One of the ways I liked to pass the time when I was elementary school age was to sit in our living room and listen to Reds baseball games on the radio. We had big speakers that sat on the floor and one of them was in the corner of the living room. I’d cuddle up in my beanbag in the corner and listen to Marty and Joe do the play by play. I knew how baseball was played, but I’d never been to a Red’s game and had never seen them play on TV. So a lot of what was actually happening was up to my imagination to fill in. As far as I knew, Astro was the name of a puppet that we had in kindergarten who helped teach us the ABCs, so when the Reds played the Astros, I imagined guys dressed up like this puppet running around the bases. It also seemed incredibly unfair whenever the Reds had to play the Giants. I could never figure out how anybody could beat the Giants. When we did go to our first game, there were a few surprises. Since we lived on a farm, my sister really wanted to know where the bullpen was in the stadium. She was disappointed to learn that there were no live animals around where the pitchers were warming up. I remember being surprised that Marty and Joe sat up off the field in a booth that I could barely see. I imagined them somehow down on the field, maybe right in the middle of the game, since it seemed like the game couldn’t really happen without them describing it.
I thought of these memories as I studied the gospel reading for today because they illustrate something key in what is going on with Jesus and his listeners. As children, and adults, our imaginations are shaped by what we know, what we have experienced, what is familiar, and what parts of the world we have come in contact with. When something that is unknown presents itself, we have this collection of images and experiences that help us imagine what it could be like. The Giants are like giants from children’s books. A bullpen is like what’s down in our barn. Part of the thrill of new experiences, or watching movies, or reading books, is that they broaden our imaginations.
We could say that Jesus’ mission was to share with us from the imagination of God. To open up for us, to introduce us to a way of being in the world that we would not be able to imagine apart from having seen it taught and lived out in the life of Jesus. Right in the middle of a story made up of images of greed, of violence, of fear and despair, we are offered a story that springs from a completely different kind of place. Our limited vision is given a new way of seeing . Our darkened hearts are offered new light. That’s what’s going on in the parable from Luke 19.
Let’s take a look at the parable together. You’re welcome to turn in your Bibles to Luke chapter 19:11-27.
Luke wants us to make sure we know why Jesus is telling this parable. He prefaces it in this way: “As they were listening to this, (Jesus) went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” Because Jesus is closing in on Jerusalem, people had it in their heads that they knew what was going to happen. They supposed, they envisioned, they imagined, that the kingdom of God – whatever that is – was about to show up. And of course because Jesus had been using this “kingdom” language their imaginations were completely colored by their previous experience of what a kingdom is like. A kingdom has a king, who rules over subjects, and expects certain things out of his subjects, and punishes those who don’t perform properly. The best a subject can hope for in life is to acquire as much wealth and power for themselves that they can, and stay on the good side of the king. They had every reason to suppose that this kingdom of God Jesus spoke of would be similar. This is how God acts in the world as king – ruling and punishing and so on — and this is how we act as subjects – competing for power and prestige and so on — because this is all we’ve ever known, all we’ve ever seen. We can’t imagine how it could be different.
Jesus’ method for speaking to this isn’t a straightforward description of what is and isn’t right about these expectations. It’s much more creative and provocative. He’s takes what we might call the Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert approach. These comedians have made their living on late night cable with satire. For Colbert, he makes light of the personality of the overly confident highly ideological talk show host by taking on the personality himself and exaggerating it to the point of being ridiculous. He overstates the personality in order to show its silliness and the danger it may pose to the public that relies on accurate information that is not overly biased or twisted out of shape.
With the same kind of satire, Jesus tells a parable about a king who is way too full of himself and his kingliness to run any kind of just kingdom. The parable actually plays on people’s expectations of a master who rules by fear and domination and subjects who battle for prestige – with the hope of exposing these images as silly and dangerous and destructive.
The parable is a mix of history and fiction, and describes a nobleman going to a distant country to get royal power for himself. The citizens of his country despise him and don’t want him to be their king. Jesus’ listeners would have thought immediately of Herod Archelaus, one of the sons of Herod the Great, who traveled to Rome to get the approval of Caeser to rule Judea after his father died. He was a brutal ruler, slaughtering 3000 men who opposed him before he traveled to Rome and continued to fight against his enemies while he had power. The historian Josephus describes delegations of Jews and Samaritans that went to Rome to urge Caesar to replace Archelaus. He was considered so brutal that he was banished by Rome.
