Servants and Citizens
How many people in here have seen Avengers: Endgame? That movie is unlike anything that’s ever been done before, not because it’s great (it is), but rather because it’s the culmination of twenty-two films, made over ten years, telling individual stories which each contribute to one much larger story.
While Endgame is the biggest example we’ve ever seen, we have seen other things like this before: the Harry Potter novels and films tell one large story through seven smaller stories; the same goes for Star Wars, The Chronicles of Narnia, and pretty much all long-form storytelling on television. (You can even see it to a certain extent in some series which were created a very long time ago, like in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, or Dumas’s d’Artagnan novels.)
Have you ever wondered why these series exist? Arguably, today, the answer is, “To make money.” But why does it work?
Because when a story is really good, you want to know what happens AFTER the end. The story comes to a really satisfying conclusion—so satisfying, in fact, that we want to know what happens to the main characters after the final moments.
That’s kind of what we see in today’s text: it’s the sequel, the what now? that comes after a really satisfying story.
That satisfying story, if you remember, was the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19.1-10).
Last week we saw Jesus coming into Jericho and calling Zacchaeus out of the tree. He goes to his house, and something happens in Zacchaeus to radically change him: he commits to give away nearly everything he has because of the change Jesus has produced in him. And we find out that everything that’s happened to Zacchaeus has happened on Jesus’s initiative: he summarizes these events in verse 10:
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.
So Jesus came to seek and save his people; and when he does it, he draws them to himself, he transforms them from the inside out, and he saves them, so that they are now secure in his salvation.
That’s wonderful…but just like at the end of any great story, what we want to know at this point is, What happens next?
What does Zacchaeus do with this grace he’s been given? What do any of us do? What is the experience after meeting Christ supposed to be?
Today’s text deals with that question, and in no uncertain terms.
In fact, this text should be taken together with the previous one, because the two passages take place one right after the other. V. 10 has Jesus saying, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” And in v. 11, we read,
11 As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable...
So what he’s going to say in today’s text, he’s saying to those people who were either in Zacchaeus’s house or within earshot, listening (including Zacchaeus himself).
A Note on Parables
Before we start digging into this, just a quick note on parables, to explain why we’re going to do this the way we are.
Parables are, to give a quick definition, deceptively simple stories meant to illustrate a larger truth. They’re fictional stories Jesus tells to teach something.
Parables weren’t unique to Jesus; they were a common teaching tool at this place and time. So the problems we often have when reading the parables are problems the first readers (or listeners) probably didn’t have.
Today we tend to read parables and attach meaning to every detail we see. But parables are not allegories, in the strictest sense of the word: they are illustrations. There are important elements we can learn to look for, but not every detail means something: some details are included simply to help the story feel more immediate and real to its listeners.
So how could they know what to listen for, to know what details were meaningful?
Well, parables almost always came with a series of predictable characteristics. And one of those characteristics was that they often contain sets of three: three characters, three images, three similar events, etc. So when the listeners noticed those sets of three, they instinctively paid attention to those things, because those things are where the meaning was usually to be found.
(That isn’t to say they always understood. Since Jesus’s meaning was usually so high above what anyone imagined, most of the time they still didn’t get it; but at any rate they would have known what to look for.)
The same thing holds true for this parable. I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but as we go through the parable together, keep an eye out for the group of three, because that is where we are going to see what Jesus is getting at.
The Parable (Luke 19.11-27)
11 As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. 12 He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. 13 Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ 14 But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ 15 When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. 16 The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ 17 And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ 18 And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ 19 And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ 20 Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ 22 He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ 24 And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ 25 And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ 26 ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 27 But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’ ”
So first off, Luke sets the stage for us. He says that Jesus tells this parable to these people (v. 11) because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.
These people with Jesus know he’s on his way to Jerusalem, the central focal point for all of Judaism. And despite what he’s said in the past, some of them still think that when he comes to Jerusalem, they would see this huge, explosive uprising that the Messiah was supposedly going to bring about.
But Jesus has already said that this wouldn’t be the case.
We know (from Luke 17.20-37) that the kingdom has come in the person of Christ, but has not yet been fully accomplished. We know that before that could happen, Christ would have to suffer, and die, and bear the punishment of his people, and be resurrected, and ascend to heaven, and spread the gospel through the church, over the course of millenia.
So as of today, May 19th, 2019, Christ has done what he needed to do in order to accept the throne; he has been given the throne and now reigns over this earth from heaven; but he hasn’t yet returned to earth, to establish his eternal kingdom here.
