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By Your Own Words

A Homily from Luke 19:11-27

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee

February 2, 2006 (Classroom Sermon)

The author of Hebrews notes that “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” [Heb 10:31]. It’s a good thing that this idea was included in our canon of Scripture, because I am not sure that we would be inclined to remind ourselves of it otherwise. Twenty-first century Christianity does not do “fear of God” well, if we do it at all. Many of us, particularly in liberal congregations, have been so wounded by traditions which use the fear of God and the threat of Hell to advance their own social agendas that we instead focus exclusively on the grace and the mercy of God.

After all, there’s already plenty of stuff to be afraid of: pollutants in our water, viruses traveling through the air, crazy drivers on the road. Wherever we go, there is something or someone to be afraid of. It’s only natural that we should try to make our churches places that are refuges, sanctuaries where we can escape, however briefly, the things which frighten us.

Unfortunately, if we wish to construct a religion without fear – and in particular without fear of Almighty God – we have to ignore large portions of our scriptures. You may be surprised to know that the lectionary on which we base our worship here seems to be fine with ignoring memorable and significant passages of scripture. In fact, the gospel reading I have selected for today – one of the most frightening to be found in the words of Jesus – is nowhere to be found in the Revised Common Lectionary. There are plenty of excellent places where it would fit nicely, but the lectionary skips over the middle of Luke 19. We get to hear about Zacchaeus, and we get to hear about the triumphal entry; but we jump right over nearly a page of comments by Jesus on the Realm of God.

Some of you may be thinking that you have heard at least part of this text before, but if you heard it in a church which follows the lectionary then you were probably hearing a similar parable from Matthew [25:14-30]. That parable is pretty scary too, but it does not contain the full cruelty of this one. Even that one was apparently a little to hot for the lectionary editors to handle, since they stuck it on the very end of Year A where it is most likely to be pre-empted by Reign of Christ Sunday. It’s fair to say that you can go an entire decade in church without ever hearing any version of this parable read; and you are very likely to go your entire lifetime without hearing today’s text from Luke.

What are they so afraid of? What makes this text so dangerous that it’s better off left out of worship entirely? Should we follow the hint of the lectionary editors and ignore it as well?

Let’s find out.

Jesus tells us this parable just before he enters into Jerusalem. Along the way he has acquired a crowd of both disciples and skeptics around him. The crowd can’t wait to see what is going to happen when Jesus gets to Jerusalem. Either way, they figure, it’s all going to be over then. Either Jesus will start this new kingdom he’s been talking about, or he’ll be executed and the grand adventure will come to an end.

Jesus overhears them talking about what the kingdom is going to be like, and he sits them down to tell them a story. “You want to know about the kingdom do you? OK, here we go, one last time: There was a nobleman who went far away to be awarded his kingdom…

Now those of us who know what’s going to happen in the next few chapters of Luke should already be seeing some parallels between Jesus’ own story and the start of the parable. We hear about a man who goes far away to become a king, and we know that Jesus is teaching them about his kingdom. Despite the frantic attempts by many interpreters to convince us otherwise I think we have to assume that Jesus is talking about himself here. For that reason, even though I generally prefer “Realm of God” over “ Kingdom of God”, I’ll use the kingdom language here. I don’t like implying that God is only male; but in this case we are speaking of Jesus, and “King” seems to fit him better than “Monarch.”

Right there we’ve already threatened some contemporary Christian theology that paints the Realm of God as a “Commonwealth” – a cosmic utopia in which there is no ruler. This parable clearly undercuts that idea, and rightfully so. Whether addressed as Father or Mother, Christians understand that God is more than our partner in the Realm of Heaven, God is our sovereign, our indisputable Creator and ruler.

That in itself isn’t terribly controversial or frightening, but there’s more to the parable. Jesus says, “The man summoned ten of his slaves.” We heard “servants” during the Gospel Lesson because the NRSV prefers to translate “slaves” that way – but these were slaves. Although they could own property, earn status and prestige, and receive formal education; the people in this parable were slaves. The noble owns them. He clearly trusts them and gives them great responsibility; but they are nevertheless his.

