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Parables of Our Lord: The Crisis of the Kingdom


                                          Luke 14:15-24       Luke 16:1-9        Matthew 25:14-30

Arnold Toynbee, the premier historian of the past 100 years, insisted that the rise and fall of civilizations could be understood in terms of their response to challenge. A startlingly new historical development challenges a civilization in a manner that is nothing less than a crisis. In this crisis a civilization that responds positively survives and thrives. A civilization that responds negatively withers. History, Toynbee maintained, is the littered with the remains of civilizations whose response to a crisis was inadequate.

When Jesus, thirty years old, emerged from the Galilean backwoods and announced that in him God’s royal rule had visited the earth, a startlingly new historical development was underway. It challenged people, and challenged them so very profoundly as to constitute a crisis. They could respond in any way at all, but the option they didn’t have was not to respond. Not to “respond”, we all know, is to have responded; not to choose is to have made a choice. When our Lord announced the coming of the kingdom, and then amplified the nature and scope and logic of the kingdom through his teaching, he thereby challenged hearers to respond.

In our examination of three kingdom-parables today we are going to find ourselves challenged concerning our response, our responsibility, and our resourcefulness.


I: — (Luke 14:15-24) In the parable of the Great Supper, Jesus tells us that life in the kingdom; that is, life lived intimately with the king himself and for the king’s purposes – this is like a feast where the fare is appealing, nourishing, and satisfying. Life in the kingdom isn’t like a meal of tidbits that tantalize but don’t satisfy. Neither is it a meal of junk food whose gobs of salt and fat keep people gorging what ought to be left alone. Neither is it a diet of wholesome food that is nourishing yet unappealling, with the result that what we need we can only choke down. Life in our Lord’s company is at once appealing, nourishing, satisfying: a feast

Eager people say to Jesus, “Just thinking about it makes us want it.” “Really?” replies the Master; “Then you make sure you respond to the invitation. When the printed card arrives with RSVP printed at the bottom, you make sure to reply. My presence and truth; my incursion into human affairs; my refusal to be deflected or to depart – this is the biggest challenge God can put to anyone. Your response is critical, for on your response there hangs everything.” Immediately, according to the parable, the people who have just told Jesus how glad they are to be invited begin making excuses as to why they can’t come to the banquet.

Be sure to notice this: the excuses are not silly rationalizations, thinly-disguised lies or groundless evasions. They are not laughably ridiculous. Those who decline the king’s invitation do so for reasons that strike them as perfectly sound. After all, they are properly engaged in important tasks; they are preoccupied with pressing matters. Their reasons for passing up the banquet are perfectly understandable. And so are ours today.

[i] One man has just bought a field, real estate. Real estate is the single largest investment most people make. Investments are important. Don’t we all depend for our livelihood on the sound investments some people have to make? The families supported by the North American auto manufacturing industry; I think they will shortly wish that auto industry executives had made better investments. And of course anyone who is counting on drawing a pension in retirement should know that there won’t be any pensions of any sort unless pension funds have been invested soundly.

It’s easy for non-business folk (like me) to take pot-shots at the business community’s preoccupation with investment matters. But those of us who are paid for non-business activities (clergy, schoolteachers, social workers, homemakers) forget that we shall have an income only as long as business enterprises are solvent. We shouldn’t take cheap shots at those preoccupied with investments.

[ii] Another fellow who declines the king’s invitation has just bought five yoke of oxen. He has to try them out. His livelihood depends on them. Livelihoods are important. Poverty is dreadful. Unemployment is dreadful. The human warping that arises from financial deprivation is ghastly. If your livelihood or mine were at risk, wouldn’t we be preoccupied with it?

[iii] Another fellow who declines has just married. He wants to get his marriage started off on the right foot. Surely he’s to be commended. What’s more, since marriage, when good, is the most fruitful of all human relationships, and when bad, the most destructive, shouldn’t we congratulate anyone who is concerned to begin his marriage well?

The people who decline the king’s invitation aren’t stupid or shallow. Nevertheless, Jesus insists that their reasons for declining the king’s invitation, his invitation, are finally insupportable. Why? Because the truth and reality of Jesus Christ; the looming luminosity of king and kingdom; all of this radically relativizes everything else in life. When Jesus Christ calls us, whatever else is however important, it’s now relatively less important. When Jesus Christ calls us, all other claims to ultimacy are less-than-ultimate. They can only be penultimate.

John’s gospel says much about eternal life. Eternal life isn’t this life stretched out endlessly. Eternal life is the life of the eternal One – God – breaking into this life and transforming it. Our reconciliation to God and the righteousness arising from it; this isn’t something merely added on to our current concerns. Our reconciliation to God and the righteousness arising from it is the revaluing, transmogrifying, of our current concerns.

