A Parable about Faithfulness (Luke 19:11-27)

Parable of the Ten Minas, by Dutch painter Willem de Poorter (1608-1668)

The crowd was listening to everything Jesus said. And because he was nearing Jerusalem, he told them a story to correct the impression that the Kingdom of God would begin right away. 

He said, “A nobleman was called away to a distant empire to be crowned king and then return. Before he left, he called together ten of his servants and divided among them ten pounds of silver, saying, ‘Invest this for me while I am gone.’ But his people hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We do not want him to be our king.’

“After he was crowned king, he returned and called in the servants to whom he had given the money. He wanted to find out what their profits were. The first servant reported, ‘Master, I invested your money and made ten times the original amount!’

“‘Well done!’ the king exclaimed. ‘You are a good servant. You have been faithful with the little I entrusted to you, so you will be governor of ten cities as your reward.’

“The next servant reported, ‘Master, I invested your money and made five times the original amount.’

“‘Well done!’ the king said. ‘You will be governor over five cities.’

“But the third servant brought back only the original amount of money and said, ‘Master, I hid your money and kept it safe. I was afraid because you are a hard man to deal with, taking what isn’t yours and harvesting crops you didn’t plant.’

“‘You wicked servant!’ the king roared. ‘Your own words condemn you. If you knew that I’m a hard man who takes what isn’t mine and harvests crops I didn’t plant, why didn’t you deposit my money in the bank? At least I could have gotten some interest on it.’

“Then, turning to the others standing nearby, the king ordered, ‘Take the money from this servant, and give it to the one who has ten pounds.’

“‘But, master,’ they said, ‘he already has ten pounds!’

“‘Yes,’ the king replied, ‘and to those who use well what they are given, even more will be given. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away. And as for these enemies of mine who didn’t want me to be their king—bring them in and execute them right here in front of me.’” (New Living Translation)

The great humanitarian issues of this world are not only individual concerns but are also systemic problems.

And the majority of those troubles are us climbing the wrong ladder. It’s a booger to get to the top and find out all that energy was expended for a worthless chamber pot full of $%&!.

So, whenever we examine Holy Scripture, especially the words of Jesus, it’s necessary to pay attention and hear both the responsibility of individuals and the accountability which human culture has to ensure a just society and equitable structural systems.

In other words, evil resides in both the individual human heart and in the world’s operating system. Corporations, communities, and churches not only have sinful persons within them; sin also resides in the very ways we about business, interactions, even worship.

Westerners tend to read a story, like today’s Gospel parable from Jesus, with individualist eyes. Yes, it is about individual servants; and it’s also about community and culture – and ultimately about the kingdom of God.

The cost of Christian discipleship is high, demanding both personal and communal faithfulness to Jesus Christ.

Christianity is concerned for all of life – not just the religious parts but all the parts – both body and soul, personal and communal, church and workplace, individual minds and institutional education, healthy emotional selves and healthy public discourse. It all matters to God.

Whoever’s in charge makes a big difference as to whether right and just systems are followed, or whether corrupt and oppressive operations are the chief mode of ruling.

To illustrate the contrast, Jesus told a parable about systemic evil and whether one will be faithful to that or some other way of operating.

In the parable, the nobleman becoming the king is a reference to an earthly ruler, not Jesus. Before this worldly prince takes off to obtain more authority, he summons ten of his servants and gives them each ten pounds, or coins.

As the sort of person who rules in standard worldly ways, the nobleman fully expects the servants to operate just as he himself would: collect unfair taxes, squeeze the poor of what little they have, and generally do whatever it takes to make a profit. This, of course, is why the story tells us that the general populace hate the guy in charge.

Parable of the Ten Minas, by Unknown 16th century artist

This is not a parable about rejecting the Messiah or God; it is about authority and government, economics and politics, systemic oppression and structural evil. It’s about where our faith and commitment is truly placed.

The ruler is quite pleased when the first and second servants faithfully invest in the politics and economics of his worldly kingdom. So, the servants are rewarded for abiding by the system.

However, if you buck the system, like the third servant did, you’ll get condemned. That servant knew the sort of ruler he was dealing with and the kind of cutthroat system which was in place. And he wanted nothing to do with it.

The third servant in the parable is unfaithful to the unjust ruler and oppressive system because he is faithful to another lord with a different kind of system. This servant was prepared to accept the consequences of his convictions and his inaction. In a way, he was practicing civil disobedience.

As servants under God’s rule and reign, we are not to play along with worldly systems of injustice and oppression. If we want to be faithful Christian disciples, then we must live into the words and ways of Jesus; we must be prepared to pay the price for our commitment to an alternative kingdom.

