January 11, 2015
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
11 As they were listening to this, he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. 12 So he said, “A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return. 13 He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, ‘Do business with these until I come back.’ 14 But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to rule over us.’ 15 When he returned, having received royal power, he ordered these slaves, to whom he had given the money, to be summoned so that he might find out what they had gained by trading. 16 The first came forward and said, ‘Lord, your pound has made ten more pounds.’ 17 He said to him, ‘Well done, good slave! Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities.’ 18 Then the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your pound has made five pounds.’ 19 He said to him, ‘And you, rule over five cities.’ 20 Then the other came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your pound. I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ 22 He said to him, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave! You knew, did you, that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then did you not put my money into the bank? Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.’ 24 He said to the bystanders, ‘Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.’ 25 (And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten pounds!’) 26 ‘I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 27 But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.’”
I am a member of the Young Clergy Women Project and we have a Facebook group where we share prayer requests and crowd source ideas and share resources, and one young clergy woman wrote not long ago about a sermon series she was working on entitled, “Thing We Wish Jesus Had Never Said” and she invited suggestions from the group. I might file this passage away in that category, or perhaps a better sermon series title would be, “Things We Wish Jesus Had Said More Clearly.” But as G.K. Chesterton writes, “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”
The passage we just read may sound familiar to you. We read a similar parable several months ago but that one was told by Matthew and it is a little different and in a different setting.
In Matthew, Jesus has already rode into Jerusalem and is in the final days of his life and he tells his followers many things. And he tells them of the need for watchfulness. He tells them that they will not know when the coming of the son of man will be, when Jesus will return, when God’s kingdom work will be completed . . . he tells them to be ready.
And he shares the story of the Ten Bridesmaids where five are foolish and five are wise – and the five wise ones are ready for the groom, but the foolish ones are kept out of the wedding banquet. And then follows the Parable of the Talents, a story about a wealthy but harsh man who goes away leaving his servants in charge of vast sums of money.
Two of the servants get to work making more money through trading, but one servant was afraid and buried the money to keep it safe. The two who worked hard were rewarded, and the lazy servant was punished for doing nothing.
But in Luke, Jesus tells this story a little differently and in a different context – so we hear it differently. Jesus is moving towards Jerusalem, and towards his triumphal entry and towards his death.
He is coming to Jericho which is the last town of significance before you leave the Jordan Valley and head up to Jerusalem. Jesus has told his followers three times about his death and resurrection, but still they didn’t understand.
And as Jesus enters Jericho two things happen – two signs of God’s kingdom. Jesus offers healing and wholeness to a blind beggar, and salvation and grace to a wealthy, despised tax collector named Zacchaeus. And Jesus says, “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
And that’s where we pick up today, as the people around Jesus were listening to this, he jumps in with another story. Everyone has the sense that something important was going to happen when Jesus reaches Jerusalem, and he is almost there. In fact this is the last thing recorded before Jesus begins his triumphal entry (Palm Sunday).
And people were thinking, maybe, God’s kingdom was going to appear immediately. So all the expectations were heightened. God was about to do something big. And what something big meant leaned back to all the old testament images of God the victor, throwing down the enemies, and re-establishing the kingship of David. A real king on a real throne. The Romans would be overthrown, the suffering and oppression would end, Jesus would be in charge, there would be peace and justice and all would be completed, forever amen.
That was something worth getting excited about, and God was about to do it all. Jesus is moving with a large crowd of pilgrims, all with the same destination – Jerusalem.
So you can imagine that those who surround Jesus include not only his closest followers but also people with entirely different expectations – so we can imagine that there was confusion about the kingdom, there were rumors about what was going to happen once Jesus got to the Holy City.
So with all that happening, Jesus tells this sort of strange parable.
Preacher and New Testament scholar Fred Craddock, writing on this parable, says that if you listen carefully you will hear two different story lines, two parables that are intertwined:
in one, a nobleman goes away to receive the title and crown of king and some of his citizens hate him and try to prevent his coronation and when the new king returns, he destroys those who were against him; the other story line is about a nobleman who goes away entrusting ten servants each with a pound, which was about three months wages, and tells them to do business with the money, in other words, to be active on behalf of the master’s estate.
Those, who by trading, increase the master’s wealth and estate, are giving prestige, and the one who does nothing, has what was given to him taken away, but no other punishment is given.
So Fred Craddock suggests that we look at Jesus’ audience; is it possible that this is a double parable, meant to be heard differently by the pilgrims and by the disciples?
Let’s give it a try. If we are a pilgrim hearing rumors about Jesus becoming the new king, and it will happen really soon, we hear in the parable a story about a man who must first go away and then return as king later, perhaps much later.
We hear a story about a king who some people are going to reject, who are going to mock the kingship of this man.
And we hear a story about how when the king comes in glory, those who rejected the king, will find themselves rejected. And maybe that feels like a harsh story – but perhaps it is also harsh to reject the king, to reject what God offers in the first place?
If we are the disciples, and we have traveled this long road with Jesus, we have heard him three times talk about death and resurrection, we hear a story about a master who goes away and leaves his people, his servants, with work to do.
The seemingly responsible servant, who takes his one pound, and keeps it safe until his master’s return, this servant is the loser in the story. By his hands nothing is gained. He sat in quiet safety, away from the markets and traders. He risked nothing, and in the end lost everything.
The other servants, they were not idle, they did not waste time being safe and responsible. They did not sit around. They entered the fray and engaged the world. The trades they made multiplied the standing of their master. And in the end they found themselves rewarded. Blessed are the risk-takers, the courageous, the go-getters.
For first born children, like me, this is a hard message to swallow. I see nothing wrong with taking that money and stuffing it in a mattress. Nothing would be lost. There would be no failure, no shame, no regret. But there would be nothing gained, there would be no life.
G.K. Chesterton writes, “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” To remain safe, and still, and unchanged – this is the fate of things that are dead. To be alive, especially alive in Christ, means to fight against the current, to change, and to work for change, to take a word of love and share it with a lot of people, to take a work of love and make it multiply – like Mary, to magnify God.
That is the work of the followers who stay behind, as scary as it sounds, to not be too responsible.
But what this looks like is different for each person. For me personally, playing it safe means bemoaning the fact that there is so much wrong in the world that we should care about as Christians.
I read the news and I am heartbroken and sometimes even hopeless. For me, that is playing the dead fish in the stream, being carried away by how much there is to do and how little is being done. Playing it safe means knowing a little bit about the many things there are to care about, but not doing a whole lot about any one thing.
To deeply engage with one injustice, with one ill of the world, that takes work, and effort, and maybe even some risk and sacrifice.
So for me, that is the community forum on modern slavery and human trafficking and supporting organizations that are working around the world to end slavery. In this moment, that is how I hear God calling me not to be idle.
Maybe for you, playing it safe and sitting on your hands, looks like being busy doing a lot of things instead of doing the sometimes hard work of contemplation and prayer. Maybe avoiding risk for you means avoiding telling the truth. Maybe the hard work you have to do is to choose to love someone who is likely not going to return the favor.
Sometimes the inside of a church on a Sunday morning is a safe place – the place we go and feel like we have done something for God and that is enough.
Sometimes the inside of a church IS the risk and the work and the place where we called to do things that are hard. Sometimes it is just safer to say we are spiritual and stay home.
Scripture is meant to question us and to change us – so our task as hearers and doers of the Word, is to examine ourselves for what feels safe and responsible in our spiritual lives, and what feels like the beginning of a risk?