In other words, in between the time when these people were listening to Jesus, and the time when he will fully establish his kingdom on earth, the first readers of Luke’s gospel, and we along with them, are in a time of waiting. So Jesus telling this parable to help us understand what our lives should look like while we wait.
So he tells the parable: a man is to be king over a country in revolt against him, and when he leaves to receive the throne he gives ten coins—a mina was worth about three months’ wages—to ten servants to invest.
Upon his return, the man—now, the king—calls his servants to see what they’ve done with his money.
One servant took his coin and made ten more; so the king gives him ten cities to govern.
Another servant made five more; so the king gives him give cities to govern.
The third did nothing with his coin, because he was afraid of the king; so the king condemns him, takes his coin away, and gives it to the first servant.
And finally, he takes care of the rebel citizens of his country: he gathers them up and has them slaughtered in front of him. It’s brutal and terrifying…and it’s meant to be. There will be no citizens in this kingdom who do not joyfully submit to the king’s reign, like the good servants we saw before. There will be no dissension here.
Three types of people
Now, the question is, What is Jesus trying to teach his listeners through this parable?
Well, remember what we said before—that the important elements of parables often came in sets of three.
And that’s what we see here. In this parable we see three distinct types of people.
1. good and faithful servants, who obey the king’s commands;
2. a wicked servant, who doesn’t obey his commands;
3. rebellious citizens, who reject his reign.
We have three different types of people, with three different ways of responding to the king, with three different results for each.
Let’s start with the rebellious citizens. The main thing that characterizes these rebellious citizens is the fact that they don’t want the king to reign over them.
Who does that sound like?
Well, in the immediate context, it was pretty clear: he’s speaking about the Jews—those members of Jesus’s own people who would very soon reject him and crucify him.
But we also need to remember that the larger context of this parable is that of the kingdom of God that Jesus came to establish, and his kingdom isn’t limited to the Jews. Jesus now reigns over the whole world—the citizens who reject him are…well, everyone. Outside of Christ, this is an apt description of every human being who has ever lived.
Perhaps the defining characteristic of human nature is our desire for independence, for freedom. It’s a good desire when applied appropriately, but we almost never stop at appropriate freedom.
We take it farther, and don’t want to be subject to anyone, we don’t want anyone to have authority over us. We want to be our own masters.
So we rebel—against our parents, against our bosses (even if that rebellion may just take the form of a lot of complaining), against the ruling authorities, you name it.
We can see this rebellious tendency in ourselves, and the Bible tells us why it’s there. The Bible says that human beings, because of the first rebellion of Adam, are now born in sin, with a sinful human nature, and we are naturally enemies of our God. We don’t want him to reign over us. We want to be self-sufficient and independent. We want to be our own gods. Outside of Christ, this is the way we all are.
And outside of Christ, our end is the same as that of these rebellious citizens: it is death: eternal separation from God, eternal torment apart from him.
Next we have the wicked servant. This wicked servant is a hypocrite: he calls himself a servant of the king, but doesn’t obey the king’s commands. He doesn’t serve the king at all, much less well.
And the reason he doesn’t obey the king is because he doesn’t really know the king.
He says he does; he says the king is a severe man who is basically a profiteer: someone who makes money off the work of others. He says (v. 21), “You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.”
That is a woefully unfair description of this king—it’s true that he took the minas his good servants had made for him, but in return, he gives them far more than that: he takes their money, and gives them cities to rule over. And he does the same thing for both servants, even the one who made less than the other. He doesn’t punish this second servant for earning less; he simply gives him a reward in proportion to his service.
So the wicked servant doesn’t really know his king, and because he doesn’t know him, he doesn’t serve him.
We see people like this in church all the time. They are what we frequently call “nominal Christians”: people who say they are Christians, and who have many of the expected, exterior trappings of a Christian—they go to church, they go to community group, they “speak the language” of the Christian faith—but when they’re not with other Christians, their lives are no different than they were before.
They don’t really have a relationship with God; they don’t take any pleasure in knowing him; they haven’t made any steps to repent of their sin or put it to death or become like Christ. Most of the time, you’d never be able to tell the difference between these “Christians” and an unbeliever. And those times when it seems there is a difference, if you scratched the surface you’d see that the difference is superficial and phony: it’s the play-acting of an unbeliever masquerading as a believer.
And Jesus makes it very clear that there is no reward for this servant, because he wasn’t a servant at all—there is, instead, punishment and judgment: the king calls him a “wicked servant,” and takes what he has, and gives it to the faithful.
So lastly we have the other, good servants; and what characterizes them is their faithfulness. They take what the king has given them, and they invest it to profit. They don’t do it in exactly the same way, apparently, because one is more effective than the other; but in both cases, there is a return on their investment.