When they arrive, the noble cuts each of them a check. It’s hard to translate the amount, but we can estimate it at about $ 6000 in today’s money. The man gives each one six grand and says, “Be productive with this until I get back. Make more money!” Does the allegory break down here? We have no record that Jesus gave any money to his disciples when he ascended into Heaven. On the other hand, we do know what he left behind: the gospel, the good news of the mercy of God. The disciples may have expected Jesus to stick around and establish his kingdom, but it turns out that the kingdom would be built while he was away. The kingdom is in fact still being built, while we continue to wait for our King’s return.

Jesus pauses to tell us a little more about this would-be king. It turns out that he is hated by the citizens whom he will rule. As soon as the noble is on the road, the locals send their own team hot on his trail to argue against him getting the kingship. If we want to continue to see the king as Jesus, the easy thing to do is to turn this part of the parable into an attack on those who are not Christians. Doing so, however, probably gives us too much credit. Perhaps if all Christians lived and acted in a way that perfectly matched the life of Christ, maybe then we could turn to criticize those who follow other paths. The reality is: none of us can claim to fully embody the Christian ideal. So it is difficult to argue – considering the many sins of the Church – that those who reject or even hate Christianity are actually rejecting Christ. It’s probably more fair to say that there will always be those who love wealth and comfort more than justice and mercy, and those who do hate what Jesus represents.

Still, if you paid attention to what happens to these folks in the end of the story, you should already be a little scared. That’s one of the fears that’s written deeply into this parable. If Jesus is only going to let certain people into Heaven [John 5:17-30], what if we’re in the wrong group? If he’s going to separate the sheep and the goats, what if we are the goats [Matt 25:32-33]? What if we have to be super-Christians to receive the grace of God [Matthew 23:33]?

What if? It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Even the loyal slaves are a bit scared. The nobleman returns, and he’s a king. If he was frightening before, he’s doubly so now. Most likely he has come back with a large entourage, perhaps even an army. The man who has absolute power over the slaves’ lives now has absolute power over everyone’s lives.

The new king sends for the slaves. There’s an overachiever in every crowd: the one who always raises his hand first in class, the one who always ran the fastest to tell your mom what new rule you’d broken, the one who always finishes her project first and then presents it to your boss in a flawless PowerPoint presentation…you know the type. Well, that slave comes forward and drops a check for sixtythousand dollars into the king’s lap. She has multiplied what he gave her ten-fold. The king is impressed, and gives her ten cities to rule over.

The second slave wasn’t quite so ambitious, but he still did quite well. Perhaps with a grumbling look at the first slave; he hands over a check for thirty thousand dollars. The king is still pleased and gives the slave five cities to rule over. We can assume it continues this way until it is the last slave’s turn. It could not have been much fun for him, watching as the others presented their checks. If you ever had a bad report card to hand over to your parents on the same day your brothers or sisters handed over good ones, you probably know how he felt. If, like me, you spent more time sitting outside the principal’s office then you did in class, you know exactly how he feels.

The last slave swallows the lump in his throat, steps forward, and gives the speech he prepared. “Your majesty, I know that you are a harsh man who takes whatever he wants even if it’s not his. I did not want to anger you, so I took your money and hid it under my mattress….um, here it is. Six thousand dollars, just like you gave me. I didn’t lose any of it.”

The poor slave was afraid that the king’s standards were so high he would never live up to them, and so he simply hung on to what he could. Here’s where the most terrifying sentence in the story comes in. The king looks at the slave and says, “I will judge you by your own words!” I will tell you right now that’s a preacher’s worst fear. We get up every Sunday to shoot off our mouths about what Christians should be doing and what God asks of us. Goodness forbid that anyone ask us if we are doing those things.