Everyone has faith. It’s just a matter of whom and what we place that faith in.

Perhaps Jesus had the words of his mother, Mary, in his mind when he told the story. She was willing to accept whatever happens in a complete commitment and faith in God:

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38, NRSV)

Jesus was unlike any earthly ruler. Christ operated very differently than any worldly government. He and his teaching were in stark contrast to others:

God will bless you people
who are poor.
    His kingdom belongs to you!

God will bless
    you hungry people.
You will have plenty
    to eat!
God will bless you people
who are now crying.
    You will laugh!

God will bless you when others hate you and won’t have anything to do with you. God will bless you when people insult you and say cruel things about you, all because you are a follower of the Son of Man…. So when this happens to you, be happy and jump for joy! You will have a great reward in heaven.

But you rich people
    are in for trouble.
You have already had
    an easy life!

You well-fed people
are in for trouble.
    You will go hungry!
You people
who are laughing now
    are in for trouble.
You are going to cry
    and weep!

You are in for trouble when everyone says good things about you. (Luke 6:20-26, CEV)

In order to embrace Christian ethics, worldly practices have got to be jettisoned. To make room for the good, the just, and the right, we must let go of any and all ways contrary to our Christian commitment of following Jesus.

Are you willing to be the third servant?

Gracious and sovereign Lord God of all, in your mercy, hear our prayers:

Help us to be understanding and forgiving of all those we encounter.

Show us how to serve one another, to offer love, care and support.

Guide all those who are called to lead and advocate in the world.

Inspire our leaders, teachers, doctors, social workers and counsellors to be bringers of hope in all situations.

Protect all those who carry peace to other nations. Bless the food, care and shelter they provide.

Comfort those who live with grief. Help them see the light of heaven.

Heal all the broken-hearted and those with broken bodies and spirits.

Embrace those in pain and physical suffering. May they feel your abiding and close presence.

Watch over all who feel isolated and alone. Calm their fears and lead them into peace and freedom.

Strengthen and encourage all those who seek to serve and protect the vulnerable.

Lead us to be generous with our time, possessions and money.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers, and answer them according to your good grace and in your good time. Amen.

Luke 19:45-48 – Jesus Cleans House

A bronze panel of Jesus chasing the merchants from the Temple by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455)

When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words. (New International Version)

Jesus seems a bit like an actor in an old western movie. He’s the sheriff who drifts into town, sizes up the situation, shoots up the bad guys, defends the women and children, and cleans up the town. 

It’s a side to Jesus that might surprise some.

Jesus is no simple one-dimensional person, as if he’s always calm and picking dandelions. Christ is fully human and fully God – a complex person full of both human and divine anger. Today’s Gospel lesson reminds us that Jesus defies stereotyping, and that we need to see a fuller profile of who he is, and what he is up to.

Jesus is not only the merciful servant who graciously heals at the temple; but he is also a mighty judge who is intolerant of unjust systems and cleans house. 

Because Jesus is superior to everything, he is not some Being that we can domesticate for our own personal use. He did not come to this earth as some sort of spiritual vitamin supplement, or to be on call 24/7 in order to bail us out when we need it, or help us get ahead in life.

Instead, zeal for his Father’s house consumes Jesus. (John 2:13-17)

Jesus driving the merchants out of the Temple by Raymond Balze (1818-1909)

Christ sought to please the Father. Jesus oversees what the church and Christians are supposed to be. 

It’s our task to conform to Christ, and not the other way around. 

That happens whenever we let Jesus be the sheriff who drives out our sin, and, at the same time, the town doctor who brings the needed healing to our lives. 

Jesus cleaned house by attacking the system he saw operating.

It was Passover, the time when all pious Israelites made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Cattle, sheep, and doves were used for sacrifices. And the only place where those sacrifices were made was at the Temple in Jerusalem.  This meant that anyone wanting to worship God from outside of Jerusalem would have to do some traveling. 

Over time, a system was set up: Vendors established kiosks which lined the Temple courts; and they sold animals for the required sacrifices, as a matter of convenience. 

Since there were thousands of folks who came from a long way, often from outside of Israel, they brought their foreign currency with them, and it could be exchanged at the tables set up by money-changers.

Perhaps that all sounds practical. A little capitalism which provides a service for the people doesn’t seem all bad. So, what’s the problem? 

Jesus didn’t have a problem with capitalism per se; his problem with the whole system is that it should not even exist – these guys should not be in the Temple, at all! 

