Last Sunday after Pentecost, Year C: Christ the King Sunday
Luke 19:29-38 - link to NRSV text
This Sunday is our celebration of Christ the King. But what are we doing when we acclaim that Jesus is our king? There's a game I like to use to provoke thought about that. It starts as each participant gets a sign taped to his or her back saying, "queen," "king," "duke," "duchess," "servant of the court," or "beggar." There are munchies and a punch bowl to sample, and everyone is told that this is a party, and the object of the game is to help people guess what the sign on their back says by behaving toward them as you think someone of your status (what your current guess says the sign on how the sign on your own back reads) would treat a person of that status. If the other person's sign says "beggar" and you're pretty sure yours says "duke," you would might haughtily ask, "what are YOU doing here," or you might try to summon a servant to remove the beggar -- but you'll have a rude awakening if it turns out your own sign says "beggar" too! After a while, we stop the game and talk about how we tried to guess what sign was on our backs, how it felt to treat other people according to what we saw, how it felt to be treated as we were. The "beggars" and the "servants" almost always report that it felt pretty bad to be treated as they were -- especially when they tried to present themselves as someone worthy of a place at the table.
Jesus' parable in Luke 19:11-27, AKA "The Parable of the Talents," shows us the brutal side of living in such a hierarchy. It's a common thing to interpret this parable using wordplay on "talent" as a unit of money and "talent" as a gift or talent, and to conclude that the parable is an allegory suggesting that we ought to make profit with the talents (gifts, abilities) God gives us. But there are some serious problems with this interpretation. First, the whole "talent/talent" wordplay thing doesn't work in the Greek; the Greek word means clearly (and exclusively) a unit of money, and bears no resemblance to the word for an ability. Second, in the culture of the first-century Mediterranean world, making a profit as the master of the parable demands and two of the servants do wouldn't be seen as virtuous or clever so much as grasping and unethical.
But most importantly, look at how the nobleman in the parable -- the character usually taken as representing God in an allegorical reading -- is described. He is NOT a king at the start of the parable; he is a nobleman who is seeking royal power for himself, an ambitious pretender to the throne. He is "a harsh man, taking what [he] did not deposit and reaping what [he] did not sow." He fumes that his servant could at least have lent the money at interest, breaking the commandment against usury, and he punishes his servant for refusing to break that commandment.
Is this how God behaves? Is this how God uses power? I don't think so. It makes a whole lot more sense to see the statement of "to all those who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away" as a statement of how sinful people operate -- the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. That's what happens when your ruler is a sinful man: ruling by might and fear, he aggrandizes himself at the expense of his poorest subjects.
Jesus offers a radical redefinition of kingship, a radical vision for how the truly powerful use power, and Luke's presentation of the "triumphal entry" in this Sunday's gospel right after his "Parable of the Ruthless Nobleman" (a better title, I think, than "Parable of the Talents") makes the two passages together a one-two punch blow to those who misuse power, following up the verbal jab of the parable with a roundhouse blow of street theater.
And I do think that the "triumphal entry" was street theater, a satirical criticism of how rulers like Pontius Pilate behaved. When Roman rulers had a military triumph, they would process in to the city mounted on the finest war horse, outfitted in gleaming armor, marching the prisoners captured on the campaign and displaying trophies from the conquest. Such processions served to honor the conquerors and humiliate the conquered, striking awe and (for those who hated Rome's power) fear into the hearts of all who saw the spectacle.
Jesus rides in to Jerusalem on the same route these conquerors would have used. But instead of mounting a charger, wearing fine clothes and impressive armor, and marching with his armies pushing forward their captives, Jesus rides in on a borrowed colt, a peasant flanked only by a ragtag bunch of followers. His humble entrance spoofed and mocked the displays of might that Roman rulers staged. The people's recognition of his humility comes across as they acclaim him not by his own name, but in the name of the Lord.
But I don't think that we need to read Luke's comment on "the deeds of power they had seen" as being necessarily or entirely ironic. True, Jesus does not display the might of armies, the power of senators and generals and governors. Jesus' power is not shown in his ability to bring a people down, but in his power, given by God, to bring a people together. It's a people called to treat one another and everyone they meet as if the sign on their back -- the identity they secretly have and need to discover, is something like what 1 Peter 2:9 says is our identity as God's people -- "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation."
Christ the King is the one whose kingship was shown in how he treated the poor and outcast as royalty, and whose vindication from the God in whose name he rode into Jerusalem showed us that his humble service is the kind of behavior God truly honors.
Thanks be to God!
Thank you. I had followed this post from your next, Advent I. Your interpretation of the parable makes much more sense than the shaming one that I've heard...but avoided preaching. My biggest pre-sermon struggle recently has been to look at my interpretation of judgement and threat, hold it up, put it aside, and then ask where the good news really is. "But," an inner voice whines, "I want to judge...."
Posted by: Grant Barber | Nov 27, 2010 12:54:02 PM
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