So in return, he rewards them both, according to their faithfulness.
So what did they do?
Firstly, we need to see what they received from the king to invest. A lot of people will almost automatically think that the ten minas represent the various gifts and talents and resources that God has given us. They think that because they remember the parable of the talents that Jesus tells in Matthew 25, a parable quite similar to this one.
But there is a big difference between the two. In the parable of the talents, the master gives different things to different people to invest. In this parable, that doesn’t happen: he gives the same amount of money to all of his servants—one mina each. What they do with that mina varies, but what the king entrusted to them was the same for all of them.
So what has God entrusted to us? What is the “business” we are meant to engage in?
There are many ways to articulate it, but simply put, it can be boiled down to a single command: become like Christ, for his glory. We should be able to speak about “serving God” and “becoming like Jesus” interchangeably.
A lot of people think about “serving God” as something we do, as choices we make, tasks we accomplish; we’ll ask God to show us what his will for our lives are, and then we’ll do those things.
But, as Jen Wilkin said, it doesn’t do you any good to make the right decision if you’re still the wrong person.
If “making good choices” is all serving God is, then the number of people who can be “good servants” is really limited. What about those Christians who don't have the same options we do? What about people in prison, who have nearly all of their options cut off? What about people living in abject poverty? Can they not do God's will in those situations? Can they not serve the Lord in their contexts?
Of course they can, because God's will for all of us is the same: Paul tells us in Romans 8.29:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined…
[Why? Not mainly to be effective ministers or evangelists, but:]
…to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
When we only think in terms of choices, we are limited by the options presented to us. But when our goal is to become like Christ, then not only our choices, but our thoughts, our desires, our affections serve his glory, and enable us to better recognize opportunities to serve his gospel when they present themselves.
So the big question of this parable can be summed up in this way: How faithfully are we going to devote ourselves to becoming like Christ, for his glory?
So how do we answer that question? What does Jesus want us to see and do to help us answer it?
First of all, Jesus wants us to see that what we do in this life MATTERS.
This is not salvation by works—this is works because of salvation. The servants are already servants of the King before he gives them their mission; and because they are his servants, they do what he commands.
We do not serve God faithfully in order to be saved, but because of his grace in saving us. So that is one thing we don’t have to worry about: our salvation doesn’t depend on how well or faithfully we manage to serve him.
But at the same time, Jesus wants to be really clear that what we do in our lives, before and after salvation, makes a difference. The way we serve God is important; it has an impact; it has repercussions; it has rewards and punishments attached.
If we serve God faithfully, if we faithfully become conformed to the image of his Son, he will reward us in proportion to our faithfulness. In other words (and this will probably rattle a few cages), heaven will not be the same for everyone.
That’s a troubling idea for many people, because they imagine that differing rewards necessarily entails some kind of rivalry, or competition—how can I be eternally and perfectly happy if the guy next to me has more than I do?
I hope you can see—even by the way that question sounds when you ask it out loud—how it’s possible. Jonathan Edwards explained it this way:
“And there shall be no such thing as envy in heaven, but perfect love shall reign through the whole society. Those who are not so high in glory as other, will not envy those that are higher, but they will have so great, and strong, and pure love to them, that they will rejoice in their superior happiness. Their love to them will be such that they will rejoice that they are happier than themselves; so that instead of having a damp to their own happiness, it will add to it…
“Such will be the union in their society that they will be partakers of each other's happiness. Then will be fulfilled in its perfection that which is declared in 1 Cor. 12:26, ‘If one of the members be honoured all the members rejoice with it.’” (The Portion of the Righteous, Dec. 1740)
So if we serve God faithfully in this life, we will be eternally rewarded for our faithfulness.
And on the flipside, if we reject Christ in this life, or call ourselves Christians but don’t live as Christians, there are no do-overs.
Hebrews 9.27 says that
it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.
We will be judged according to works—either according to our own works (which will always be deserving of punishment), or according to the works of Christ for us, if we have placed our faith in him.
But if we are born again by the Spirit and have placed our faith in Christ, that new birth and that faith will make a difference. It will be evident and visible. There is no such thing as a “nominal Christian”, no such thing as a “non-practicing Christian”—there are born-again disciples of Christ, and there are enemies of Christ. That’s it. There is no third category.
What we do in this life, before and after salvation, makes a difference.
Secondly, Jesus wants us to see that anyone who will come to Christ can come to Christ.
