This is a draft of the sermon I will be preaching tomorrow.
Whose Kingdom? Which Ruler?
The Parable of the Ten Pounds (Luke 19:11-27)
“We do not want this man to rule over us.” (vs. 14)
Throughout his ministry, Jesus travelled across the Middle East performing miracles, eating with those despised by society, chastising religious leaders, and teaching people about another way of life called the Kingdom of God. Often when Jesus preached and taught he would do so by telling parables: stories that reflected some reality and contained a hidden meaning; a teaching about the character of this Kingdom of God. This Sunday’s parable is particularly interesting because it takes up the themes of God’s rule and our citizenship directly, rather than focussing on any one specific characteristic of the Kingdom. In other words, it tells us something about the relationship between God’s work and God’s people in the world, and the manner in which we are to participate in God’s Kingdom on earth as it is already but not yet fully here.
As many of you know, I spent this past summer, from June until mid-August, living in Pauingassi First Nation. This is a fly-in reserve located about 300 km Northeast of Winnipeg. Approximately 560 Ojibwa people live here. I was employed through a grant with Child and Family Services to run a summer program for children ages 5-13 with two other young adults from GraceMennoniteChurch in Steinbach. My work with the people of Pauingassi has everything to do with how I understand Christian discipleship, and vice versa. And so I want to do a few things this morning. I will begin by working through the Parable of the Ten Pounds in and for itself, considering its historical and social significance, its purpose in the larger Jesus narrative, and its teaching. Then I will interpret what we have learned from the Parable in relation to my work in Pauingassi and Mennonite-Native relations in Manitoba more generally. I will conclude with some reflections on what the community of Pauingassi has taught me and what that can teach us further about how we understand ourselves as disciples of Christ.
Let us draw our attention to the text at hand. [Read Luke 19:11-27] It’s easy to get caught up in the details of this parable, the actions of the three workers, and overlook how the Parable is book-ended. While the details are important, we must also pay attention to how the story is situated in the Gospel of Luke. Chapter 19 locates Jesus passing through Jericho on his final journey to Jerusalem. The parable begins by telling us what prompts Jesus to share this story: “because he was near Jerusalem, and because they [his hearers] supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” (vs. 11) At the end of the parable, the subsequent verses in Chapter 19 recount Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, what we celebrate on Palm Sunday.
Moving on to verses 12-14, I would suggest that these are quite possibly the most significant in the parable: “So Jesus said, “a nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return. He summoned ten of his workers, 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.’” These verses, though part of a particular story Jesus is telling, anticipate his own reception by his followers into Jerusalem. As we know, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is marked by shouts of “hosanna,” meaning “save us.” These are the proclamatory cries of those who are confident that Jesus will be their Messiah, their saviour, and will defeat the Roman Empire once and for all through some sort of military conquest. But, to their great disappointment, Jesus is arrested, refuses to defend himself against his charges, does not resist his punishment, and dies a vulnerable, weak, and humiliating death on a cross. Some Messiah.
Let’s re-read those verses: “He summoned ten of his workers, 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.’” (vs. 13-14) Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? A bit like the commission Jesus gives his disciples to continue his work until he returns. This similarity, this connection between the parable and the larger Jesus narrative, gives us some perspective with which to understand the rest of the parable, the details. The despised owner, Jesus, orders his workers to continue his work while he is gone. He gives each worker one pound and bids them to use it, to ‘do business with it” until he returns. Upon his return, he summons his workers to see what they have done. The first worked hard to increase the money from one pound to ten. The second increased it by five. Both are rewarded for their work. The third, however, hid the money, did not put it to use, didn’t even store it in the bank where it could have collected interest. Rather, he hid it and protected it.
Now, one must be clear here that the third worker is not reprimanded because he was timid but because he hoarded something that was meant to be shared and multiplied. He receives nothing in the end because he was not willing to risk trading and doing business. Or, we can say, he was not willing to participate in the Kingdom of God. Instead, he hid himself and guarded his possessions for himself. But God’s Kingdom is not about self-preservation and storing things up for oneself. Nor is it for the faint of heart. The Kingdom of God is about God’s great risk of love for all of creation, a love that occurs through the weakness and vulnerability of the crucified Christ. The Messiah risks eternal death on the cross, descending to the gates of hell, for an abundance of love and grace that is shared and multiplied to all the nations in his resurrection. This is the character of the Kingdom we are called to participate in, and not half-heartedly. One lesson of the parable is that for disciples, for the workers, participation in the Kingdom, in the work God is doing in the world, is not optional.
Christian discipleship is risky business. It is a life lived radically out of control. How we do life, how we live—this, I believe, is at the heart of Christianity. Theologians call this Christian ethics. We often think of ethics as the process of weighing out pros and cons of a situation in order to make the best decision, or making choices based on certain principles we might hold, but I think that Christian ethics, the Christian life, is essentially concerned with this notion of witness and discipleship to the life and teachings of Jesus. When we proclaim the Good News of the Gospels, when we confess that Christ is Lord, we also proclaim that Jesus has inaugurated a new world order. What is perhaps most striking about this new creation is the radical change of relations it initiates. We are suddenly called to dine with the marginalized and despicable; we are called to show love to our enemies, even more than to our friends and family; in this new community, the inferior members are valued the most!