Unless we grasp the truth here, our concern for a sound economy will eventually put us on a financial treadmill whose goal is simply money for money’s sake. Unless we are seized by the uncompromisable ultimacy of Christ and kingdom, our concerns concerning our livelihood will become a survival tactic wherein we have reduced ourselves to survival mechanisms. Unless the king’s call calls us to him effectually,our concern with getting our marriage off to a good start will find us engrossed in a tiny world of two people to the exclusion of all other persons and all other claims upon us.

In short, to decline the king’s invitation, however sensible seemingly, in fact is both foolish and tragic. It’s foolish in that joyful self-abandonment to Christ the king would purify and preserve all other relationships and undertakings in life. It’s tragic in that to pass up the king’s invitation is to forfeit his blessing and hand oneself over to the dark forces that are always at work in a fallen world.

Every day you and I are invited to the king’s banquet, there to be sustained by – the king himself. Therefore every day we are challenged to respond positively to his invitation.


II: (Matthew 25:14-30) Not only are we challenged to a response; we are challenged to a responsibility. In the parable of the talents we are told of a man who entrusts his wealth to three fellows, and then goes on a journey. When he returns he asks each fellow in turn, “What have you done with what I entrusted to you?” Two fellows have multiplied their trust, and are congratulated for doing so. The third fellow, knowing that his master is demanding, has decided to play safe: he has put the money in the ground, and then dug it up upon the master’s return. To his surprise his master is angry and accuses him of irresponsibility. The parable concludes with the haunting words “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

What’s the treasure that the master has entrusted to you and me? I’m convinced we are often unaware of what talent or treasure we have. If someone can sing like a canary we say she’s “gifted” or “talented.” Alongside the canary-singer we conclude we have no gift, no talent. To be sure, we don’t have that talent. So what?

We tend to look for eye-catching, dramatic talents. I’m convinced we’re looking in the wrong direction. What about the talent of welcoming visitors to worship, and greeting them warmly, genuinely, in such a way as to defuse their nervousness and dispel their feeling of strangeness?

We lack the gift of public speaking, or eloquent rhetoric? What about the gift of making our little Sunday School a place that delights children and where the warmth they soak up from one of us becomes, under God, a foretaste of the warmth of the Saviour’s embrace that they will own in faith when they mature? What’s any eye-catching, dramatic talent compared to the gentle reassurance the most ordinary homemaker can impart to the woman who has just been discharged from the psychiatric ward and who feels more fragile than a cobweb?

The point of the parable, we must remember, is that regardless of what our talent is, we mustn’t bury it; we mustn’t submerge it because it appears slight alongside the talents of others. Whatever gift we have we must use, and use yet again, only to find that as we do, the Master is pleased and his people are helped.


What’s the treasure that the master has entrusted to you and me? On a different note, I’m convinced there’s a sacred trust we must treasure and develop corporately. I’m speaking now of the “deposit” (Paul’s word) of the faith. You and I are not the first Christians. Are we going to be the last? Only if we “bury” the deposit of the faith and it disappears with us. But of course we’re not going to do this.

I like to speak of the deposit of the faith as the totality of Christian memory. Think for a minute of the person who has lost his memory. We say he’s amnesiac. We say he’s to be pitied in that he can’t remember where he parked his car or how he’s to get to work or where he left his briefcase.

To be sure, the amnesiac is to be pitied – but for reasons far more profound than this. You see, the person with no memory at all doesn’t know who he is. The person with no memory at all has no identity. And therefore the person with no memory can’t be trusted. The reason the amnesiac can’t be trusted isn’t that he’s more wicked than those who possess a memory. He’s no more wicked than the rest of us. He can’t be trusted simply because he doesn’t have an identity.

Let’s apply all this to a congregation, then to a denomination, then to the church catholic. Here in Schomberg we read from the older testament, for instance, every Sunday. It’s important to read from the older testament. People who don’t soon deny the ancestry of Jesus. Then they turn Jesus into a wax figure (a Gentile wax figure) that they can remould as they wish, with the result that the supposed saviour of the world ends up indistinguishable from the world he’s supposed to save. Worst of all, people who don’t read the older testament become anti-judaistic; that is, they regard the faith of the synagogue as obsolete or antiquated. Next they become something horrific: anti-semitic. Anti-judaism (contempt for the faith of the synagogue) always generates anti-semitism (contempt for Jewish people themselves.)

Again, at every Communion service in Schomberg we recite the Apostles’ Creed. We could as readily recite the Nicene Creed. It’s important that we recite one of the historic creeds of the church catholic, for otherwise we’d be advertising ourselves as sectarian. Yes, we are Presbyterians. Are Presbyterians screwball snake-handlers who twist Jesus into a fourteen karat jerk? Or are Presbyterians Christians with an angle of vision concerning the holy catholic faith that contributes to the holy catholic church? Every time we recite one of the historic creeds we are endorsing the faith of the holy catholic church.

