by Linda McMillan
This is one of the hardest parables in the New Testament. Everyone I’ve talked to this week thinks so. Part of the problem is that there are at least four interpretive statements just following it! And several of those aren’t exactly fleshed out. Without any interpretive framework, the parable itself is strange. It is clearly about our relationship to money (oil and grain) and how that affects our relationships with one another, but it does seem like Jesus could have been more straightforward about whatever it is he was trying to say.
If only we had a way of knowing what people were thinking!
Of course, we can’t know for sure. But, God has given us imagination and reason. We might be able to piece together a few scraps of information to help flesh out the story.
Let’s just take a peek into what might have been one man’s journal…
The Poor Man’s Journal
12 Elul ’01
The moon, far-off and dreamy, grows fatter and fatter, and we all know what that means. It’s nearly time for Nomokios, the steward of Siplousis to come and collect his share of the oil. With usury and fees, I owe about 100 measures, even though the original loan was only for 50. I was late in my payment one month and that cost me ten measures, then I skipped a payment… It’s been all downhill from there. Every time I have a set-back it’s a boondoggle for Nomokios. He heaps up the penalties higher and higher.
I don’t want to complain about Nomokios. I do owe him the fifty measures of olive oil. I don’t dispute it. But, these other fees are too much for me. I feel so discouraged and fear that I may never be able to pay back this mounting debt. I often call on the name of Amos who was a righteous man. He stood up for poor men like me saying that the Lord would never forget the bad deeds of those who put a thumb on the scale or charged too much for grain. But, there is no Amos for me.
I am despondent. What will happen to my family if I have to go into slavery over this debt! Yahweh! Please hear me.
17 Elul ’01
Nomokios has been here. I explained that I couldn’t pay the debt, but I offered him ten measures of oil as a sign of my good faith. Do you know what that rascal did? He took my ten measures, and fined me ten more for not paying in full! So, I am down ten measures but I haven’t even made a dent in my debt. I want to curse that Nomokios! Instead, I pray, but my faith is weak. It is as if Yahweh is as far away as the moon. I so desperately want to be out from under this burden, but the harder I try the heavier it gets.
The nights are definitely cold now and I would like to buy some wood to burn in the fire pit, but we will have to just lie closer and dream of summer because I can’t even afford a stick of wood.
19 Elul ’01
I spoke to Remy this afternoon. My old friend told me that Nomokios had been to his house to collect on the grain that he owes. He is having a hard time paying too. Remy said that Nomokios has a fine new coat and tunic. I don’t even dream of such things, though I would like something nice for my wife. Sometimes I fantasize about giving her something fit for a proper lady. I imagine her reaction and the way she would cherish such a thing. She might, just for a moment, look at me the way she did when we were young and hopeful. But, it’s not on the horizon. I don’t want to be jealous of that scoundrel Nomokios, but I am. I admit it. My only financial goal now is to somehow stay out of slavery.
I ask Yahweh to keep me from being anxious about earthly things and to concentrate on being an honorable Jew, but it’s hard. I worry.
25 Elul ’01
Remy and I aren’t the only ones who are having trouble paying our debts to Nomokios. Makkar and Karam are also having problems paying their loans of wheat and wine, respectively. Karam owes nearly two times more than his original loan! Apparently, Nomokios broke a few amphora on the way home and charged them back to Karam. I swear, that man will be the ruin of all of us!
We are hatching something of a plan, though. It’s not a very new or imaginative plan, but it’s what we used to get rid of a bad retainer a few years back. He was almost as bad as Nomokios! What we did was start a rumor that he used false balances. It brought such shame upon the household that he was fired straightaway. Of course, we can’t use exactly the same rumor again. We will have to come up with something different, but it’s sure to work. It has to work; our very lives hang in the balance.
27 Elul ’01
Remy, Makkar, Karam, and I have come up with a story about how Nomokoios is squandering the household property! Of course, it’s completely false, but we have to act fast! Karam even went so far as to suggest that we add some innuendo about Nomokios and certain ones of the pretty women, but I think that’s taking it too far… though, I admit I’d like to really stick it to him.
Remy and I will speak to the others here in the neighborhood. We are older. It’s best to leave these things to us oldsters. Anyway, time is of the essence as we have to have spread the rumor before 15 Tishrei or that will be the end of us. Literally.
4 Tishrei ’01
Our plan is in place. Everyone in our section is complaining about Nomokios and how he squanders the household property. The rumor has even taken on dimensions we didn’t plan for! Nevermind, though. As long as the spirit of discontent reaches the boss’s ears quickly.
For the first time in a long, long time I feel hopeful. I am almost elated! We might actually be able to rid ourselves of this cheater! May our lies have wings!
10 Tishrei ’01
Wonder of wonders… Miracle of miracles…
Nomokios came to my house early this morning and cut my debt in half. After the sun was about half way down, Remy came over and told me that he’d done the same for him and for everybody else too! We are so busy dancing that we haven’t had time to feel badly about the lies we told. And, personally, the lies aren’t troubling me too much.
There’s to be a party tonight in the common area complete with warm wine and a fire.
11 Tishri ’01
Even though we’d been warmed by the bonfire and wine, my dear wife snuggled closer than she had to last night. I felt like such a failure for so long that I had forgotten what it was like just to be together and to enjoy the night.
20 Tishrei ’01
I have been thinking about this whole episode with Nomokios. I was bitter and hateful for so long that I hadn’t noticed that I was barely breathing and that I had become snappy and rascally. Even though I fought with all my might not to lose my place in society, I still lost a part of myself. I don’t know how to get that back.
I have hope of paying my debt in full. But, how can I ever be really whole again? This experience has left me exhausted and feeling old.
15 Nissan ’02
This is a landmark day! Today I paid Nomokios the last of my debt. That’s right, I am debt free. As Nomokios signed the receipt I noticed that even he seemed happy about it! “Nomokios, ” I said, “Aren’t you glad that you won’t have to come to my house every month anymore?” And we laughed together… Yes, actually laughed. I felt so free.
I wanted to ask him what had brought about such a change of heart that he would reduce our debts and allow us to pay them off, but I didn’t. I offered him some wine and we drank it in near silence, commenting only that the hot summer would be here soon enough.
I know that he fears losing his position in society, just like we all do. Poor Nomokios would never be able to dig, and he’s too proud to beg… still wearing the new coat, I noticed. We are alike in that way. Loss of position would mean death for both of us.
I have a faint hope that Nomokoios will come back someday for another cup of wine. Will we heal the world by drinking wine together? No, but we might heal this community. In the meantime, my wife just looked at me in that way she used to.
Linda McMillan is a native Texan who now lives in Shanghai, China.
Image: broken oil amphora
Some Notes of Possible Interest
See Amos 8:4-7 to read what Amos said about Israel’s treatment of the poor.