What are you worth?
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Crazy Grace”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
October 20, 2019
Luke 19:11-27 nrsv
11 As they were listening to this, he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. 12 So he said, “A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return. 13 He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, ‘Do business with these until I come back.’ 14 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.’ 15 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. 16 The first came forward and said, ‘Lord, your pound has made ten more pounds.’ 17 He said to him, ‘Well done, good slave! Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities.’ 18 Then the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your pound has made five pounds.’ 19 He said to him, ‘And you, rule over five cities.’ 20 Then the other came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your pound. I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, 21 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.’ 22 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? 23 Why then did you not put my money into the bank? Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.’ 24 He said to the bystanders, ‘Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.’ 25 (And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten pounds!’) 26 ‘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. 27 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.'"
In the movie, “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” an empty Coca- Cola bottle falls from a passing airplane and is picked up by an African bushman. Thinking it was thrown out of heaven by the gods he takes it back to his village and chaos follows. The villagers fight over who ought to possess it, what its purpose is, and why the gods threw it away. It causes so much trouble the bushman decides to walk to the end of the world and throw it over. This comic fable captures a bit of what – if we were honest – a lot of Jesus’ parables seem to possess: a view of God that seems crazy by mortal standards and values.
Take for instance the whole notion of Grace as a central trait of the Almighty. If grace is defined as God’s perfect gift of love, why would an Almighty God offer humans, sinful mortals, the strangest of creatures in creation this gift? We obviously do everything but respond to it appropriately. We doubt it, we reject it, we misuse it, we misunderstand it. Yet, not only does God continue to offer it to us, God continues to insist that this grace goes way beyond the limits of our imagination. I suspect that if we really understood what Grace is we would consider God crazy. Grace itself, as it is often expressed in action, itself often seems crazy.
So this morning I want to begin a series of messages on the theme, “Crazy Grace.” I want to reflect on some of the ways Scripture, and particularly the parables of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, portray God’s grace in ways that, if we really think about it can’t help but seem crazy. And yes, I want to do that in the context of thinking about stewardship. Stewardship is that weird church word that basically means the preacher is gonna talk about money, and about giving it, specifically giving it to the church. Everybody’s favorite topic, right? But I also want to talk about the larger issues of stewardship that go way beyond what you put in the plate – or not – on Sundays when you are at church. I think stewardship, and ultimately grace itself, are matters that invite us to think about values, as well as generosity, gratitude, and the crazy notion that this grace that God gives is a free gift, not a purchased commodity.
This morning’s Scripture takes us on a strange ride through a strange world. Let me give a couple of interpretation warnings before we dig deeper. First, we have been taught wrongly for many years that parables are one-to-one earth-to-heaven stories. That is, the ruler in the parables is always God, the moral is always go and do like this, and that this is the way things should be. This story breaks many of those rules. First, it is not meant to be a description of the way heaven is or the way earth should be. It is more a description of the way things are no earth and a critique of it. Sadly it has been used, especially in capitalist economic systems, to justify inequality and economic abuse. Second, it is not describing God’s character or values exclusively. And third the people’s actions and the results are not necessarily a recommendation or a blessing of the outcome in all the stories Jesus tells. They are more complex and subtle than that.
So what is it saying? It is describing the way things were in Jesus’ time. A wealthy person could go and pay a tribute to a powerful ruler and become the appointed ruler over a certain number of villages in that powerful ruler’s land. This is what Jesus is describing in this passage. He is not describing the way heaven is or the way earth should be. He is describing what is and not blessing it or commending it as what “should be.” Then the next difficult part is the business of the citizens sending a delegation to the royal power that they did not want this rich, successful businessman to be their ruler. Now, I have not read any historians who have said this was a common practice in Jesus’ time or that particular system of government. But it is making a parallel about Jesus in this instance.
