To Receive for Himself a Kingdom
To Receive for Himself a Kingdom
St. Luke 19:11-27
“Jesus is Lord”. It’s carved on our lychgate. That’s the Good News at its most basic. “Jesus is Lord” is the Gospel stripped down to its bare essentials. “Jesus is Lord”: for the people of the first century this had an obvious and clear message that we’re often prone either to missing or forgetting. It was revolutionary. In the first century Caesar was Lord—or at least that was his claim. For Jesus to claim to be Lord and for his people to proclaim him to be Lord was, at the same time, to declare that Caesar was not—that Caesar was just an impostor or a pretender. For the Greeks and Romans the word that we translate “gospel” or “good news” was what the imperial heralds proclaimed throughout the empire whenever a new emperor took the throne: There’s a new Caesar. Caesar is Lord.”
But this word for good news was one that was dear to the Jews too. It’s a word we see used in Samuel and Kings to describe the good news of victory brought by messengers from the battlefront. And it’s the word that Isaiah uses in the familiar passage describing the return of the Lord to Zion:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice;
together they sing for joy;
for eye to eye they see
the return of the Lord to Zion. (Isaiah 52:7-8)
These were words that Isaiah wrote to the Jews during their exile in Babylon. They had lost their land; they had lost their temple; it seemed to them that the Lord had abandoned them—maybe even that the Lord had lost to the more powerful Babylonian gods. And so the Lord encouraged his people through the prophet that good news would come to them. The people had broken the covenant and the exile was punishment, but the Lord was still king and one day they would return to Zion and so would he. Verses like these from the prophets were at the heart of the faith of the Jews in Jesus’ day. They had returned to the land, but they were still ruled by pagans. They had rebuilt the temple, but the Lord’s presence had never returned. They were still in exile and longed for the day and they anticipated the soon coming of the day when the Lord would return to Zion, vindicate his people, and crush his enemies.
Even though Jesus wasn’t meeting the expectations of the people when it came to who they thought the Messiah would be and what he would do, they so longed for the Messiah and they could see that the Lord was with Jesus, and so they followed him, they lined the roads as he made his way to Jerusalem, because they hoped that he was the one. The closer he gets to Jerusalem, even as opposition to him gets stronger, the excitement of the people builds: in Jesus the Lord is coming back to Zion. This is why the people were gathered at the gates of Jericho to see him. This is why they lined the streets. This is why Zacchaeus climbed the tree. Everyone hoped that in Jesus the prophecies would be fulfilled. They had heard he was on his way to Jerusalem and now he was only a day’s journey away. Maybe, just maybe, the Lord was finally returning to Zion.
This is the setting for what Luke tells us in 19:11. Jesus had defended the faith of Zacchaeus. The people hated Zacchaeus, but we can imagine Jesus putting his arms around Zacchaeus as he declared, “Today salvation has come to this house!” and as Jesus announced, “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” Even if Jesus didn’t meet their expectations, he had claimed the title “Son of David” when Blind Bartimaeus had called out to him for mercy. He declared himself the Son of Man: Israel’s representative. The people were excited. It looked more and more like the Lord was truly returning and that meant an end to exile, vindication of Israel, and an end to the Romans and their empire. Luke writes:
As they heard these things, [Jesus] proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.
Jesus could see and hear the excitement of the people. They were right: in Jesus the Lord was returning to Zion. But Jesus knew that the Lord’s return didn’t mean what most of them thought it meant. Back in the days of Amos the Lord had warned the people:
“Fallen, no more to rise,
is the virgin Israel;
forsaken on her land,
with none to raise her up.” (Amos 5:2)
Seek the Lord and live,
lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph,
and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel,
O you who turn justice to wormwood
and cast down righteousness to the earth! (Amos 5:6-7)
Hate evil, and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. (Amos 5:15)
Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light,
as if a man fled from a lion,
and a bear met him,
or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
and a serpent bit him. (Amos 5:18-19)
“Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! It is darkness, and not light.” This is what Jesus is getting at here. The people are excited. They’ve been cornered by the lion all these years and now the Lord is coming to Zion to drive the lion away. And he surely will. The problem—and it’s a problem that few but Jesus understand—is that bear that chases away the lion is far more dangerous. When the Lord comes he will judge his own before he judges the nations and because they haven’t sought him, because they haven’t loved justice and mercy, the day of the Lord will be a day of darkness for them, not the light they expect. Through Malachi, the Lord warned his people about this day. He described the coming judgement as being like a refiner’s fire, burning away dross to purify silver. He wrote:
Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:5)
To warn the people Jesus tells a story about a king and his servants. If we want to understand what’s Jesus is getting at we need to remember that for the Jews, whenever you talk about a king and his servants you’re talking about the Lord and his people, Israel. This is important, because it tell us tha this parable Jesus is about to tell isn’t about final judgement at the end of history. It’s not a story told to Christians to remind us to be good stewards of the thing’s God has given us. It’s a story about the Lord, about Israel, and about soon judgement and, ultimately, it’s a story about Jesus and what his arrival at Jerusalem means for Israel. For many years we’ve tended to take this as a story about delayed judgement, but what Jesus is really getting at is that judgement on Israel is imminent. Look at verses 12-14:
He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’
Again, when we talk about kings and servants we’re talking about the Lord and Israel. The backdrop is the exile. Israel had been unfaithful so the Lord left the temple, allowed its destruction, and let the people be carried off to Babylon. They returned, but for more than four hundred years the Lord had been absent. They rebuilt the temple, but the shekinah, the visible cloud of glory never returned to the temple to rest on the ark in the holy of holies. But the Lord had entrusted his people with a mission when he left. Through the prophets, before and during the exile, he called them to repent and he called them to be faithful to his law and to his covenant. The Pharisees understood this, which is why they were so zealous for the law, even if they were prone to hypocrisy. They understood that if they could get Israel back on track the Lord would return.