As the parable goes, before this nobleman went away to the distant land to become king, he gave ten slaves a pound each, about three months wages, and told them to do business with the money for him until he returned as their ruler. When he comes back with royal power, he asks each servant to give an account of their investments. Some have gone along with his wishes, and some have not. The first did quite well and gets rewarded accordingly. From one pound he was able to earn ten, and gets to be a part of the king’s new government by having charge of ten cities. The second also does quite well. He has added four more pounds to the original for a total of five. He is rewarded with ruling five cities. But the third slave refused to play the game. He gives the king back his money that he had wrapped up in a cloth, not even wanting to touch it. He tells the king that he is afraid of him because he’s harsh and takes things that aren’t his, reaping what he did not sow. This sends the new king into an uproar. He admits to being harsh, but just in case the slave might think that the king is getting soft and confessional on him, he takes away his pound and gives it to his highest performing subject, the slave with ten pounds and ten cities. Rightly so, everyone is upset by this. This isn’t fair. “Lord, he already has ten pounds.” To which to king replies, “I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” In other words, “When I’m in charge, the rich get richer and the poor will have nothing.” As a final gesture of kingly authority, he orders those delegations who didn’t want him to be their king to be brought before him and slaughtered, right in front of him.
There’s another way this parable is often interpreted. We’ve each been given a certain amount of gifts and resources and we should use those gifts to the best of our ability in service to God. This is a good teaching, an important teaching, with a lot of truth in it. But it’s not the message Jesus is giving here. Jesus is coming at things from a different angle. He’s telling this parable right after having eaten with Zacchaeus, basically right in his living room. He had just declared salvation for one who had divested his wealth from Rome and distributed it to those he had defrauded. This calls into question all the characters in the parable we usually consider to be exemplary – the king and the two most prestigious slaves. In the spirit of satire, we have here another of Jesus’ attempts to help people imagine something different than what they had experienced. Because they supposed that they were about to join a new kingdom with a new king, Jesus wants to illustrate what this kingdom will not be like.
Pastor and writer Brian McLaren says this about Jesus’ parables: They are “artistic works of short fiction that seek to abduct the human imagination from the dominant, destructive, and confining framing story currently at work in human society, and to free human beings to imagine and pursue new possibilities.” (Sojourners, November 2007, p. 22)
The parables were actually not all that successful at abducting the human imagination from the destructive story and presenting new possibilities. The Christian movement would not have taken root had Jesus simply been a teller of parables. It wasn’t until he became a parable that the Spirit of God was able to break through to our darkened hearts and minds that were so blinded by the dominant story. For all of his wit and wisdom he offered his listeners, it wasn’t until he walked straight into the center of our dark systems of control and prestige, in the center of Jerusalem, and was publicly executed for his refusal to play the game – it wasn’t until Jesus was hanging, dying on a cross that the disciples began to see just how destructive our whole way of being in the world really is. The very systems and kingdoms that claimed to offer peace and security and freedom, and even salvation, were the very ones that crucified Jesus. And in the days that followed, as it began to become clear that this was not the defeat of Jesus by these powers, but the triumph of Jesus over these powers, having exposed them for what they really are as Paul says in Colossians, the satire of the cross, then there emerges the new imagination that isn’t caught up in the destructive story, but is free to live a new kind of story. A story that is known simply as gospel, good news, a way of being in the world not characterized by domination, by fear, by control and the pursuit of personal power, but one characterized by compassion, by peace within and peace without, by relinquishing control, by forgiving and being forgiven.
The challenge is always to live within the story coming out of the imagination of God rather than the story that continues to thrive within the darker parts of our own humanity. To attach ourselves to gospel. To become good news as a community of faith.
All of this is summarized well in the hymn: “I bind my heart this tide to the Galilean’s side, to the wounds of Calvary, to the Christ who died for me. I bind my soul this day to the neighbor far away, and the stranger near at hand, in this town and in this land. I bind my heart in thrall to the God, the Lord of all, to the God, the poor one’s friend, and the Christ whom he did send. I bind myself to peace, to make strife and envy cease, God knit thou sure the cord of my thralldom to my Lord. Amen.”