When we get to hearing Stewardship sermons we are all familiar with the parable of the Talents. In Matthew’s version the boss goes on a journey and leaves his servants his property. To one he gives 5 talents, to another 2, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he goes away, which turns in to a kind of test. On his return the boss calls for an accounting. The first two servants ‘doubled their money.’ They were rewarded with a great return, more responsibility. Then there was that ‘wicked and slothful’ one talent fellow. He didn’t use his talent, in fact he buried it for safe keeping because he had great fear about the master and so did not want to lose it. That man was forced to give his talent to the one who had so much already and he was cast into outer darkness.
This parable today is not exactly identical, though one might presume that whoever wrote Luke had a copy of Matthew to look at. This one is called the parable of the "sums of money" if you read the Message version of the Bible. That sum is thought to be about three months of a laborer’s wages, in today’s economy, perhaps $10,000 after taxes.
It is important to not read this passage in isolation. It begins, as we heard it, "While he had their attention, and because he was getting close to Jerusalem…" and they were getting excited about God’s kingdom appearing any minute, so Jesus told a story… Jesus had their attention because he had just been to Zacchaeus’ house. (Luke 19:1-10) Those of us who went to Sunday School remember perhaps fondly the story of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a wee little man… It may have been a favourite because we were small as children and could relate to the height and status of Zacchaeus. However, as children we probably didn’t relate to how reviled Zacchaeus was. He was the Revenue Canada worker getting his rightful amount out of us and then exacting an extra toll to line his own pockets. Now, you could argue that that was the only way he could work for the Roman government and make a ‘go of it.’ He didn’t have a defined benefit pension, full health care coverage, good wage, etc. etc. What we do know is that he was hated by his fellow citizens and they were outraged that Jesus dined with that sinner.
But for those who paid attention to this Sunday afternoon tea party, the results were astounding. Zacchaeus was so overwhelmed by the attention of Jesus, of God to him, the ‘outcast’ that he committed himself to a total about face-he gave away one half of his income to those in need and said he would pay back 4 X what he had extracted through cheating. That got the crowd’s attention!
The crowd sees that Jesus is ‘on a roll’. They are pretty impressed with the teaching and the healing and the effect Jesus has on all of those he meets. So, they think that by going to Jerusalem he will ‘take it all the way’. This Jesus, will be their Messah, he will take over the authority of Rome and all of those oppressing them and they will become the ‘winners’ in this movement for freedom.
Jesus seizes the moment. He presents a parable which reinforces what happened at Zacchaeus’ house and will inform what is going to happen in Jerusalem. It will not be as they are expecting. They will need to wrestle with their response, just like Zacchaeus did, and re-imagine what the actual kingdom of God is about. Like Zacchaeus, Jesus calls them all, as he calls us too, to conversion, to a redeemed life and the responsible use of God’s gifts here and now. They will be challenged to see that the kingdom is already in their/our midst through the ministry of the redeemed. God’s power is already at work changing lives…now! And in the return of Christ, the kindom is yet to come.
So, Jesus shares a parable, a story that was heavenly-pointing to the kindom which is unfolding and earthy-in that it related to events of the day. About the time that Jesus was speaking, King Herod had died and his eldest son, Archelaus was seeking the Roman senate’s affirmation ‘in law’ that he was the true successor to his father’s ruling power over Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. However, those of that territory sent 50 people –Palestinians, Jews, and Samaritans to oppose the appointment and seek self-rule. Antipater, a step-brother of Archelaus and his delegation also put forward their claims that he should be the actual heir to rule, power, and wealth. Is this sounding rather contemporary? In the end, Rome named Archelaus the rightful heir, though they gave him somewhat less power and influence than he petitioned for.
While he was away, doing his lobbying, Archelaus had handed out sums of money to his followers with a charge to manage his affairs properly in his absence. When he returned he asked for a proper accounting. This was a ‘test’ of their good management and their loyalty. This was the way of life and Jesus’ listeners would be well aware of the similarities in the parable and the true story of the ruthless, Archelaus.