“I will judge you by your own words.” The more I think about that phrase, the more I realize how scared we all should be. Just look at some of the things that come out of our collective mouths in worship:

Listen to our words, the words of the Creed we speak every Sunday: “I believe…in the holy catholic church.” We say that unity is important to God, but we spend more time beating up on other Christians – be they fundamentalists, liberals, or anything in between – than we do uniting the Church.

Listen to our words, the words of the Confession: “forgive our sins…have mercy on us.” We say that we are sinners, and that we are forgiven; but half the time we lie to ourselves about the sins we enjoy; and the other half of the time we refuse to allow ourselves to accept forgiveness for the things we feel really guilty about. Often we claim mercy for ourselves, and then deny it to others.

Listen to our words, the prayers of the people as we say, “hear our prayer”. We say that God listens, cares, and acts for us; but we act as if we are the only ones we can count on to get anything done.

“By your own words I will judge you.” I certainly hope not.

But the king in the parable does judge the slave by his own words. The king says, “You know that I take what is not mine? Then why didn’t you at least put the money in the bank so that you could have made a little interest off of it. Since you couldn’t even be bothered to do that, I’m taking it all back and giving it to the slave who made me $ 60,000. Get out of my sight! Those who have more will get even more, and those who have nothing will lose it all.”

Then, the king sends for the people who didn’t want him to be crowned, and he has them slaughtered in front of him and the entire court.

There we have it: the Kingdom of God. It is a place where the gospel is generously given in equal amounts to us all, but those who keep that gift to themselves lose it and those who reject it are brutally executed by an angry, vengeful God. I doubt many of you actually believe this, or you wouldn’t be here. You’d find a kinder, more gentle religion; and I wouldn’t blame you.

But if we look deeply enough inside the dark corners of our faith, if we sweep away the cobwebs and dust off the memories and the worries we try to keep shoved away, if we are honest; isn’t this what many of us are afraid God is really like? No matter what we believe, isn’t this what we fear – in our worst moments – reality is actually like? Are we afraid that God will find our faith or our lives lacking, or that – even if we make the cut – our friends and loved ones who aren’t Christians won’t be with us in Heaven? “By your own words, I will judge you.”

Those fears can be paralyzing. Many of us come into church Sunday after Sunday, never feeling worthy to hear the Words of Absolution or to share in the Eucharist. If you are here today and barely hanging on to your faith by a thread, this parable is not directed at you. It would do a great disservice to the entirety of the Bible to use this one text to terrify you out of faith in a God of love and mercy. God says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” [I Cor 12:9]. God promises never to leave or forsake us [Heb 13:5]. God assures us that there is “no condemnation for us through Jesus” [Rom 8:1]. We cannot interpret this parable alone Instead we understand it in the fullness of Scripture, Scripture which offers comfort to those who are challenged and challenges to those who are comfortable.

Likewise, if you are looking for a text to use to frighten or condemn non-Christians, this may not be your best choice. Regardless of where you stand on universalism, the best use of this parable is not to question the salvation of other people. This text demands that we question our salvation. Where do we stand in the parable?

There may be times when – like the frightened slave – we angrily confront God, questioning whether or not God is indeed a harsh and greedy ruler who gives and takes without regard to what we think our rights are. Whether that is true or not does not matter in the end – since we will never sit in judgment of God.

What does matter is that we have been given an incredible gift, the gift of mercy, grace, and hope. God has given to us generously and without limits, and God tells us that the purpose of the gift is not to keep it to ourselves. God has given it to us so that we can give it to others: so that we can generously forgive other people, so that we can generously care for other people, so that we can heal, support, and affirm others as God has healed us.

In a few minutes the tangible sign of that gift will be placed in each of our hands in the shape of a small wafer. It is the gift of a King who found his crown hanging on a cross. We can assume that the gift is for us, and we can eat it and then forget about it. Or we can make the body of Christ a part of our bodies and let it transform us, giving us the strength to go out and work to multiply the power of the gospel in the world. The choice is ours, but it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.