Jesus attacked the system and made a western movie scene out of it because the vendors and money-changers, even if using sound business practices (which they weren’t) should not even be there. For Jesus, it trivialized the Temple and took away from its intended purpose as a house of prayer for all nations.

Here’s how the system was supposed to work:

Coming to the Temple from outside of Jerusalem was never intended to be easy or convenient.

Making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem was supposed to be difficult. For the past year, since the last Passover, a family raised a newborn lamb in their house. Parents and children all took part in caring for it.

Then, when it was time, they all journeyed to Jerusalem together, taking turns carrying the year old lamb over their shoulders. Everyone knew what was coming. Their precious lamb, now a cherished part of the family, would be given in sacrifice at the Temple.

It was all a very powerful reminder of sin’s cost and how terrible it truly is.

Entering Jerusalem with no animal, and only money to buy one, is a cheap facsimile of real worship.

It misses the entire point of the system. It hinders people from genuinely connecting with God through prayer.  And Jesus will not put up with it – to the point of violently driving the whole system out of the Temple.

Jesus didn’t mess around with the sinful system. He didn’t politely ask the money-changers to move their tables somewhere else; he didn’t strike a deal with those selling animals to market them at cost. No. Instead, he went all town sheriff on them because the whole system was a blasphemous act against the right and true worship of God.

It has been the sin of the Church, through the centuries, to find ways of doing ministry and worship by not actually doing it (e.g., selling indulgences). 

We might feel good by simply attending a worship service, or offering some obligatory prayers, and giving money without having done anything to meaningfully connect with God. Our devotion may not be toward bringing something of ourselves to sacrifice by using our spiritual gifts and laying our lives down for others. 

It’s really a heart issue. For example, we might rightly give to missionaries or mission projects. Yet, if we give without any thought to doing missions ourselves and being missional people, then we are in grave need of having a clean house by overturning the tables in our hearts. 

17th century Ethiopian depiction of Christ cleansing the Temple

Jesus cleaning house was not an end in itself; he did it so that the Temple could be used for its intended purpose: A house of prayer. A place of healing. A gathering of collective praise to God.

Whenever an existing system is challenged, there will be those who push back because they benefit from the way things are.

The religious leaders were incensed by Christ’s systemic change. The behavior of Jesus challenged their authority, and they were angry about losing some of their power – not to mention jealous and envious that the people hung on his every word.

Jealousy rots the bones. Envy and selfish ambition accompany every evil practice and are behind every evil system. (Proverbs 14:30; James 3:14-16)

The real culprit behind the Temple system, as well as our own conflicts and disagreements is our selfish anger, our abject jealousy that someone else is receiving something which should be mine, and our insidious envy of wanting what another has.

Jesus knew he would upset and anger the religious leaders. But he cared enough about the proper place of worship that he attacked the contrived Temple system that fed on obscuring what real sacrifice was. Christ was willing to take on the establishment and reestablish a house of prayer for all people.

The way for us has been made clear through the death of Christ. Jesus has removed the old system and replaced it with the new. (Hebrews 8:13)

Therefore, we ought to be a beacon of hope for all who are coming to God and desire to offer their sacrifice of service or praise. We must eliminate any system, rule, or practice that eviscerates true worship.

May we follow the Lord Jesus by being active and proactive in making the way clear for others to come to God. And the first step to doing so is by having God clean house on our own hearts.

It’s what a good deputy sheriff would do.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Amen.

Amos 5:10-17 – Work It Out In the Public Square

People hate this kind of talk.
    Raw truth is never popular.
But here it is, bluntly spoken:
    Because you run roughshod over the poor
    and take the bread right out of their mouths,
You’re never going to move into
    the luxury homes you have built.
You’re never going to drink wine
    from the expensive vineyards you’ve planted.
I precisely know the extent of your violations,
    the enormity of your sins. Appalling!
You bully right-living people,
    taking bribes right and left and kicking the poor when they’re down.

Justice is a lost cause. Evil is epidemic.
    Decent people throw up their hands.
Protest and rebuke are useless,
    a waste of breath.

Seek good and not evil—
    and live!
You talk about God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies,
    being your best friend.
Well, live like it,
    and maybe it will happen.

Hate evil and love good,
    then work it out in the public square.
Maybe God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies,
    will notice your remnant and be gracious.

Now again, my Master’s Message, God, God-of-the-Angel-Armies:

“Go out into the streets and lament loudly!
    Fill the malls and shops with cries of doom!
Weep loudly, ‘Not me! Not us, Not now!’
    Empty offices, stores, factories, workplaces.
Enlist everyone in the general lament.
    I want to hear it loud and clear when I make my visit.”

