Imagine we knew that Jesus was going to return this time next week – to wrap up history, to judge, and to bring in his kingdom. If you knew that, how would you live differently this week? What would be on your 'must do' list? And what would be on your 'doesn't matter' list?
Top of my 'must do' list would be trying to have last conversations about Jesus with family and friends and neighbours who aren't yet Christians. And then my 'doesn't matter' list would include: unblocking the drain in front of our house; assembling the IKEA storage furniture for the bombsite known as our playroom; and – joy of joys – Christmas shopping: we eleventh-hour people would, for once, be laughing.
And for you, the 'doesn't matter list' might include: washing the car, looking for that new dress, catching up with your latest Netflix series, and so on.
Now you have to be careful how you use that mental exercise, because it would be wrong to say that you should therefore never wash your car or try to sort out the house or watch a film – that that's always a godless waste of time. Because the things on the 'doesn't matter' list are not things we should never do. They're just less important – sometimes, far less important – compared to the priorities of God's kingdom. And since we don't know when Jesus will return, we have to get on with things on both lists – but we need to fight to keep the 'must do' list our priority.
And in our series in Luke, that's what our passage is about this morning. It's a parable Jesus told to help us live in the light of his return. So would you turn in the Bibles to Luke, chapter 19, verse 11. I have no headings; we're just going to work through the parable and sit on the receiving end of it.
"As they heard these things, [Jesus] proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately."
Which begs the question straight away: what is 'the kingdom of God'? And the short answer is: it's the situation where everyone is living 100% and willingly for God as King – which means no more sin and none of the consequences of sin. So for example, no more keys. No more worrying if you locked the house. No more doctors or dentists or physios (no practising ones, that is). No more police or lawyers or armed forces – there go some of your career options. No more loneliness, or broken relationships or broken marriages or broken homes. No more sickness or ageing. No more bereavements or funerals. It's the world finally made good, with nothing bad or sad. And verse 11 says:
"… they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately."
So they thought that Jesus was going to bring in the kingdom there and then – and that all they'd have to do was: sit back and watch him make it happen. To which Jesus basically said in this parable: 'You're wrong on both counts. Because the kingdom isn't going to come yet. And far from you sitting back and watching, I'm going to use you in the process of it coming.' Verse 12:
"He said therefore, 'A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return.'"
So the nobleman stands for Jesus. And him going into a far country to receive a kingdom stands for Jesus going back to heaven via his death for our forgiveness and his resurrection from the dead. Because, as the Bible sees it, that's how he was enthroned as King of God's kingdom. That's how his Father gave him the authority to be our rightful ruler, to forgive us back onto his side if we'll come, or to judge us if we won't. And where it says this nobleman "went into a far country", the picture is that he'll be away for a long time – so we shouldn't worry that it's been 2,000 years so far. But look at verse 13 for what this nobleman does before he goes:
"Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas [a mina was an amount of money in those days], and said to them, 'Engage in business until I come.'"
So the ten servants stand for those who profess to serve Jesus as King – profess to be Christian. And each of them is given one mina. And some people say, 'That must stand for the gifts and abilities we've each been given to serve the Lord with.' But those are different for each of us, whereas here, each one gets exactly the same thing – one mina. So some people say, 'That must stand for the gospel message which Jesus wants them to spread once he's gone – that's the 'busniess' he wants them to engage in.' And that's more on the right lines – but probably narrows it down too much. Because the best way to put it is probably that the mina stands for the task of living the one life we've been given to serve Jesus' business.
So what is Jesus' business – what is Jesus about, right now? Well, the answer is: he's about bringing in the kingdom of God – bringing in that final, wonderful situation where everyone is living 100% and willingly for God as King. And he has already died and risen again so that we can be forgiven back onto the side of having him as King. And his business now is:
- to bring more people onto his side through the gospel,
- and then to see them (and us) bring every area of our lives under his rule,
- and to build us together into local churches which give people some imperfect idea of what his kingdom will be like,
- and to see new churches starting,
- and to see them make an impact for good on society,
- and to see all that happening worldwide.
That's Jesus' business, so that's what needs to be on our 'must list'. I saw an advert the other day for a consultancy firm. And it said, 'We make your business our business.' And that's what we need to be saying to the Lord Jesus: 'We're going to make your business our business.' Onto verse 14:
"But [the nobleman's] citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, 'We do not want this man to reign over us.'"