But of course we do more in Schomberg than look back to the faith of the church catholic. We also interpret the faith concerning the present and the future. In other words, the treasure that’s been entrusted to us we are preserving, to be sure, but more than preserving: we are having that treasure “bear interest” as the deposit of the faith entrusted to us becomes ever richer for the sake of those who come after us.


III: (Luke 16:1-8) –The last parable we are looking at today challenges us to resourcefulness. Jesus has uttered a parable that appears to commend a dishonest person. In the parable of the unjust steward a man learns that his steward is cheating on him. The steward, found out now, says to himself, “I’m in hot water for sure. I’m going to be fired. I’m not strong enough to be a labourer. I’m not smart enough to be a teacher. I’m not humble enough to draw welfare. What will I do? I know what I’ll do. I’ll tell each of the persons in debt to my boss that that person’s debt has been cut 50%. These people in turn will be so happy to have their indebtedness reduced that they’ll all give me a kickback. I’ll be set for life.” The fellow, needless to say, is a scoundrel. Jesus does not commend the fellow for his dishonesty. Jesus does, however, draw our attention to the scoundrel’s resourcefulness as he says to us, “If a scoundrel can be that resourceful in ‘feathering his own nest’, can’t you be equally resourceful in the service of the kingdom? Can’t you be that imaginative, that daring, that ingenious?”

If you and I sat down together for thirty minutes we could think of many imaginative, resourceful things to do in either congregational life or our individual lives. This morning, however, I want to speak of something foundational to our Christian faith and life: the relation between adapting and adopting.

As each generation of Christ’s people arises, that generation has to adapt “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) to modernity. Note that the faith, the substance, the deposit of what we believe, has been delivered “once for all.” It doesn’t change. But circumstances are always changing. Therefore we have to adapt unchanging truth to changing circumstances. If we fail to adapt to modernity, we can’t speak to our contemporaries. While we may learn much from John Calvin and John Wesley, we don’t live in the 16th Century, and we don’t live in the 18th Century. We can learn from these men but we can never copy them. We should never attempt to duplicate them. We don’t even speak Wesley’s English. In the 18th Century if someone were profoundly stirred by a sermon, it was said that that person’s bowels had moved. This isn’t what we mean by “bowel-movement” in 21st Century English. We always have to adapt the unchanging substance of the faith to changing circumstances.

On the other hand, as each generation of Christ’s people arises, that generation must never adopt the mindset of modernity. If we adopt the mindset of modernity, we have forfeited the gospel. We have performed the grand counter miracle: we’ve turned wine into water. Now we are experts at communicating, to be sure, but we’ve nothing to communicate. At this point the substance of the faith has been thrown away in the interests of a “with-it” preoccupation with communicating.

Let me say it again. If we fail to adapt, we’ve retained the gospel to be sure, but it’s wrapped up in a parcel, a language, an imagery that’s foreign to modernity, and therefore modernity can never hear the gospel. If, however, we adopt, then we’ve developed wonderfully attractive packaging but with nothing inside the package. The line we must all walk along, the line between adapting and adopting; this line is finer than a hair and harder than diamond.

It’s right here that our resourcefulness, critical resourcefulness, has to be deployed relentlessly.

And in fact we are challenged to deploy such critical resourcefulness all the time.

Think of the sermon. The sermon attempts to communicate the unchanging gospel in terms of the constantly changing thought-forms and language of modernity.

So does a Sunday School lesson. So does our mid-week adult discussion group. So does the answer a parent gives to her child’s question: “Mom, why do I have to go to church? What’s ‘good’ about Good Friday?”

So does the social outreach work of the church. We support the ministry of Evangel Hall. Its ministry has a social outreach component to it, but the ministry of Evangel Hall (or any such endeavour of the church) is never reducible to social work. Plainly social outreach in the name of Christ has to “adapt” or it won’t come within range of helping anyone; on the other hand, if it “adopts”, then the social witness of the gospel has been reduced to secular social work.

Don’t ask me to spell out exactly how we walk along the line between “adapt” and “adopt”. Don’t ask me because I don’t think it can be spelled out in advance. We learn to do it as we have to do it. And in truth we are doing it all the time.

The parable of the unjust steward is our Lord’s command that his people remain imaginatively, daringly resourceful.


When Jesus Christ emerged from the anonymity of his hometown he announced the kingdom. It was a challenge, a challenge so far-reaching as to constitute a crisis. His parables challenge you and me relentlessly concerning our response, our responsibility, and our resourcefulness.



                                                                                                      Victor Shepherd          

   May 2006