God’s Decree. (The Message)

I believe an honest hearing of the prophet Amos would change the world.

I’m not talking about angry ranting which works people into a frenzy of fear and suspicion. I am referring to giving Amos a serious hearing, just like we give the Apostle Paul our focused attention.

Too bad so many people are unfamiliar with this prophet and his message. This unawareness, or even purposeful ignorance, could be one reason why the ancient message of Amos appears as fresh today as it was so long ago.

Poverty has always been with us – but that doesn’t mean we ought to only shrug our shoulders and say, “Meh, what’s a guy to do?” Instead, we can determine to address the issues which create a large class of poor people to begin with. Those issues include malevolence, materialism, and militarism.

Malevolence

The moral compass of many of the earth’s nations is askew, even broken. It needs to be recalibrated to the true north of biblical justice.

Back in the prophet’s day, bullying, bribery, and backstabbing were tools used for malevolent purposes. Those same implements are still being used by some today.

You must not pervert justice or show favor. Do not take a bribe, for bribes blind the eyes of the wise and distort the words of the righteous. (Deuteronomy 16:19, NET)

Those who plant injustice will harvest disaster,
    and their reign of terror will come to an end. (Proverbs 22:8, NLT)

But why would people be so unjust to other people? What would motivate someone to purposefully harm another in this way?…

Materialism

Whenever people have an exorbitant amount of stuff, generosity is typically not their first impulse (Ecclesiastes 5:10). Rather, the extremely rich among us have an equally extreme temptation to hold on tight to their wealth – so much so that money and acquiring more stuff becomes their religion. That’s why Scripture is replete with warnings about money.

Jesus said:

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24, CEB)

“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15, NRSV)

It’s bad enough when individuals, families, and corporate companies devote themselves to a bloated materialism without regard to the poor; it’s even worse when entire nations, governments, and regions do it. From their perspective, what is the most effective way for them to protect all that stuff and self-interest?

Militarism

Pouring significant amounts of money into maintaining armies to safeguard resources – and the way of life which created those resources – puts the focus off the poor and onto the interests of wealth. It also diverts money which could address problems of poverty and puts it into a massive defense budget.

Throughout the Old Testament, militarism was seen as fundamentally not trusting in God. And the prophets have a well-known term for this: idolatry.

The Lord doesn’t care about
the strength of horses
    or powerful armies.
The Lord is pleased only
with those who worship him
    and trust his love. (Psalm 147:10-11, CEV)

Make sure to not build up a war machine, amassing military horses and chariots. (Deuteronomy 17:16, MSG)

Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. A standing military is a must – I’m just pointing out that we need to know precisely what we’re defending. Are we truly defending the rights of the poor, the disadvantaged, and the needy? Or are we defending someone’s exorbitant wealth?

Work It Out In the Public Square

Policies need to reflect values. Greed can and is legislated as a politic of indifference, whereas generosity can be ensconced with a politic of caring for the common good of all, not just some. This is not namby-pamby liberal drivel – it is paying attention to the biblical text.

Addressing poverty means removing the obstacles of malevolence, materialism, and militarism. And it begins with practicing lament.

The very presence of systemic racism and poverty, ecological devastation, healthcare disparities, economic policies which do not benefit all persons, and distorted notions of nationalism requires not only virtuous policy making, but also demands public lamentation.

Why lament? Because the Lord, the One who observes and sees all the wrong against the most vulnerable of the earth, demands that it be done.

Wherever there is injustice, we need people who will champion the cause of the needy through voicing aloud the deep grief from being squished by the powerful, as well as affirming trust in the Lord.

I’ll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness,
    the taste of ashes, the poison I’ve swallowed.
I remember it all—oh, how well I remember—
    the feeling of hitting the bottom.
But there’s one other thing I remember,
    and remembering, I keep a grip on hope:

God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out,
    his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.
They’re created new every morning.
    How great your faithfulness!
I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over).
    He’s all I’ve got left. (Lamentations 3:19-24, MSG)

O Creator of all living things: We are all hungry in a world full of abundance. The possibilities of food for bodies and souls overflow on this earth. We ask for the grace to see the abundance of our world and enough awareness to acknowledge our sins of greed and fear.

Give us openness of soul, courageous spirits, and willing hearts to be with our sisters and brothers who are hungry and in pain, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are One God, now and forever. Amen.

Amos 2:4-11 – Pay Attention to the Poor

The Poor and Money by Vincent van Gogh, 1882

This is what the Lord says:

“For three sins of Judah,
    even for four, I will not relent.
Because they have rejected the law of the Lord
    and have not kept his decrees,
because they have been led astray by false gods,
    the gods their ancestors followed,
I will send fire on Judah
    that will consume the fortresses of Jerusalem.”

