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The King, the Servants, and the Money

Today's Gospel lectionary reading is from Luke 19:11-27....
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. So he said, 'A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return. He summoned ten of his slaves, 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." When he returned, having received royal power, he ordered these slaves, to whom he had given the money, to be summoned so that he might find out what they had gained by trading. The first came forward and said, "Lord, your pound has made ten more pounds." He said to him, "Well done, good slave! Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities." Then the second came, saying, "Lord, your pound has made five pounds." He said to him, "And you, rule over five cities." Then the other came, saying, "Lord, here is your pound. I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, for I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow." He said to him, "I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave! 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." He said to the bystanders, "Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds." (And they said to him, "Lord, he has ten pounds!") "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. But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them-bring them here and slaughter them in my presence." 'After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
If you find this parable of Jesus bewildering, then I am right there with you. Because I was not quite sure what to make of this today, I turned to a greater mind than my own, that of Tom Wright who has written a wonderful commentary entitled Luke for Everyone. Here is Wright's commentary on this passage....

Jesus' story of the returning king, and of those who had not wanted him to rule over them, is all the more terrifying because there is no pardon. We cannot flatten the story out, or creep nervously round its sharp edges, because Luke has made sure in the rest of the chapter that the meaning will stay with us. Jesus' tears over the city, and his stern action in the Temple, indicate well enough that the judgment at the end of the parable was meant to be taken seriously 
Who then is the king? Who are the servants? When is the judgment taking place? 
For most of church history, this parable has been taken as a picture of the last judgment, the time when, at the final end of history, Jesus returns as king to reward his faithful followers and punish the disloyal. But we can be sure that Luke didn't think of it like that. Luke believes, of course, in Jesus' second coming (see Acts 1.11), but he does not intend us to read this story as a reference to it. The parable is about something happening much closer to Jesus' own day. 
Jesus is telling a story about the king who comes back to see what his servants have been doing, and he tells it for the same reason as he told almost all his parables: to explain what he himself was doing, and what it meant. He was coming to Jerusalem, the end and goal of his long journey. And he was challenging his hearers to see and understand this event as the long-awaited return of Israel's God, the sovereign one, the rightful king. This was the hidden meaning of his journey all along. This was what it would look like when the true God finally returned to Zion.  
The prophets had spoken of this day. Long after the exiles had returned geographically to Jerusalem, Malachi had spoken of 'the Lord whom you seek' coming suddenly to the Temple, bringing fiery judgment. Zechariah also spoke of God coming at last, and all the holy ones (angels?) with him. Clearly many Jews of the time believed that, though the Temple had long since been rebuilt (and was now being beautified and extended by Herod), the living God had still not returned to live in it. Now, Jesus is saying, this is happening at last. But who will be able to stand before him? 
Within the world of first-century Judaism, as we have seen before, a story about a king and his servants would naturally be read as a story about God and Israel. How should one then interpret the period of time between God's leaving Israel at the time of the exile and his eventual return? The answer of this parable is: as the time in which Israel has been given tasks to perform, which God on his return will investigate. Jesus has been warning, throughout the previous ten chapters, that judgment will fall on the nation, the city and the Temple itself if they do not finally heed his call. Now God himself is coming and the servant who has hidden his master's money in a handkerchief will be found out. 
The darkest strand in the story concerns the citizens who don't want this man to be their king. This almost certainly echoes the story of Archelaus, the older brother of Herod Antipas. After the death of their father, Herod the Great, in 4 BC, Archelaus went to Rome to be confirmed as king, followed by a delegation of Judaeans who didn't want him. (Ten years later, after much misrule, he went again, only to find another delegation of Jews and Samaritans opposing his appointment--this time successfully.) But now, Jesus is implying, the unwanted King is coming back in power: not another wicked Herod, but the true King, the King who comes with a message of grace and peace, the King who was rejected because his people wanted to keep the kingdom for themselves. 
The story therefore says three things to Jesus' hearers. First, to the people who supposed God's kingdom was coming immediately, it declares that it is indeed coming, but that it is coming with judgment as well as with mercy. Second, it indicates that as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, the city that is already rejecting his message, God's judgment is being prepared. If they will not receive his kingdom-announcement, there is no more that can be done. Third, it brings together dramatically Jesus' own journey and the return of God himself, and thus unveils the hidden secret inside so much of the gospel story. Jesus is not just speaking about God, God's kingdom, God's return to Zion. Jesus is embodying it. Concealed within his own messianic, royal mission is the ultimate, and more fateful, mission: Israel's God himself, in human form, is returning at last to the city and Temple dedicated to his honour, to put to rights, at every level, that which has gone wrong. We who still await the final day of God's judgment, the final 'coming' of Jesus to our world, do well to ponder this 'coming' to Jerusalem as its sign and foretaste.

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