Last week Jesus had continued his journey to Jerusalem by heading through Jericho, but he had raised some major eyebrows by inviting an annoying blind beggar and the ruler of the tax collectors, Zacchaeus, a very powerful collaborator with the hated Roman Empire, to join with him on this journey. Jesus was bringing oppressor and oppressed together into one new community that was baffling to everyone. But Jesus pressed on knowing that Jerusalem, the center of all the power, wealth, and authority for the Hebrew people, was the place at which the story of the people of Israel—the children of Abraham—must culminate and climax. There, the creator god would heal the creation that was being crushed under oppression and injustice.
The crowd that followed with Jesus was eagerly anticipating this long awaited coming of god’s rule—they were excited about the victory ahead. In the face of this eager anticipation, Jesus told a parable—a parable that prepared his followers for what was ahead—a parable to warn them, because they were fundamentally misunderstanding how the rule of god actually worked. Jesus needed to remind his followers what lay ahead for those who embraced the rule of god, he needed to sober up their expectations.
Jesus began his parable by telling them about a man of noble-birth who went away into a far-off land to receive power over his country so that he might return to rule over it. This was a very familiar situation for Jesus’ hearers. In Palestine it had been common for rich men of noble-birth, like Herod the Great and his son Archelaus, to go off to Rome to receive power and then come back to rule over the area with taxes, oppression, and tyranny.
Before he left, this man of noble-birth in Jesus’ parable called ten of his slaves and gave each of them one-hundred-days’ pay, ordering them to do business with it until he returned. After he left, the residents of his land, who all hated him, sent an ambassador after him to declare, “We do not want him to rule over us!” The ambassador was not listened to by the rulers and authorities. The man of noble-birth was given power over the people and he soon returned to establish his rule.
Upon return, he immediately called his ten slaves together to whom he had distributed his money in order that he might find out which of them were faithfully doing what he asked. The first of the slaves came forward and revealed that he had used the money to make ten times more than he had been given. The new lord praised this slave, “Well done, good slave! Because you were faithful with the least, you will have authority over ten cities!” The second came to him and revealed that he had made five times more than he had been given—and so he was likewise given authority over five cities. The new lord was determined to reward those who worked for his benefit and helped extend his rule and wealth.
Suddenly, however, another slave came forward and revealed the money he had been given. There it was, the exact amount, folded up in a dirty rag used for wiping noses and wrapping dead bodies. How dare this slave insult this lord in such a way! The slave spoke up, “I am afraid of you because you are a harsh man! You take what is not yours, and harvest where you did not scatter seed!” This slave did not beat around the bush. Despite his fear, he boldly called it as it was and refused to obey. This lord took what did not belong to him and harvested where he didn’t scatter. He charged profit-earning rent to his tenants and taxed everyone he could. He was a greedy, oppressive tyrant, just like Herod and the Roman Empire—just like all men who would presume to rule others.
Furious that he had been called out, the new lord’s anger boiled over, “I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked slave! You knew that I was a harsh man, taking what was not mine and harvesting where I did not scatter seed? Then why did you not give my money to a bank-table and then back to me with whatever interest it made?” This lord demanded something of his slaves that was forbidden by the law of the living god—he expected his slaves to charge interest in order to make money off of others. The Torah clearly forbid the charging of interest, saying, “You shall not charge interest to your fellowman, neither interest on money, food, or anything else that may be loaned.” And those who had heard Jesus teach knew that Jesus himself had taken this to a whole new level, “Give to everyone who asks of you and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back….love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return.” Moses had forbidden interest and Jesus, taking it much further, had forbidden expecting anything at all in return for a loan.
And yet here was this lord arrogantly demanding that his slaves amass wealth and charge interest. He said to those there, “Take away from him the one-hundred-days’ pay and give it to the one having ten times that!” Startled, they replied, “Lord, he already has one-thousand-days’ pay!” But he responded, “I say to you, to everyone that has, it will be given! From the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away!” Under this lord’s rule the rich were going to get richer and the poor were going to lose everything—there would be no equity and no justice, the first would become more powerful and the last would become even weaker.
But sadly, Jesus’ hearers were used to this kind of ruler. One human ruler after another would come into their land and work to amass power and wealth for those on top. Jesus, however, had been proclaiming a kingdom far different than this that was illustrated by the two rich men he had encountered right before this. The first of the rich men refused Jesus’ invitation to live under the rule of god, “sell everything you have and give to the poor,” because he could not envision a world where people just let go of all property and wealth for the sake of their neighbors. The second rich man, Zacchaeus, embraced this very different kingdom by giving away half of his possessions to the poor and using the other half to pay back four times what he had stolen through his business dealings. When human beings are in charge the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, but under the rule of god the poor are filled and the rich are emptied, the first are made last and the last are made first.
Then finally, the angry lord in the parable passed his judgment on the man who had refused to deal with his money and had symbolically wrapped it in a burial cloth, “As for these enemies of mine, who were not wanting me to rule over them, bring them here and slaughter them in front of me!” This new ruler had to eliminate and kill those who stood against his rule—he had to deter others from opposing him. This is always the case amongst human rulers—they rule by suppressing their enemies through fear, force, strength, and the threat of death. Jesus, however, declared a different way to engage one’s enemies, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also.”
Jesus’ parable was complete—his warning was strong and bold. He revealed that the rulers of men were always brutal and oppressive tyrants and so those who opposed them for the sake of god’s rule needed to be ready and willing to suffer. He revealed how these rulers of men, who expect everyone to get in line because of how dangerous and terrifying they are, are going to respond to those who defy their rule. If you stand up against these rulers, then even the very little you have will be taken away from you. If Jesus’ followers are going to be faithful to god’s rule then they must be ready to face hunger, weeping, hatred, and even death. Zacchaeus, who had just bailed on his job as ruler of the tax collectors and had dispersed all the wealth at his disposal, needed to be ready for this kind of response from those in power above him. Did Zacchaeus really think he could defy the Roman Empire the way he just had and get away with it without repercussions?
Immediately, after warning his followers with this parable, Jesus turned and walked this dark road himself. Jesus headed up to the holy city, knowing the fate that awaited him—rejection, suffering, and death. He boldly rode into the city and entered into the temple. There he confronted the rulers of men who were making the rich richer and the poor poorer. He overturned the tables of the bankers and scattered their filthy money across the ground. Like the man in the parable, Jesus refused to participate in their games of power and money. And just like his parable had warned, this made the rulers furious. They plotted against him, arrested him, and dragged him before their councils. There he stood trial for opposing their rule and they sentenced him to death. They took him out of the city and had him killed before them.
Jesus never sugar coats anything and never lures us in with half-truths either. He always soberly and honestly lets us know what we are getting into if we follow him. He wants us to know what embracing god’s rule and rejecting the rule of mankind will bring—he wants us to go in with eyes wide open. And so as Jesus stood at the edge of Jerusalem he warned the eager crowds about the reality of what lay ahead. Following Jesus into the centers of power and willingly taking up our own cross means to share a similar fate as his. It means losing everything—it means facing certain suffering and persecution. You cannot defy the tyrants of our world without them eventually striking out to eliminate you.
But Jesus told us earlier in the gospel not to fear those who can only kill us. For our god is more powerful than these authorities and is more powerful than death itself. God reversed what the rulers of men did to Jesus, for Jesus’ body was raised from death. Tyranny and oppression were overcome. Justice was restored. We are free to embrace the road of the cross because our god raises the dead. The rulers who threaten us with death, have no true power. Even as we are defeated and taken advantage of, god’s rule will win the day—we will be raised from dead. Amen.