So the 'citizens' are a different group from the servants, and they stand for people who don't want Jesus as King of their lives. And in the first place, Jesus would have meant the people who, within a week, would get him crucified. But he also meant all people by nature– because by nature none of us wants him as King. And if we have accepted him as King, and are trying to make his business our business, that's only because he's worked in us by his Spirit to change us. But the default position of any individual and any society is to say:
"We do not want this man to reign over us."
And our society has been saying that more and more strongly. And our denomination's leadership, tragically, has largely gone along with it. Which is why doing Jesus' business is getting harder and harder where we are. Which is why we shouldn't be wrongly discouraged at the modest numbers coming to faith through our church, or at the way we've struggled to grow and plant new churches. Instead, we should see what we have together and are doing together as a continuing miracle. Because we're doing Jesus' business against the backdrop of a spiritual crash far worse than the financial one we've been through. For example, Church of England churches have lost 25% of their children in the last ten years. Which does makes the youth and children's work here – to take one ministry area of our church – a continuing miracle.
But back to verse 14 and the people then who said:
"We do not want this man to reign over us."
They ultimately said that by crucifying him – thinking that would be the end of him. But it wasn't. Because he rose from the dead, went back to heaven – and, like verse 15 says, "received the kingdom". So onto verse 15:
When [the nobleman] returned, having received the kingdom, [so this stands for when Jesus will return – for his second coming] 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.
In other words, he'll ask us: 'How did you live the one life I gave you to serve my business?' Verse 16:
"The first came before him, saying, 'Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.' 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.' And the second came, saying, 'Lord, your mina has made five minas.' And he said to him, 'And you are to be over five cities.'"
Near my parent's house there's a churchyard with a gravestone that reads:
In memory of
Captain James Harvey
Died 23rd April 1786
Tragically shot and killed by the
accidental discharge of his pistol
while in the hands of his valet
And the Bible text underneath is Luke 19.17:
'Well done, good servant'
Which I take it was meant to apply to Captain James Harvey. But it does rather sound like praise for his valet, doesn't it? But those are the words the Lord Jesus will say to believers who've faithfully served his kingdom business. And you could wish for no better epitaph over your life.
So in verse 15, Jesus wants to know what we've gained for his business, his kingdom. And he says 'Well done' when we've been involved in seeing it multiply or grow. So what does that look like in real life?
Well, The Big Sleep Out is a dramatic example of this, isn't it? So Jesus brings one person to know him who has nothing – and then uses him to raise £21,000 to take other homeless people off the streets and point them to Jesus in the process. 'Lord, your nothing has made all this.' Another example is that ten years ago we were just one church, and since then (by God's grace) we've started another two. 'Lord your one has made two more.' Another example is Carols by Candlelight. I remember when we just did one service. And then we went to two and then to four – and now it's ten. 'Lord, your one has made ten.' So if you're serving in any way – singing, sidesman-ing, sorting out candles, catering – that's kingdom business. But, by contrast, verse 20:
"Then another came, saying, 'Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; 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.'"
So this character stands for someone also professing to be a Christian, but who does nothing to serve Jesus' business. And that's on the basis that he thinks Jesus has impossibly high, hard, expectations. And so, afraid that he'll inevitably fail those expectations if he tries to do anything, he goes to the other extreme of doing nothing. But Jesus says that on that basis he should at least have done something, knowing that the biggest failure is the failure to try at all. So verse 22:
"[The nobleman] 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? [If that's the basis you were acting on (even though it's not true),] Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?'"
But the most important thing to get is that the basis he was acting on was all wrong. Because that view of Jesus is all wrong. Because Jesus is not calling us to do what is impossibly hard and beyond us. Because just look back to verse 17. Why did the first servant get that 'Well done'? Jesus says:
"Because you have been… faithful in a very little."
And one mina was in fact relatively little money. It's not as if Jesus has this nobleman in his story showering them with extraordinary amounts – like millions – to steward. And maybe that's to underline that the mina just stands for an ordinary life. And what Jesus is looking for from us is not what's impossibly hard and beyond us. It's being faithful with our relatively ordinary lives. It's stewarding our relatively ordinary time and money and gifts and abilities faithfully as we serve his kingdom business.