At the same time, Jesus brings in a sub-plot as he talks about some of the people who hated the king. Again, he’s the king. The people represent Israel, or at least some of Israel. But the imagery is straight from history, from a generation before. The Romans permitted local kings to rule parts of their empire. It helped keep the conquered peoples in line. But those kings only ruled with the approval of Caesar. Herod the Great had died in 4 b.c. His son, Archelaus travelled to Rome—to a far country—to be confirmed king and to receive his crown, but he was followed by a delegation of Jews. Archelaus had brutally put down a rebellion, killing three thousand who had gathered in the temple. The people didn’t want him to be their king and they went with him to Rome to protest. Archelaus was confirmed and back in Judea he took harsh and cruel revenge on those who had opposed him. Even thirty or more years later the people still remembered the brutality of Archelaus. This is the history Jesus is drawing on.
Luke goes on in verses 15-19. The nobleman finally returns from that far country, having received his crown. The first thing he does is to call in his servants to see how they’ve managed the money he gave them.
When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’
The first two servants—and we only hear about three of the ten—the first two did well with the king’s money. The first invested it and had a profit of nine minas to show for his efforts. The second servant had done the same and had could show the king a profit of four minas. And now we see what the king was up to. It was a test. He knew that as king he would have to have wise and responsible officials to serve his kingdom. Even more importantly, as we’ll see in a bit, the king wanted servants who understood his priorities. And so having proved not only their initiative and their wisdom, but also their grasp of the king’s priorities, he places them in charge of cities in his kingdom.
There were people like this in Israel. There were people who had taken the warnings of the prophets to heart. Think of Zechariah and Elizabeth rejoicing to learn that their son would be the herald of the Messiah. Think of Mary, who submitted herself to the will of the Lord when he sent the angel and told her that she was to be the mother of the Messiah. Think of Simeon and Anna, spending their days in the temple anticipating the coming of the Messiah. Think of the people who have encountered Jesus along his journey and responded in faith. Think of Zacchaeus, whose life epitomised the unfaithfulness that brought about Israel’s exile, but who repented and sought to follow Jesus by doing good to the poor. Israel had been given her minas and there were some who had understood what the King wanted and had invested it in kingdom priorities and kingdom enterprises. But not all. In fact, not most, which is why Jesus has spent the last ten chapters warning the people about the coming judgement. Look at verses 20-26:
Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
The king means businesses and so does the Lord. The repentance of his people meant enough to the Lord that he abandoned his own temple and sent the Babylonians to take his people away into exile. The Lord takes his covenant seriously. The first two servants understood this. A faithful remnant in Israel understood this. They repented and they were ready for Jesus when he came to Zion. But the vast majority weren’t. They went through the motions. They were circumcised, they ate the right food, they offered their sacrifices at the temple, they avoided gentiles, but for many of them that was as far as their repentance went. Think back to the rich young ruler. He didn’t murder or steal or lie. He honoured his father and mother. He thought he was righteous. But Jesus then pointed out that he’d broken the other table of the law in making money his god, in violating the Sabbath to enrich himself, and then in taking the name of the Lord in vain every time he confessed his faithfulness and his righteousness. Most of Israel had taken their mina—the law and the prophets—and hid it in a handkerchief to keep it safe. No doubt the servant occasionally took out the king’s mina to admire it and maybe even to pat himself on the back for having kept it safe all these years. But he’d never done anything with it. It was a showpiece. It was a source of security: “The king will be happy with me when he sees how I’ve kept it safe!” The problem is that the servant failed to grasp the king’s priorities. The king didn’t want it kept safe as a showpiece. He wanted it invested and put to work. And so he takes the mina from that servant and entrusts it to the servant who had turned the largest profit. Why? Again, because the servant with the ten minas was the one who truly understood the king’s priorities. He was the one who understood the king and his kingdom.