Some commentators suggest that the context gives us the clue. Luke says Jesus is about to go up to Jerusalem for the last time. He is about to be proclaimed “king” by some, and very quickly rejected by many others – maybe even some of the same who only a few days before had proclaimed him “king.” In this context, I believe the message is that this is what is about to happen – some were expecting the coming of the Kingdom of God in that moment, yet many would reject the true Prince of Peace because his teaching upset their economic control and privilege: “you took what you did not own, and gave what you did not grow.” Now our assumption is that this “wicked” ruler took it for himself, but perhaps the problem was he took it and like Robin Hood gave it to others and those who always believed “those who had much” should always be the ones to get more did not like it. In fact, rather than a blessing of those who have the least will also get that taken away by those who are more “productive,” it may in fact be a critique of that thinking. Why do I say so? Because again I cannot believe, despite the teaching of so many that this ruler is Jesus that Jesus would command the execution of those who aren’t returning enough “interest” to the King in his presence. That understanding of Jesus’ and God’s judgment just doesn’t square with the teaching that God is love for me in any way, shape, or form. Hard as it may be to accept, I believe that Jesus mixes the identity of the “rich man who would be ruler” – at points it is pointing towards Jesus as the would-be ruler and at times he is simply describing the would-be rulers of his day. And perhaps that is what we have to decide – are we going to blindly believe that just because someone is a rich, powerful, ruler that makes them God’s chosen, blessed by God, or not? So instead of a simplistic “1+1=2” story we have a complex parable that challenges us to find out where we are in the story. But even more challenging is what is the message for us, and what is the “take-away” or the “do-this” point of the story?
For me the message is not simple or easy. Yes, we live in a culture and an economic system that many believe is based on God blessing the statement: “he who has much will be given more, and he who has little will have even what he has taken from him.” Some would argue this determines our worth. Some would say only those who have much are loved by God because they are the only ones who work hard and earn it and deserve it. This, of course, ignores that many who are poor work long hours, struggle to better themselves, but face circumstances far beyond their control that keep them poor and they never climb the economic ladder. Sudden illness, the sale of a corporation to overseas owners, the sale of a rental apartment to new owners who raise the rent beyond affordability, or turn it into ownership units instead of rentals – these are things those who “have little” often experience that are not their fault, yet keep them trapped in poverty. This is not God’s judgment on them.
I hear this passage telling us that our worth is not determined by the so-called “bottom-line.” I hear Jesus’ critiquing the mindset that the only thing that determines your worth is your material assets minus your material debts. You and I are of infinite worth to the God who created us. This is the message that Scripture repeats over and over again. It is the message the gospel teaches us over against the message of society that says only the rich are worthy. The temptation to use the Bible to bless the abuse of those who are poor, who have less is not the message of this passage – it is a rebuke of this thinking.
In our world we have to constantly choose which values, which measure of worth we will live by. Our whole culture is built on a transactional value. You are only worth what you can give me for what I have that you need: whether that is a home to live in, a job to work at, medical care for your health, or love and friendship. God interrupts this value system. God comes to us in Jesus Christ to announce a different value system. It is on that is based on grace. Grace is God’s value system. Grace is the free gift of God. It is a crazy system. It is so crazy God doesn’t demand you love God for God to love you. God does not demand that you obey him to become rich. God does not punish those who don’t love by making them poor.
All the experts say a really good sermon always gives you the answer to what you should do about the passage. I can’t. You have to decide what you are going to do. This grace isn’t a one-size fits-all prescription. It is an announcement of a reality: God loves. Free gift for all. Some choose it and some rebel against it and some accept it if it is convenient and this foolish, risky, grace-filled God keeps pumping out the love and the blessings. Living by God’s system doesn’t guarantee you doubling your money. Living by God’s system may cost you everything in some situations. But God does not execute those who resist his rule, his values, his system, either.
Isn’t that crazy? God has one standard measure for your net worth: infinite. Your value to God is measured by what values you choose knowing you and everyone else is loved with an infinite, unchanging, love. Now what are you going to do with that? AMEN.