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What is a Tyrant?

Posted on: March 12, 2017

Category: Theology

What is a Tyrant?

The philosopher Aristotle wrote in Book V of his Politics, "People are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious." Aristotle agreed with Plato, his teacher, that such rulers were tyrants and that their actions create social factions that eventually bring a political order to ruin.

Leaders whom the Hebrew Bible regarded as illegal or ruthless or terrible used to be identified with the word "tyrant." One example is the Hebrew word "arits," which occurs at Isaiah 29:20. Prior to the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, that verse was often translated as "The tyrant shall come to naught." It is still translated this way in some French Bibles, but in English the word "tyrant" is replaced with "terrible one" (KJV) and "ruthless" (RSV). It is often speculated that King James influenced the translator's decision to find an alternative word for tyrant.

When it comes to talking about politics and trying to find the right words to use, our age is no different from past eras. It is easy to name-call a political figure with a word like tyrant, and with Aristotle we can wonder if such political figures foreshadow good or ill for our society. I will leave that question alone, for my point this week is not the word but the actions and choices it indicates.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the question of choice and action rests in two places. One is with the older brother, and the other is with the hearer of the parable. The story draws our attention to the younger brother who receives in advance his inheritance from his father, gambles it all away on wasteful living, and returns home to a princely celebration put on by his father. Typical of a Jesus parable, our attention is placed on this young son right until the end. Then, at the end, the older brother comes to the scene of celebration and, refusing to join, asks the father why he has never been so honoured. Here the parable turns. The father says, "Don't worry. You've always been with me, and you get all the inheritance." The ending is where the parable really starts.

The meaning of a parable is not the actual parable but how we interpret it and act because of it. At the end of this parable we are left standing with the older brother, and he has a choice. He can be a "tyrant." His younger brother is at his mercy. His younger brother spent it all and has nothing; the older brother can make the younger one his slave. All the power is in the older brother's hands. The word "tyrant" could be introduced here. The word is not in the parable but it is in the possible outcome of the parable. The older brother can be a tyrant in relation to the younger one. The difference is the example of the father, who is not God but a weak presence because the father has no authority at this point. The father has already advanced a third of his wealth to his younger son and has now declared that the older brother is the sole heir of all that is left. The father can only exemplify the choice at hand. You can act like a tyrant if you want, and you can see this younger son as no better than your slave. But you can also see this other as your brother. You can choose not to be a tyrant. You can choose to love beyond the resentment you feel right now. This is the challenge of the parable. It is not just a story about two brothers. It is a story about what we, the hearers of this tale, can do and how we can live. We (you) can be "weak" like the father.

It would be interesting if the word "tyrant," which is hard to find in English Bibles, was restored as a translation alternative to "terrible" or "ruthless" or, sometimes, "wicked." Though the Greek form of this word does not appear in the New Testament, the word holds a meaning in English that is often lost in translation. It holds a meaning of action; it relates to the exercise of power and control. "Terrible" and "wicked" imply something about another person's nature but do not necessarily signify that the person holds specific social power. In the parable, the older brother does hold specific social power because he is a landowner and because his younger brother, having nothing, decided he would return home to be a slave. But there is a choice among those who hold power, and the parable in this sense both reveals that choice and underlines Aristotle's concern. Choices can create factions, and factions can bring us to ruin. Is it not better, it seems to me the parable is saying, to see that weakness, not strength, is the power that allows us to regard each other as brothers and sisters?

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