We can expect that Jesus would have told this parable lots of times. The message of it was central to both his person and his ministry. St. Matthew records a slightly different version and in his version the judgement on the unfaithful servant is even harsher. The king pronounces: “Cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30). In Matthew’s Gospel this follows immediately after the parable of the ten virgins shut out of the wedding feast because they let their lamps run out of oil. They beat on the door crying out, “Lord, lord, open to us”, but the bridegroom responded: “I don’t know you” (Matthew 25:11-12). So this isn’t a parable about Christians who are good stewards of their gifts versus Christians who are poor stewards. No, this is a story of the Lord returning to Zion as the prophets had foretold and of judgement coming on those who had ignored them.
And yet that’s not the worst of it. In verse 27 Jesus comes back to the delegation that followed the king to oppose him:
But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’”
Everyone there would immediately have remembered the enemies of Archelaus and how they were so brutally put down. Judgement is coming because the Lord is returning to Zion. The people were excited and thrilled to think that judgement was coming, but they were expected judgement on their enemies. Jesus is warning them—and time is getting very short—that the judgement will first fall on his own people. Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is going to set judgement in motion. His own people will reject him, not so unlike the people who rejected Archelaus. His own people will go on to reject and to brutally persecute the faithful servants of the Lord, his Church, in the book of Acts. And so judgement will come, but instead of judgement coming on the Romans, the Lord will bring the Romans to Jerusalem in judgement of unfaithful Israel.
In Jesus, the Lord, Israel’s God, is finally returning to Zion as the prophets had foretold. He’s returning to set everything to rights—everything. The people were short-sighted. They were thinking about redemption in terms that were far too small. They thought redemption, salvation, meant dealing with Romans. But what it really means is the Lord fulfilling the mission that he’d given to Abraham all those centuries before. It means fulfilling the mission of Israel given in the Exodus and at Mt. Sinai. It means restoring Creation, not just by conquering Israel’s enemies, but by conquering sin and death—the enemies of all humanity. And judgement on sin, unfaithfulness, and rebellion begins with God’s own people. That’s what Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem means and this is why the message of repentance is so important. This is why it’s so important to turn away from everything—sin, wealth, power, false gods—everything that is not Jesus and to take hold of him and his kingdom.
Judgement came on Jerusalem and on unfaithful Israel almost two millennia ago, but you and I need to think on these things too. The judgement on Jerusalem was a sort of sacramental foretaste of the final judgement to come at the end of history. As we await the Lord’s return, what have we done with the minas he’s given us? This is about more than just using our talents and our treasure for the kingdom. It’s about whether or not we understand the values and priorities of Jesus’ kingdom and whether or not we’ve been living them out. Israel had the law and the prophets, but kept them as a showpiece. She wrapped them in a handkerchief and kept them safe. She hid her light under a basket when what the Lord wanted was for her to carry that light to the nations.
Brothers and Sisters, you and I have the law and the prophets. We also have the Gospels and the apostles and in the indwelling Holy Spirit, the Lord has made his home in us. But we need to think on what it means to be entrusted with his Word and Spirit. We’ve been given, we’ve been entrusted with, something far greater than the old Israel was ever given. But have we hidden it in a handkerchief for safe-keeping? Have we turned it into a showpiece? We pray every day, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” But do we know what that means? Do we understand the nature of the kingdom? Do we understand the priorities of our King? Do we love justice and mercy? Do we live in the grace we have been shown by Jesus? Do we seek to make them known to the world in our words and in our deeds—in our lives and in our proclamation? Think of the candles we give out at baptisms, lit from the Paschal Candle that represents the light of Christ in the world. We take those candles home and we put them in a drawer or a desk or a cupboard for safe-keeping. That’s fine. But do we do the same with the actual light of Christ that has been given to us? Brothers and sisters, that’s not why Jesus gave us himself. He was incarnate for us, he lived for us, he died for us, he rose for us, he forgives our sins so that we can carry his new life, so that we can carry his kingdom to the world. He gave us his light so that we can charge into the darkness to declare the good news to the world: Repent, for the Lord has come to Zion; the God of Israel has returned to his people; Jesus is Lord!”
Let us pray: Gracious Father, you have given us a trust in your Word. Through the law, the prophets, the apostles, and finally through your Son you speak. You call us to repent, to turn aside from our rebellion, and to turn to you. In Jesus you have given us forgiveness and new life. Remind us always that the life of Jesus is for everyone. Remind us always that your work of redemption and new creation is bigger than us and that we have been redeemed and re-created ourselves to serve the kingdom you are building. Make us good stewards of the light of Christ and give us wisdom to know how best to live, to use, to invest for your kingdom this great treasure you have given. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.