St Barnabas, 21st March 10
Reading – Luke 19:11-27
It can be very easy for preachers to use certain passages as sticks to beat their congregations, or at least as excuses for trotting out their latest hobby horses. I know, I’ve done it myself a few times. And I guess when we heard this reading from Luke’s gospel, this morning I expect most of us anticipated a sermon about how God has given us gifts and talents and how we need to make the most of what we have given – and by the way, the Annual Church Meeting is just around the corner. Well, the Annual Church Meeting is just around the corner, and the nomination forms are out today, and there is clearly something in today’s passage about service. But before I rush in and preach the usual sermon about needing to give our gifts and talents to God, I want to ask: is this the only or even the main point of the story? Or is in fact the focus of the passage on something else? And, if so, how do we decide what this focus might be?
One good general rule of thumb when trying to understand any passage of Scripture is to see if the passage itself contains any clues as to why it was written down and recorded. In our particular case we have a rather large and obvious clue right at the beginning, in verse 11: While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, why? because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. So this tells us straight away that the reason why Jesus told this story was to teach something about the kingdom of God, and if we are to understand what follows correctly, we need to see how it fits in with this aim.
And the other really important thing we need to do with any passage is to work out how what we read fits in with what has gone before and what follows on afterwards. Because presumably there is a reason why this story fits in with this part of Luke’s gospel and not, for example, with the account of Jesus’ birth, or the crucifixion. So we note that this story occurs after the encounter of Jesus with Zacchaeus the tax collector, and before His entry into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday. And this is important because it reinforces the impression that this story is not primarily about service, but about Jesus as king. It has some kind of connection with Zacchaeus confessing Jesus as Lord, and the crowds owning Him as the coming King.
In other words, my usual sermon about service is going to have to wait for another day. Because what Jesus wants us to do here is to think primarily what it means to acknowledge Him as king. Now I guess most of us think of a king as someone who has a largely ceremonial role, a sort of figurehead who doesn’t really have much influence over our everyday lives. But of course in Jesus’ day the king was a very different sort of person. He was someone whose actions impacted on the lives of ordinary people and whose words commanded the obedience of all his subjects. And it is this image of king that Jesus is developing in his story – not a king who just sits on a throne and wears a crown, but a king who has all power and authority and might, and the right to rule over us. So before I go any further, let me ask: Is this how you see Jesus? Is He some kind of ceremonial figure in your life or does He really rule over you? And if this isn’t a question you’ve ever thought about much before, then perhaps you need to pay attention closely to the rest of this story to understand just what it means to say Jesus rules over your life.
The first thing we can learn is that Jesus demands our obedience. Now in 4BC King Herod – the Herod we find in the Christmas story – died. You may remember he was the one who tried to trick the wise men into revealing the location of the baby Jesus, and who then ordered the massacre of all the babies in Bethlehem. He was all round a bad thing. But if people thought his death would improve matters in first century Judea, they were sadly mistaken. His son Archelaus was even worse, if that were possible. In fact he was so bad that a delegation of Jews followed Archelaus to Rome to warn the emperor that if he wasn’t deposed, there would be a revolt.
And it might be this historical incident that Jesus refers to in verse 14 when He talks about a delegation who follow the king on His journey and say We don’t want this man to be our king. Not that Jesus is in any wise comparing himself with a bad king like Archelaus. Rather, He is making the point that whenever someone becomes king, there will always be folk who will reject his rule. Even Jesus, so totally full of goodness and truth and love.
After all, there were plenty in Jesus’ day who did not want Him to be king. There were the Roman authorities who saw Him simply as a rabble-rouser and a threat to national security. There were the religious leaders who did not want Jesus’ radical message to disturb their comfortable way of doing things. There were the crowds who admired Jesus’ miracles but weren’t actually prepared to commit to following Him.
And sad to say, each of these groups seems to have a counterpart today. We have a political establishment that seems intent on destroying any vestige of the Christian values that underpinned our society for hundreds of years, under the guise of “equality” and “tolerance”. We have – and perhaps this is a dangerous thing for a Church of England vicar to say – a religious establishment that at times seems more concerned to defend its own interests than actively promote the name of Jesus. And there are crowds of people – our friends, our neighbours, our families – who may admire Jesus, who may say He is a good thing – but aren’t actually prepared to take the next step and commit to Him.
But as the old proverb goes whenever we point a finger at somebody else, there are always three pointing back at us. We may come to church, we may sing words such as “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all”, but do we know what it means to obey Jesus? Do we have a pattern of prayer, of reading our Bible, of meeting with other Christians so that we know what Jesus wants of our lives? And just as importantly, do we act on what He says?
And this leads on to the second point, that Jesus demands our service. In our story this morning, when the king sets off on his journey, He gives ten of His servants ten minas, and if you have a Bible with footnotes you will see that a mina is worth about three months’ wages. It’s not a large amount of money, then, that each servant is given. But it is a small and manageable responsibility and they have a clear and important task of making the money work for their master.
Now Jesus doesn’t make it clear how exactly the servants were to discharge the trust they were given. I guess at this point of the story we tend to think of the rather more well-known parable of the talents in Matthew 25 and assume Jesus is telling us to make the best use of the gifts and, yes, talents, that He has given us. But I think Jesus has a rather broader message here, to see all that we have as gifts from God and to put it all in His service.
And that understanding is borne out when once again we think about the story that comes before this one. Because when Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus into his home, as we read in verse 8, the first thing that he does is put all his possessions at the Lord’s disposal. He freely gives half of what he has to the poor. He promises to pay back four times the amount of anything he has stolen. And interestingly it is at this point that Jesus says in verse 9 Today salvation has come to this house. For Zacchaeus showed he had a new relationship with Jesus not simply in the words that he spoke, but in the way he opened up his home and he willingly gave up what he had.
