2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 19:11-27
16th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 02.10.2022
Rev Tulo Raistrick
When I first gave a quick glance over today’s gospel reading I confess I thought “Excellent – a good opportunity to encourage people to use their gifts in the life of the church”. After all, in Matthew’s gospel this story is known as the story of the talents. There are indeed many jobs that need doing in our church – from cleaning, to serving teas and coffees, to helping with flowers, to helping with our children’s work – and indeed it is an excellent Christian principle that we should use the gifts God has given us to serve him, but as I looked more closely I realised that today’s parable is not the parable that would lead to such a sermon.
This parable is a slightly more tricky parable than the ones we have looked at so far in our Sunday sermon series. After all, is Jesus suggesting that he or His father are in any way the king of the parable, someone who is harsh and unforgiving and ends up slaughtering those who oppose him? And are we being encouraged to gamble and take risks with the kingdom’s finances (but more about the government’s economic policies later). How do we make sense of what is a somewhat troubling story?
The first thing to do is to look at the context. Why does Jesus tell this story? Luke tells us he was heading up to Jerusalem and the crowd were getting excited – they were expecting that when he arrived in the city – the heart of Israel’s religious, cultural and political life, the seat of power – he would then declare his rule, he would kick out the Romans, and begin a glorious new era. An era where Israel would be great again, a military super-power, an economic power-house, a political giant, the religious centre for the world. And so in response to these rising expectations, Jesus tells a story.
Imagine, for a moment, if I was to tell you a story about a Prime Minister of some imaginary country, that persuaded his government to go to war against a far-off land despite having little evidence that they posed a threat or had weapons of mass destruction, and despite large demonstrations against the war by members of the public. Imagine too how accusations arose of how that Prime Minister had tried to make up evidence to justify the war, and how his reputation would take years to recover. For many of you this morning, you may make the link – isn’t that the story of Tony Blair and the Iraq war?
For Jesus’ listeners, hearing this story of a nobleman who went away to get himself appointed king, it would have taken them back just over 30 years to the death of Herod the Great. Then, his hugely unpopular son, Herod Archelaus, travelled to Rome to get himself appointed king of Israel, and succeeded, despite a delegation going to protest against him. He then came back and indulged in such a horrific reign of terror, with beatings, executions and unspeakable cruelty, that after ten years the Romans were forced to remove him.
Jesus’ parable is a direct reference to those events. It is almost as if he is reminding the crowd, so keen for a new kingdom, to be careful what they wish for. Are you really wanting a new political and military ruler? Look at how things have gone in the past: a kingdom governed by greed, exploitation, domination and retribution. You are so keen to see the overthrow of the old order, you have given little thought to the nature of the kingdom you want to replace it with.
Contrast that with the events that come before and after Jesus tells this parable. Immediately before this parable, Jesus has just sat down for a meal with Zacchaeus, the tax collector, whose life has been so transformed by his encounter with Jesus that he has given half of his possessions to the poor and has promised to pay back anyone he has cheated four-fold. To which Jesus responds: “Salvation has come to this house today.” This is what his kingdom is like: a kingdom of restored relationships, of generosity, of compassion, of justice, of mercy, of forgiveness.
And then, Luke says, “After Jesus had told this parable, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem” where Luke then recounts Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. That story, which we know so well from Palm Sunday, is one where the ideas of kingship are turned on their head. He enters Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey, not on a white war stallion or golden chariot – the modern equivalent of a Robin Reliant rather than a limousine or Sherman tank. As he approaches the city, he openly weeps, despairing at the fate of a city that he knows will reject him. Those who fill his entourage are not the powerful and influential, but the blind, the lame, and children. This is a king of love and humility, not of power and might.
So here we have a parable reminding us of a despotic king sandwiched between two events that tell us of a different kind of kingship and a different kind of power.
So what does this parable have to say to us today?
In reminding us of the way that power is all too often abused, it calls us to follow a different way, the way of Christ, the way of humility and love.
It is difficult not to read into it our own political context today. For if true power is about generosity to the poor as Zacchaeus models, or about the inclusion of those who are on the margins as Jesus’ triumphal entry shows us, then what we have seen in this country in the last few days seems to be the opposite of that. A government that at a time of immense economic hardship has chosen to favour the rich at the expense of the poor through huge tax cuts; a government that is choosing to reverse even its own previous administration’s commitment to reducing health inequalities; a government that is now considering paying for this tax bonanza by cutting benefits and public services. When even the IMF is prepared, as it was this week, to give warnings about the danger of ignoring the poor, we should be worried. It seems to me that this government is one that seems to have far more in common with the kingdom of Herod Archelaus than of Jesus Christ. Let us pray for compassion and love to infuse the decisions that lie ahead.
I am sometimes nervous to invoke politics in sermons because politicians can feel like an all too easy target to blame, one that lets me off the hook. But this parable and its context challenges me too. Zacchaeus provides us with a real-life demonstration of what following the way of Christ looks like. We are called to a life of love, gentleness, generosity, graciousness; to a life of restoring relationships which have gone wrong.
The slaves in the story are rewarded for using what was entrusted to them. Paul writes in our first reading to Timothy, a young Christian, to “rekindle the gift of God that is within him”. That gift, what has been entrusted to us, is God’s Spirit, and we are encouraged to allow the Spirit to grow his fruit in our lives. To nurture and live out those fruit of love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, patience, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. It is when we express those fruit, that we find they grow all the more. The more we love, the more we find love grows. The more we give thanks, the more thankful we become. The opposite is sadly also true. The less we love, the more hardened we become, the more that love shrivels and dies within us; the less we give thanks, the less joyful we become, the more that joy turns to bitterness. And thus we see the truth of Jesus’ words in the parable: “to everyone who has, more will be given; to those who have nothing, even that they will lose.”
How will our lives be different? How will our lives be fruitful? For the challenge of the parable to us is: will we bury the gift of God’s Spirit? Will we stifle the fruit of His spirit in our lives? Or will we delight in expressing the love and joy and kindness and patience that God has placed within us, and in doing so, seeing it grow all the more abundantly.