Verse 14 of the parable is striking: The owner gives his workers what they need to keep the place running and flourishing but the other citizens despise the owner saying “We do not want this man to rule over us.” Jesus offered the Kingdom of God to all, offered grace to all, but the citizens of Jerusalem hated him for it and had him crucified. They did not want this man to rule over them. This begs the question: why don’t we want Jesus to rule over the world? And perhaps more importantly: what does citizenship look like when God rules over the world? What might our participation in the Kingdom require of us? In other words, the parable is concerned with who we confess as Lord, which God we worship: the various gods of Empire such as mammon, greed, domination, control, and coercion, or the God of Abraham, a God of grace, love, and peace? The essential questions to consider here are: Whose Kingdom do we want to live and invest in? Which ruler do we want to serve? And how does who we serve change how we live our lives?
The book of Isaiah can give us some insight in this regard. The stories of Israel in exile constantly recount how God’s people turn away from their God and worship other gods and thereby begin to lead unrighteous lives. Some of the most powerful words come from Isaiah 58:6-11. [Read] The words of the prophet here are addressing the people of God in exile. They are in exile because they were worshiping other gods. They were building a kingdom that valued personal gains above anything else. Yet the kingdom of God is subversive of this kind of life because it radically inverts what and who is valued the most (the inferior members) and what counts as good character (love, grace, and generosity). The gods of this world teach us to value personal success and control of our lives. Jesus teaches us to value others, weakness, vulnerability, and to open ourselves to receive and participate in, instead of hoard and hide, the grace God extends to all.
All too often Christianity allies itself with capitalist preaching, coming up with teachings like: be generous but only if it benefits you, love others but only to the extent that you can maintain your preferred way of life. This understanding of Christian discipleship is seriously at odds with the life and teachings of Jesus who calls us to take up our crosses and risk love for our neighbours, all of them, and then also for our enemies. But we often find ourselves in the position of the third worker, don’t we? We are afraid to risk stepping into the unknown world of love for others whom we might not know, might not trust. But when we let go of that fear, or when we spend ourselves on behalf of the hungry, the oppressed, the despised, the broken, above the constant concern for our own well-being, then, God says, we shall flourish; our “healing shall spring up quickly” and we “shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”
As I mentioned at the beginning, I spent my summer working in Pauingassi First Nation. The SpringfieldHeights – MathesonIsland partnership that our congregation participates in is part of a larger initiative of Mennonite ChurchManitoba called Partnership Circles. GraceMennoniteChurch in Steinbach and PauingassiFirstNationApostolicChurch are also partnered within this initiative. One way to understand an initiative such as Partnership Circles is as charity, a one-way helping hand from wealthy educated Christians in Southern Manitoba to impoverished, under-educated Natives in the North. This kind of approach, I think, is unacceptable for Christians because it casts one group of people as superior to the other, fostering a relationship of dominance and dependence rather than the radical love, openness, and vulnerability in relation to others that Jesus shows and teaches us.
Throughout my studies of Bible and theology, as well as my work with the people of MathesonIsland and Pauingassi, I have come to a different understanding of what a Partnership Circle relationship means. I see it as an exchange of different gifts, of learning from each other; sharing in each others lives, our joys and sorrows, celebrations and challenges; and simply being-with one another in community; learning how to live well together as different people in the same province, with a history of oppression and violence, hurt and shame; learning how to foster peace, healing, and reconciliation with each other.
One evening when I attended the church service in Pauingassi, pastor Allen Owen began to read from 1 Corinthians 12 in Ojibwa. He is a short man with thick black hair, a constant smile, and joy-filled eyes. Because the five of us white people were in the room, he occasionally translated what he was reading as well as his interpretation and teaching on the text. 1 Corinthians 12 speaks of the different parts of the body and how each part is necessary for the unity of the whole. But his teaching on the text was one I had not heard before. He interpreted it along ethnic lines. If the foot is Anishinaabe, Native People, and the nose is Waptigosh, White People, he said, both are needed for the unity and reconciliation of the whole body. This expresses the understanding of Partnership Circles that I have come to. It is based on the perspective that we are all relational creatures, and that all of creation is interconnected and interdependent. Such an understanding of creation resonates with the Gospel message and the promise of the reconciliation of all things.
Moreover, such an understanding of creation affects how we treat others and work with others because it changes how we perceive the relation between ourselves and others in a world that is ruled over by God. When we see another person, or a whole community of people, as part of one body and essential to the unity of that body, we can no longer treat people as inferior, backwards, unintelligent, lazy, and any of the many other stereotypes that prevail in Euro-American perceptions of Indigenous peoples. Instead, we come to understand the importance of different parts of the body and their function in and of themselves as well as in relation to the whole. We come to understand a different way of life and to learn how to share in it. We come to learn different kinds of knowledge (the wisdom and skill with which to survive in the Manitoba wilderness, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually), different senses of time (patience, flexibililty, the value of people and relationships before agendas and projects), and different values (the 7 sacred teachings of love, respect, courage, honesty, wisdom, humility, and truth). We come to learn that our love and grace and peace are caught up with the lives of others in the world, who are sometimes radically different from ourselves. Lila Watson, an Aboriginal Australian, captured this perspective well when she said the following to non-indigenous peoples: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Let us open our lives to others in radical love. Let us be generous in our receptivity towards difference. Let us work together for justice, peace, and the healing of all nations. Let us live in the world under the Lordship of Christ.