Which, coming back to today’s passage, teaches us that the way to truly serve our king Jesus is to learn to recognise that everything we have is a gift from God and to put it at His disposal. For example, our money, our time, our possessions, our home. We may not feel that we have much to give, but in one sense that doesn’t matter. God, you see, does not judge us according to what we have, but on how much we are willing to give. After all, with the right attitude, five loaves and two fish can feed five thousand. Or provide a homeless man in our city with food for the day.
And that is how at the end of the day the servant with one mina was able to earn ten more. Not by holding on it, or burying in the ground. But by using it in the service of his master, and by being prepared to invest in other people’s lives. He knew that what he had been given was a trust and a privilege and he did his utmost to be counted worthy of that trust. How much, I wonder, do we see what we have in this light?
Of course there was at least one servant in our story who didn’t make best use of his mina. This is the servant in verses 20-21 who decided the best policy was not to lose it, and to keep it hidden in a piece of cloth. The servant for whom serving the king was not a joy and a privilege, but a chore and a burden. He probably saw what the others were doing with their mina and decided it was all too much of a hassle, and not really worth the risk.
And if we’re honest, there’s a probably a bit of that servant in each and every one of us. We may hear inspirational stories of believers in other parts of the world who accomplish great things for the Lord. We may be moved by exceptional tales of self-giving and self-sacrifice. And then we come up with all kinds of reasons why we couldn’t do the same here in this place at this time. I just put it to you that maybe the church in this country would be a lot healthier and lot more attractive if we really were able to show what true, genuine and costly service of our king really looked like.
Because in the end our willingness to serve is directly linked with the amount of love we have for the Lord. What was the servant’s excuse for hoarding the mina he had been given? I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow. His relationship with his master, in other words, was based on fear and duty, rather than love and generosity. And the irony is that having been so careful not to lose what he had been given he ended up forfeiting everything. Surely all of us would do well to heed Jesus’ warning earlier on in Luke’s gospel, chapter 14, verse 33, where he says any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple. Words, I believe, that are particularly relevant to us today.
And just one further point under this whole theme of service. Because what happened to the servant who earned ten more minas? He was put in charge of ten cities. And what about the servant who earned five more minas? He was put in charge of five cities. Which goes to show that in the Lord’s eyes those acts of service which may to others seem small or unimportant or hardly noticeable are actually of supreme importance. They are the ultimate proof of our love for the Lord, and He rewards us by giving us greater responsibility and more opportunities to serve. So if you are wondering how all this talk of service might apply to you, then the answer is to think small. Just start by offering whatever little thing you can do to your king, and I believe you will find He will use you in ways you may not even begin to imagine.
So Jesus as king demands our obedience. He demands our service. And one day He will demand an account for our lives. Now I guess that many people find this idea one of the hardest aspects of the Christian faith to accept. The idea that one day we will stand before the throne of God and have to explain what we have done with all the good things that He has given us. But actually it is a logical and inescapable part of Jesus’ kingship. If heaven simply had an open door where anyone could walk in, whether or not they had obeyed Jesus in this life, whether or not they had chosen to serve Him, would that really be heaven? The injustices of this world would remain unrighted, and what then would be the point of Jesus dying on the cross for us? If God did not call us to account, then there would be no need for Easter, no need for the church, no need for the Bible. We could do whatever we liked, believe whatever we liked, live however liked. And the result would be total and utter moral anarchy.
Mind you, we still have to deal with the end of Jesus’ story where the king says But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be a king over them – bring them here and kill them in front of me. It’s hardly the kind of verse that is likely to attract many to the Christian faith, is it? But then again Jesus is drawing on the crowd’s experience of kings of the day, kings like Herod and Archelaus who had no qualms about summarily executing people they didn’t like. It was just the way kings operated in those days. This doesn’t mean however that we simply dismiss the end of the story as just a historical footnote or a little local detail. Because the Bible is clear that one day all of us will be brought in front of the king, that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord. And there will be no worse fate than to hear Jesus say, I never knew you (Matt 7:23). To be excluded from the light and love and presence of the Lord will be hell indeed.
Now I know that even many Christians at this point get worried. I have heard some folk who have been walking with the Lord many, many years say things like, “I hope I’ll be good enough” “I’m not sure I’ll get in”. Brothers and sisters, let me reassure you. If we have humbly believed and trusted in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, then really we have no reason to fear. Because once we have given an account of our lives to God the Father, Jesus will turn to Him and say, “It’s OK. Fred or Betty or whatever your name is, is one of mine. I know him and He knows me. It’s time to welcome Him home”.
Because although King Jesus demands our obedience and our service, and even though one day He will call us to account for our lives, let us not lose sight of the fact that the king we serve is also full of amazing and generous grace. And maybe this is the reason why Jesus told this parable in response to the people who thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. For in one sense, Jesus did bring in the kingdom when He came to Jerusalem. But not a kingdom like that of Herod and Archelaus, a kingdom based on might and power and violence. A kingdom rather based on generous, unbounded love as Jesus went to the cross to die in my place for my sins. A kingdom where to those who respond there is healing and peace and joy. A kingdom which one day be realised in its fullest glory and splendour when King Jesus comes back and our salvation is complete.
And if you understand this is what Jesus’ kingdom is like, then actually it is no great demand to obey and to serve Him. Because actually then we will offer back to God all that we have and all that we are in sheer thankfulness for the way He has come and saved us. So the question to finish is this: how is Jesus king over your life? A ceremonial figure who doesn’t really make a lot of difference? A stern king you obey out of a sense of duty? Or a loving king who has saved and rescued you and in whose service you find perfect freedom?
That, I believe, is a question all of us need to think about more deeply.