesn't get his way, he lashes out in an unjustifiable degree of retaliation. But is this really referring to God? So let's take a step back.

Careful study
When we study parables, we need to take care not to over-interpret. Parables may contain details that are hyperbolic (a slave owing his master 200,000 years of wages -- Matt 18:23) or incidental (the Samaritan's donkey probably isn't your car or motorcycle -- Luke 10:34). And at times kings in a parable do not represent God -- or reflect his character, as in the case of the unsavory judge in Luke 18:20.

Generally speaking, a parable is about the point of the story, not the person in the story. Extrapolation on the basis of parabolic details must be undertaken with great care.

So let's look at the frame of the Parable of the Minas. (If you aren't familiar with the parable, be sure to read Luke 19:1-27.)

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. He said: “A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return... [Then comes the more familiar part of the parable.] ... But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’ He was made king, however, and returned home... [T]hose enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me’” (Luke 19:11-14,27).

Notice the connection between the return of the (newly crowned) king and the coming of the kingdom; the two events are one. It is (quite naturally) assumed that a new king means a new regime. Such a political development occurred soon after the time Jesus was born. Herod Archelaus went to Rome to confirm his kingship, as he was unpopular among the Jews. In retaliation he killed some 3000 of his grudging subjects. Surely this background event was in Jesus' audience's memory and would have colored how they heard the parable. Just as Archelaus wasn't God (nor was he the one who confirmed his kingship, Augustus Caesar), there is no reason to insist that the king in the parable was intended to represent God.

To take arms against a sea of troubles...?
Recall the exuberance of some when Jesus entered Jerusalem (Matt 21:7-11) -- they were crying for regime change. A number of Christ's followers would have tried to make him king by force (John 6:15). There was a high degree of discontent -- just as there was 35 years earlier, in the time of Archelaus, when disillusionment frothed over into armed rebellion, resulting in massive slaughter. This happened again in 66-73 AD, in Rome's First Jewish War. Over a million Jews died or were enslaved in the failed revolution.

In contrast, the Christian movement, unlike human governments, is not violent; it isn't even political. (Take a look at Paul's words in Romans 12, or Jesus' teaching in Matthew 5.) The king (which is to say the kingdom fulfilled) isn't coming back right now, and for the immediate future, we all must live under the authority that "Rome" has installed – by faithful discipleship and obedience (Romans 13). But not everyone understands this; it's always easier to put our trust in the arm of flesh.

A possible response to the cleric
But back to the interaction with the Muslim. Even though the king in the parable doesn't represent God, we might respond to the imam's objection in this way. Just as human governments legislate and enforce laws, the author and giver of life has a perfect right to judge, and even to take life away. The imam would agree, in light of the teachings off the Qur'an and the Hadith, that the disobedient bring judgment and destruction on themselves. If the pastor had had the presence of mind to take a step back and consider the entire parable, with its historical connection, while considering the Muslim belief about final judgment, he might have stopped the imam in his tracks!