Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A parable for today

The Gospel reading for Holy Communion today is Luke 19:11-28

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. So he said, ‘A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return. He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, “Do business with these until I come back.” 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.” 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. The first came forward and said, “Lord, your pound has made ten more pounds.” He said to him, “Well done, good slave! Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities.” Then the second came, saying, “Lord, your pound has made five pounds.” He said to him, “And you, rule over five cities.” Then the other came, saying, “Lord, here is your pound. I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, 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.” 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? Why then did you not put my money into the bank? Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.” He said to the bystanders, “Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.” (And they said to him, “Lord, he has ten pounds!”) “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. 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.”’ After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

Jesus, with his disciples, is on the way to Jerusalem. By this point, he has already told them three times that he will be put to death there – but that his death will not be the end. But they will not have it so. And now something terribly exciting has happened, something that surely vindicates their more hopeful intuition. Here, in Jericho, an incredibly corrupt man has just had a dramatic conversion experience. Let us be generous and assume that Zacchaeus is being genuine when he says that he will give half of his wealth to the poor; and that he will repay anyone he has defrauded four times over. Surely this is a sign that the time is very near when God will make all things right?

So because they are now very near to Jerusalem, and because the disciples suppose as they do, Jesus, for whom time is running out, tells them a parable.

Now, many of Jesus’ parables are concerned with the nature of God, but this is not one of them. This parable is concerned with the nature of the world.

Jesus paints a picture of a nobleman who goes to a distant country in order to secure royal power for himself; a man hated by those over whom he would rule. Surely Jesus is speaking in the first instance of the Herodian dynasty, rulers who gained and then kept hold of their position at the pleasure of the Emperor in Rome; noblemen with no claim to Davidic descent, hated by their subjects? (Though the wonderful thing about parables is their potential to be applied to different contexts.)

And the picture Jesus paints is of a world that is defined by the thirst for power;

by the harnessing of hatred in power plays;

by a way of conducting business that ensures that the rich become richer and the poor become poorer;

with the whole system underpinned by violence.

Within this world, Jesus describes the actions and fate of three slaves.

The first whole-heartedly embraces the way of the world, and finds themselves richly rewarded.

The second half-heartedly embraces the way things are, and he too benefits from a certain amount of status.

But a third slave point blank refuses to play the game, and calls the king out for the despot he is, to his face. He does so knowing full well what it will cost him, which will undoubtedly be his life.

And, having now predicted his death for a fourth time, Jesus walks off towards Jerusalem, leaving his disciples looking at one another and wondering what that was all about, and what on earth it had to do with them.

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