Luke’s version of this parable doesn’t leave quite as much money in the hands of the servants as Matthew’s version. It is thought that this is because Matthew spoke to the people with greater resources than Luke’s audience. Regardless, we are told what happens to 3 of the ten servants. The first doubles the money and is given more power, influence and responsibility. The second just made 50% more, rather than 200%. He too was rewarded with more power, influence, and responsibility. The third servant was forthright with the king. He stated he was fearful. He took no risk, but he was returning the sum, safely, just as he had been given it. That servant was made an example of. He was berated, "Why didn’t you at least invest in securities and gain simple interest." "You have squandered what you have been entrusted with and therefore it will be taken away from you and given to the one who provided the best return." "Risk your life and get more than you ever dreamed of. Play it safe and end up holding the bag." So we have the story of a rather ruthless King who tests the loyalties of his staff from whom he might pick his future associates.
What did Jesus expect his hearers to understand from the parable, and how did it relate to the things seen and heard while visiting with Zacchaeus? And finally, what value do all these things have for us, 20 centuries later? The issue before us is this: How well have we done business with the resources and gifts of the kingdom that have been entrusted to us? It was the question of the first century and it is the question we also must ask of ourselves today.
Zacchaeus is a faithful servant, an example of how one responds to and uses the gifts of salvation. Instantly, he begins trading and doing business with the gifts God has given. "Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold." With God's gifts come obligations.
It is a pity if you forget how to play the piano because you don’t practice, or if the summer fallow grows up in weeds because it hasn’t been cultivated. The church is challenged to find a place in the lives of young adults in our day. It seems to me that a measure of our harvest is to keep nurturing ourselves and others in the faith. It would be a failure to have a generation of children who have been baptized in the church grow up in ignorance because their ministers, teachers, and elders failed to pass on their heritage. A group of us will be meeting with our neighbours of St. James Anglican to see what activities we might engage in together to nurture families in Christian faith.
Our United Church prides itself on taking our Christian teachings in to all aspects of our lives and communities. Through a national television program and at a concert many of us recently experienced the gifts of a few persons who have used their talents to highlight our need to reconcile the tragic history of our treatment of indigenous persons. They have particularly focused on the reality of our churches and our governments operating residential schools where they concentrated on taking away the aboriginal ways of the children and purposely isolated them from their families.
Gord and Mike Downie have recently told the story of Chanie Wenjack through a book and recording entitled, "The Secret Path." The 50th anniversary of the death of 12 year old Charnie just passed. He was found on the side of a railway track he had followed for days as he ran from a Kenora area residential school where he was abused. He was running toward his home reservation, back to the safety of his family 400 miles away.
Gord Downie, lead singer of the ‘Tragically Hip’ is dying of brain cancer. His group did a big concert in August to give Downie a chance to give a hopeful message to his fans. One of the messages he delivered that night was a need for Canadians to live out the Truth and Reconciliation Report so that healing between indigenous Canadians and others might happen. Chanie’s story was resurrected from the past and highlighted as only our modern media can do today. Downie could sit back and just enjoy the final months he has with his friends and loved ones. But no, he wanted to take up the task of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help us heal as a nation with aboriginal Canadians. Downie and friends have dedicated the proceeds of "The Secret Path" to Truth and Reconciliation work.
When the Downie brothers went and spoke with Chanie’s big sister, Pearl about resurrecting the story they wanted to make sure they had her permission to do so. They knew that this would open up old wounds. Others on the home reserve were not so sure it was a good thing to do. Then Pearl, Chanie’s sister spoke up. "When Chanie died, I mourned his death and I asked the creator to make Chanie’s short and troubled life have some meaning." "It has taken the creator 50 years and now Gord has arrived to make that prayer come true." "He should tell the story."
Gord Downie was largely ignorant of the legacy of residential schools and their impact on indigenous peoples. Similarly, Zacchaeus was largely ignorant of the meaning of Jesus’ coming to his village in Jericho. He had no idea when he climbed up in that tree, the transformation which would take place in his life and the lives of so many others. Gord Downie didn’t climb a tree-though his effort was immanently more difficult- he used his resources and talents to tell a powerful story to millions of Canadians at the same time that he is most physically and mentally vulnerable. Downie has been overwhelmed with the relationship he has come to have with Chanie Wenjack and his loved ones. Gord Downie has taken a risk and gotten a result beyond what he could have ever dreamed about. The parallels of these two stories are awesome! Thanks be to God!
Acknowledging Inspiration from:
Gord Downie, "The Secret Path", cbc radio and television