This is what the Lord says:

“For three sins of Israel,
    even for four, I will not relent.
They sell the innocent for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
    as on the dust of the ground
    and deny justice to the oppressed.
Father and son use the same girl
    and so profane my holy name.
They lie down beside every altar
    on garments taken in pledge.
In the house of their god
    they drink wine taken as fines.

“Yet I destroyed the Amorites before them,
    though they were tall as the cedars
    and strong as the oaks.
I destroyed their fruit above
    and their roots below.
I brought you up out of Egypt
    and led you forty years in the wilderness
    to give you the land of the Amorites.

“I also raised up prophets from among your children
    and Nazirites from among your youths.
Is this not true, people of Israel?”
declares the Lord. (New International Version)

It’s not a sin to be poor. It is a sin to oppress, take advantage of, or exploit the poor.

Social justice isn’t something fabricated in the minds of progressive Christians. Social justice is biblical and at the heart of all sixteen prophetic books of Holy Scripture’s Old Testament.

The reason the prophets address poverty so often is that God hates injustice. God is not okay with an entire group of disadvantaged people having needed resources beyond arm’s reach – and the Lord’s ire is especially roused whenever the wealthy and powerful extort what little the poor have to begin with.

Even if there are some who tend to believe the poor are poor because of laziness or an unwillingness to work hard, you will not find that idea amongst the biblical prophets. You will, in fact, find just the opposite: fat cats who lie around with their privileged lives, not lifting a finger to help the underprivileged.

The Church does have a role in combating systemic oppression of the poor and needy, and the prophet Amos wants those who claim the name of the Lord to know it.

Amos not only harangued the nations who surrounded Israel and Judah of their sinful stances toward the poor, he leveled the very same message at God’s people who did the same things. Although the Israelites enjoyed a special status with God, that did not mean the Lord had a different set of values or expectations for them when it came to basic human justice.

Mistreating one another is a universal sin and all nations everywhere will be held accountable by God for how they treat the least persons among them. There is such a thing as universal human rights – and the godly person will care about this, at the least, because God cares.

Amos almost exclusively hones-in on the economic sins of the wealthy: taking away needed clothing from those who default on loans; assessing unnecessary and exorbitant fines; taking levies of grain; and living a lavish lifestyle on the backs of the less fortunate.

It was these continually repeated sins against one another which eventually led to both Israel and Judah being conquered by pagan nations and carried into exile.

Today, you will still easily find people being used by others, as if they were mere inhuman machines, here on this earth to make money for those who already have plenty of it. They’d sell their own grandmother if they could get a good price on her. Extortion and oppression are like eating and drinking to them.

Yet, such persons, groups, even entire governments are only stockpiling judgment upon themselves for the God whom they must eventually give an account in how they lived their lives on this earth.

Instead, intentionally paying attention to the poor and treating them with equity will involve the following:

  1. Donating to charitable causes, such as church denominational relief funds, and respected international organizations who can make your contributions count.
  2. Agitating politicians for better policies toward the poor. Writing letters, sending emails, and making phone calls are simple ways of letting your voice be heard in a democratic society.
  3. Learning about worldwide and local poverty. It’s hard not to be involved whenever there is pertinent information. Putting names and faces to struggling people is a must, as well as understanding some of the dynamics that go into poverty.
  4. Raising awareness of significant issues related to poverty and how it impacts the poor. Find others who care about this and share insights and understanding about how to educate others.
  5. Volunteering at a local organization who works with the poor.

There are many more ways to make a difference. As biblically informed people, care of the poor and being concerned for issues of poverty is a must, because the Lord is a Just God with a heart of justice for the disadvantaged, underprivileged, and needy among us.

Now if there are some poor persons among you, say one of your fellow Israelites in one of your cities in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, don’t be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward your poor fellow Israelites. To the contrary! Open your hand wide to them. You must generously lend them whatever they need. (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, CEB)

Just and merciful God, you give honor to the least, the forgotten, the overlooked, and the misjudged.

You give first place to the last, the left behind, the misunderstood, and the undervalued.

You give a warm welcome to the lost, the orphaned, the abandoned, and the destitute.

Help us, your people, to be your ears in listening to their cries.

Help us to be your voice speaking words of encouragement, affirmation, and acceptance.

Help us to be your feet walking beside those in need; and your hands to clothe, feed and shelter them.

You came for the least, the lost and last of this world. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.