Friday, December 7, 2018

Luke 19:11-27

This parable sometimes suffers from familiarity. We think we understand it: God gives us gifts, and we are to use them well. Good enough, so far as it goes; but there is a lot of depth and backstory we miss if we make Jesus' complex story here into a simple fable with a moral.

In Jesus' world and time, the idea of a nobleman going to a far country to receive kingship was all too familiar. The various Herods for a couple generations had been seeking the favor of their Roman overlords to receive kingship, governorship, tetrarchy, or whatever other scraps Rome was willing to dispense. They had survived civil war, palace revolutions, and changes in the political winds by currying Roman favor. And they were summarily resented and even hated by their Judean subjects. Josephus tells us that when Herod the Great was dying, about the time the child Jesus was learning to walk, he imprisoned dozens of the most valuable and beloved men in Israel in a stadium with orders that at the moment of his death they should be executed -- for the simple reason that he wanted people to grieve when he died. Fortunately the order was never carried out, but it gives insight into the relationship between Jesus' people and their government. The idea of a hated king who went to a far country to negotiate the terms of his rule would have been all too familiar to Jesus' hearers.

Luke tells us that Jesus tells this story precisely to counter the assumption that the kingdom is coming immediately. It's tempting to make the parable into an allegory, and to a certain extent this is helpful. But more often than not, we imagine Jesus returning in our time to hold us accountable for our work or lack thereof. Helpful from a motivational point of view, perhaps; but Jesus is speaking about his own "crowning," his own taking up authority that is about to happen at Jerusalem. Luke also tells us this when he mentions that they are "near Jerusalem." Jesus' hearers are assuming, still, a political victory, a coming coronation that will in some form exalt them all. In spite of Jesus' previous statements, they are not anticipating the cross, though Jesus is.

An intriguing aspect to the parable is that the citizens send a delegation after the nobleman to protest his rule. Is Jesus saying that we do this to God? We don't want Jesus to rule over us, so we protest to God about the way he's running his empire. We don't want to follow a crucified, shamed Messiah. We don't want to take up our crosses and follow. "God, I just want to be victorious!" Like the third servant with his handkerchief-wrapped coin, we want to avoid risk and simply reap rewards.

Possibly the most important part of this parable is that Jesus gives us insight into how we view God, and how God honors our perceptions. The third servant launches into a detailed description of his master: "You are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and you reap what you did not sow." Surprisingly the master just rolls with it. "You knew, did you, that I am like that? Well, I will judge you by your own words." What is your perception of God? What do you assume about God's character, and how accurate are your assumptions? Do you assume God is disappointed in you? Waiting for you to shape up? Angry because you've failed? You will receive the judgment of these inaccurate assumptions. Our failure is not usually in doing something wrong, but in failing to know the heart of God accurately. Verse 26 gets at the heart of this. Have you noticed how some people seem to enjoy the "green pastures" of the psalm no matter what is happening in their lives? They navigate challenges and difficulties with a deep sense of being blessed and favored by God, even in the midst of hardship. This is because they have come to know God's character -- his measureless love and tenderness for them, the fact that he is in fact for them, that they are beloved by him.

The next few chapters of Luke's gospel will set the stage for us to know God in this way -- to know his loving, self-giving heart in its fullness.

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