Something really interesting is at play in this parable. At the time, the Jews were living under Roman occupation: a foreign power who had come in and taken authority. These Jews listening to Jesus would have naturally sympathized with the rebellious citizens who didn’t want the king to reign over them—they were in the same situation themselves!
So it’s really interesting that Jesus carefully avoids ethnic or national distinctions. He places the servants and the citizens in the same boat: they are all living in the same country, under the reign of the same king.
The only difference between the two groups is that the rebellious citizens refuse his reign, while the good servants accept it.
Do you see the implication—the implication that would have been strikingly clear for a Jew living under foreign occupation?
They were all citizens of the same kingdom, and the rebellious citizens could have served the king too, if only they hadn’t tried to be free of his reign.
Friends, the gospel call goes out to everyone, at all times, in all places. Jesus says in John 6.35, 37:
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst… 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”
Whoever will come, can come. Whoever will receive his grace, can receive his grace. If you are a “rebellious citizen” today, and you want to change, you can change. If you are a “wicked servant” today, if you say you are a Christian but don’t live like a disciple of Christ, you can change. Whoever comes to him, he will never cast out.
Lastly, Jesus wants us to see that Jesus is the King of his kingdom, and his reign is a reign of grace.
Jesus has the authority to tell us what to do with our lives, because he is our King. And he has the authority to decide what rewards—if any—he gives to his servants.
That can be a scary thought: it can be easy to look at this parable and to wonder, Where do I rate on this scale? What will be the return on my investment? Will I stand before God with ten minas? Seven? Five? Two?
The question of our faithfulness is an important question to ask, as we saw before—that’s one of the points Jesus is making, that our faithfulness in serving God has repercussions for our eternal life.
But no matter how faithfully we serve God in this life, his grace in rewarding us will far outweigh that faithfulness.
He receives ten minas for his investment…and rewards with ten cities.
He gives us new life in his Spirit, calls us to live for him for sixty, seventy, eighty years in this life…and rewards us with eternal life in his presence, transformation from one degree of glory to the next (2 Corinthians 3.18), grace upon grace (John 1.16).
Whatever we’re going through, however faithfully or unfaithfully we’ve lived up to now, we can rest in the knowledge that his grace to us is always greater than our faithfulness to him.
And knowing that simple fact of his infinite generosity to us, we are filled with the joy of knowing him, and rush out to serve him faithfully, because he is good enough to deserve it.
As we saw before, when Jesus told this parable, he was still with the people who were with him just before…including Zacchaeus. I often wonder what was going on in Zacchaeus’s mind as he listened to Jesus tell this parable. He had just received Jesus with joy, and committed to giving all he had to follow him.
But now, it would be crystal clear: he would have to go do it.
The joy he felt and the change he had experienced would have to make a difference in his life. It could not be just a matter of one, isolated experience; it couldn’t be just an emotional moment which he would always remember.
His encounter with Jesus would now have to drive him to action.
So like him, we have to ask ourselves: What will we do with what he has given us? How now shall we live?
Last week we said that the Lord’s Supper is a look back, a look forward and a look around.
It’s a look back to the Passover in Egypt, where God showed his faithfulness to his people; in the same way we’re meant to look back at his faithfulness to us in Christ.
It’s also a look forward.
One thing I particularly love about living in France is that the French have a keener appreciation than most of the importance of mealtime. Mealtime is a time of fellowship, a time when you enjoy the ones you love; it’s not something to be taken lightly or rushed through, but it’s a privileged moment between good friends and family.
That’s what we should have in mind when we take the Lord’s Supper. Jesus instituted this Communion during the last meal he took with his disciples. So it wasn’t just a table with a plate of bread and a cup of wine or juice (like we have here); it was a table with a full meal laid out on it—a time of communion and fellowship between Jesus and his disciples. And the sharing of the bread and the cup was the culmination of that meal: the most important part of their time together.
That idea of mealtime is integral to what we do here when we take Communion, because it looks forward to another meal.
In Revelation 19 we have a series of images which are all pregnant with meaning: we have the Lamb of God, Jesus, the Bridegroom of his people. We have the Bride of Christ—the people of God, clothed in beauty and made perfect. And we have the feast of communion at their wedding: the moment when they celebrate that their union is now complete.
We read (Revelation 19.6-9):
6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
8 it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
9 And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.”
When we take Communion—when we eat the bread that represents Christ’s body, broken for us, and when we drink the juice which represents his blood, shed for us—we look forward to the day when we will see Jesus face to face, when we as his people will be united to him so intimately that the only apt way to describe it is by talking about a wedding.
We look forward to the day when his sacrifice on the cross for us comes to full and perfect fruition, when we are united to Jesus as his people, forever.