Like some others of you here, there was a time in my life when I was constantly having to tell “my story” – to my Rector, to the Bishop, to the Commission on Ministry, to the Admissions Officers of more than one seminary. I developed a way of telling my story that ended with the clear, dramatic necessity of my being ordained in the Episcopal Church, of course. But in the back of my mind, I knew that telling a story is a matter of a million tiny choices that push and pull on the narrative, directing it toward this or that outcome. With my own story, I could begin with how completely and totally loved I felt as child, which is true. Or I could begin with my father’s alcoholism that made that love complicated and difficult. I could begin with the beautiful and mysterious Anglo-Catholic parish I grew up in and its mirror image in the beauty and mystery of the South Florida coast that was the part of God’s creation that I played in and contemplated as only a child can. So many different ways to begin, and, having begun to tell the story, so many different narrative threads to choose among! It could end up practically anywhere. But in point of fact, it has ended up here, with my standing in this seminary pulpit on a Wednesday morning. The little girl at the top of the mango tree would have been very surprised to hear where her story was headed.
Awareness of all of these narrative choices makes me sympathetic to the four evangelists and the communities whose stories of Jesus they were bold enough to try to relate to us. If we could shake them down out of heaven to ask them about the differences among them, I can just hear them answering in exasperation, “Of course we’re different! It was hard enough to settle on these particular stories. You have no idea of the choices we had to make!”
And what about Jesus? Did he tell the parables we know more than once? Did he alter them, ever so slyly, for different audiences?
Let’s see what’s going on in the parable he told us this morning: “A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return….” Now we are traveling along in the Gospel of Luke, but if the evangelist Matthew were hanging out with us this morning, he would have straightened up and given Jesus a sharp look at that beginning. Because Matthew knows of a parable very like this one, but his begins, “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents….” It has become almost a requirement of interpreters to hear Matthew’s parable of the talents as an allegory about how God gives certain gifts and skills to people and expects them to use these God-given, well…talents. We refer to human abilities as “talents” because of the denomination of money mentioned in Matthew’s parable. Let’s leave Matthew in his cloud of puzzlement, and come back to where Jesus is beginning his tale: “A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return….” I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like God to me. And if I listen to what else is said of this nobleman, I begin to trust him less and less: “…the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to rule over us;’” At the end of the story, the nobleman slaughters all who oppose him. Does that sound like God to you?
But if the parable of the pounds in Luke isn’t about making good use of our God-given abilities, then what is it about?
Jesus is provoked to tell this parable “…because he was near Jerusalem and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” Now, here is the audience participation part of this sermon: What is going to happen when Jesus gets to Jerusalem? ___________. When the parable finishes, Luke tells us, “After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.” The road that Jesus is on is the same treacherous Jerusalem-to-Jericho road that plays such a prominent role in the parable of the Good Samaritan, with the exception that Jesus is headed in the opposite direction, up to Jerusalem, where he will make the ultimate offering to God. So there is a dark frame around this parable. It is framed by Jesus’ courageous choice to enter the world controlled by all the authorities who have opposed him. These are the authorities represented by the nobleman who expects others to milk the system for his benefit: “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.” The man with the single pound stands silent, just as Jesus stood silent before his accusers. Like the man with the one pound, Jesus refused to participate in unjust systems as a way of saving his skin. This is a story that uncovers the creative power of NO: NO – I will not invest this money, this life, this heart, in a rotten system. The parable asks us: so did Jesus waste his ministry then? Did he just let it all die with him, slaughtered as he was by the Romans for show at Passover? Why didn’t he just cooperate a little bit, invest ever so slightly in their system? Then he would have lived, made more disciples, been a success!
If we had been standing by Jesus’ side when he began this story, we would have heard him say to the crowds who watched him invite himself over to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner, “The Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.” The parable that Jesus tells next, this difficult parable of the pounds, is part of his strategy to seek out and save the lost. He just told it to us, here, today. The parable seeks us out, asking, “Are you lost?” Am I lost? The parable of the pounds is like an X-Ray machine, a Cat Scan for lost-ness. Can you recognize where God is, and where God isn’t, in the parable? Can you distinguish between earthly authority and God’s authority? What, for you, is success? How do you discern when to persevere with a ministry and when to entrust it to the dying-and-rising process? What would you risk your life for? This parable will show you all of that.
The Parable of the Pounds in Luke is not nice. It has been sharpened to a razor’s edge for people who think that the world is going so well, the Kingdom of God must be just around the corner. Watch out – this parable is seeking you out, to mess up that comfortable life, to save you by the power of NO. Amen.