Proper 28 (November 13-19)
Texts: Luke 19:11-27;
1 Cor. 12:4-11
THE KING IS NOT JESUS — JESUS IS THE KING
Wow! This is one of those passages we’re going to have to wrestle a bit to get a blessing. So here’s my first question: What about the other seven? The nobleman in this parable summons ten servants and gives them each a pound, about three months wages. Upon returning as king, we get to see how he deals with three of the ten servants. Two make money and are rewarded; one does nothing with the money and has it taken away from him. But what about the other seven servants? Aren’t you curious about what happened with them?
In particular, I’m curious about a couple of different scenarios. We only see two: (1) making money with money, and (2) doing nothing with it. Here’s a third: What if a servant who tried to do something with what’s given him and failed, such as investing and losing some or all of his money? Worse yet, here’s a fourth: what if a dishonest servant used the money illegally and then tried to cheat the master? He certainly wouldn’t be rewarded, would he? Would the master give him a free pass because he at least tried to do something? Or would servants who tried and failed or cheated be punished even more severely? I’m curious, aren’t you?
To fully understand this parable, there is another crucial question to ask: Is the nobleman-turned-king supposed to represent God or Jesus? Many assume he does — for how could Jesus teach us anything if the king in this parable doesn’t represent himself or God?” (1)
But what happens when we assume that the king in this story is not Jesus or God? Jesus actually gives us three clues about the nobleman’s identity. First, he tells us that this nobleman had to go away to apply to some higher power to be king. Second, he tells us that this nobleman was hated so much by his own people that they even risked sending folks to the higher power to oppose him — a risk that doesn’t pay-off because, third, we’re told that he’s made a king anyway. And the story has that horrifying ending where this new king slaughters that delegation. Nice guy, right?
Jesus’ giving us these details is like me starting a parable, “There once was a mayor who thought he could stay in office by being truthful about abusing drugs and alcohol.” You know immediately who that is, right? Our good friend in Toronto, Rob Ford. Or I begin a parable with, “There once was a king who gassed his own people with chemical weapons.” Again, you know I’m talking about the current President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
That’s how Jesus begins this parable — by giving his audience details that would have immediately brought someone specific to mind. Like Herod the Great’s son Archelaus. When Herod died, Archelaus had to go to Rome to apply to Caesar to be king over part of his father’s territory. The people of Palestine hated him so much, they sent a delegation to Caesar to say, “We don’t want this guy as king!” Caesar made him king anyway, and Archelaus was brutal with his enemies.
Jesus intentionally gave his audience details that made them think of someone like Archelaus, a king who’s a deliberate contrast to he and God, and not a representative. Why a contrast? Because the central dramatic moment in this parable revolves around how the third servant sees his master-king. He sees him as a harsh man, and so he is judged accordingly. The point of this parable is to ask ourselves, “How do we see God or Jesus?” As a harsh, punishing God who will punish us if we fail, so like the third servant we don’t do anything because we are afraid? Jesus uses the contrast to help us to see that he and God are not like human kings.
Another key to understanding this parable is that it comes immediately after the story of Zacchaeus. In fact, the opening of this passage makes it sound as if Jesus is still sitting at Zacchaeus’ table. (2) Zacchaeus was possibly like one of the seven servants in this parable we didn’t hear about, a servant who cheated. He took the gifts God had given him and used them cheat others out of theirs on behalf of the Roman Caesar. Yet how does Jesus, as God’s representative, treat Zacchaeus? With the grace and unconditional love of going to dine at his home. Instead of being harsh and creating a fear of punishment, Jesus uses grace to open up Zacchaeus to use his gifts properly. Zacchaeus responds by giving half to the poor, and by paying back those he cheated fourfold. In his encounter with Zacchaeus, Jesus shows himself to be nothing like the king in this parable that he tells immediately afterward. The contrast will be even more dramatic in what comes next: Jesus enters Jerusalem to die on the cross in order to show us the Way to true peace. By contrast, the king in this parable sandwiched in between Zacchaeus and the cross, operated by usual human procedures of reward and punishment. Jesus comes to show us a God who operates via grace and love.
So here’s the point for this Time and Talent Sunday: God gives each of us gifts to use and share with others. How we see God makes a difference to how we use them. If we see God as someone who punishes failure, we might be frozen like the third servant into doing nothing. That’s easy to see in this parable. But the more difficult thing to see is that there’s even a downside when we see a God who rewards good behavior. Do you remember the one final detail Jesus gives in the parable? Some servants protested that the one who already had the most money was rewarded even more. “He already has ten!” they shout. The entire reward-punishment system breeds more greed and resentment, not good will. Even when we’re rewarded, we’ll find something to complain about. In contrast, God sent Jesus to be king over a kingdom of grace, where the motivation to share and use our gifts is gratitude, not fear or greed. We use and share our gifts, like Zacchaeus, because our hearts are overflowing with love and thanksgiving.
Brothers and Sisters, we still live in a world of contrasts. We live in a world where we still have scoundrel leaders. We live in a world of reward and punishment that is motivated by greed and fear. We live in a world where you can work someplace for twenty years, sharing the gifts and talents God has given you, only to have new management restructure you out of the job. We live in a world where we get depressed and frozen out of fear of failure.
But we also live in a world that God has begun changing according to God’s grace in Jesus. There are many professions and vocations that give us ample opportunity to joyfully offer the gifts and talents that God has given. It still tends to be mixed in with that contrasting world of reward and punishment. But I think our main calling as Christians is living in that world of contrasts, the world of reward-punishment wrapped in God’s grace. God is calling us to understand and use our gifts out of a sense of grace so that we can be part of transforming this world of reward-punishment into a world of grace.
So what are we about here in this church community? First, our life at Prince of Peace is to be a safe place to try out using our gifts and talents. Like last week: some of our youth tried speaking in front of a large group for the first time. We encouraged them and are inspired by them. Our life together needs to be more and more like last week, a safe place to use and share our gifts in an environment of grace and encouragement. This morning we encourage everyone to sign up for at least one family task to share. Sharing our gifts and talents in an environment of grace is what today’s Ministry Fair is all about.
But, second, we spend way more hours in the week outside these doors, sharing our gifts as spouses and parent, neighbors and coworkers. So we are called together in mission and ministry to encourage one another in that more difficult task of living in two worlds at the same time. When the downside of the reward-punishment world hits us, we help one another. We reach out into our community to help others who lose out in that world of reward-punishment. And we advocate to wisely change structures, when we can, to the win-win world of grace, and away from the win-lose world of reward and punishment. Why? Because Jesus is our King! — not the guy in the parable who’s like our leaders. But more on that next week, as we celebrate Christ the King Sunday. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, November 17, 2013
1. Joseph Fitzmyer is typical of commentators who are well aware of the connections this parable makes to Archelaus and nevertheless make the allegorical reading of the nobleman-king to Jesus. See The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV (Anchor Bible, Vol. 28A; Doubleday, 1985), p. 1233.