So maybe you say to yourself, 'I'm no good at evangelism. I'll never be Billy Graham or Rico Tice – or someone else you think is good at it – so what's the point of me even trying? I'll just leave it to others.' But Jesus is saying, 'I'm not asking you to be someone else. I'm asking you to be you, and to be faithful in serving my kingdom business as the person I've made you with the gifts I've given you.' So you may be mainly an inviter to events – you may not be a great turner of conversations, still less an up-front speaker. And that's fine. Just be faithful as you.
And can I say that to you about whatever ministry you're involved in at church? Just be faithful as you. Jesus isn't expecting or wanting you to be someone else (or he'd have made you someone else). And he's not expecting you to be what you'll be in five or ten years' time when you've had the chance to grow into it. Just be faithful as you, now.
Or maybe with this autumn financial appeal you're thinking, 'I really haven't got much to give – when they're talking about £70,000. So what's the point of me giving at all? I'll just leave it to others.' And once again, Jesus is saying, 'Just be faithful as you. Just give faithfully out of what you have got, not what you haven't got.' And if we have got plenty of money, we need to realise that what we have beyond what we need is given so that we can serve his kingdom business – funding the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church and the meeting of needs in Jesus' name.
So Jesus isn't calling us here to what's impossibly hard or beyond us. He's calling you to be faithful as you, and me to be faithful as me. And that's why the first two servants here both get the same 'Well done'. (I take it we can assume no.2 gets a 'Well Done' as well.) So servant no.1 makes ten more minas and servant no.2 only five. But the Lord knows that's because he's given them different gifts and resources and opportunities – so he never expected them to do the same. But he gives them the same commendation for showing the same faithfulness.
Well, look on to verse 26 and Jesus' punchline:
"I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given."
In other words, 'to everyone who has fruit to show of a life lived to serve Jesus' business, more opportunity and responsibility for kingdom business will be given as a reward.' And in the first place, Jesus is talking about life beyond this life – pictured by these two servants who are rewarded by having charge of whole cities. (Which says, by the way, that we won't just be putting our feet up – there will still be responsibility and work – but unspoiled by sin, so a hundred percent joy.) But Jesus' principle applies to now, as well, which I remember learning in my second year at uni. I'd just finished as a CU hall group leader and was looking forward to retirement and more leisure when I was asked to be on the committee leading the whole 500-strong uni CU. Which was a big job. And, while I was talking with the student minister of my church about whether to say 'Yes' or 'No', I remember saying that I felt my spare time just slipping away. And he wisely said, 'Well, in the kingdom, the reward for work done well is more work.'
But by contrast, verse 26:
"… from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away."
In other words, 'from the one who has no fruit to show of a life lived to serve Jesus' business, even what he has will be taken away.' Which seems to be a picture of final loss. It's not totally clear, but servant no.3 seems to stand for someone professing to be a Christian – but showing no evidence that they're serving Jesus' business. Because the evidence that I am really a Christian isn't that I call myself that. It's in what I'm doing. For example, in what I'm doing with the gospel – am I playing my part, as the person I am, in getting it out to people here and worldwide? And, for example, in what I'm doing with the money I've been given – am I giving to fund the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church and the meeting of needs in Jesus' name? Not that what we do earns our place in relationship with Jesus – we have that through sheer grace and forgiveness. But what we do (imperfectly) is evidence of whether we really have come into relationship with him, or not.
And we might have preferred Jesus to end there. But he didn't. He ended with verse 27, where the returned King says:
"But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me."
And maybe you're thinking, 'Lord, did you have to put like that?' But Jesus was just using the imagery of the day – that people were used to. Because if, back then, you rebelled against Rome, Rome wouldn't tolerate you threatening its rule and peace and you'd get the verse 27 treatment before you knew where you were. But of course Rome's rule came through flawed and often evil men – like Pontius Pilate who, within a week, would have sent Jesus to his death. And its peace was kept by a brutal exercise of power. So this is one of those parable details where, to get at the truth you need to say, 'Jesus is not like them.' But… he is King, and he is going to return to wrap up history, to judge, and to bring in his kingdom. And although he tolerates millions right now ignoring him and living as if he wasn't there, he won't tolerate that forever. Because if he did, there would be no kingdom, nowhere finally free of sin, nowhere finally made good, to look forward to.
So that's the parable of the minas. Its Jesus' call to engage in his kingdom business until he comes. And it's his promise, if we've done that faithfully, of that epitaph over our lives: 'Well done, good servant.'
I once read a book which quoted a letter from a Christian who wrote this at the end of his life: 'Although I trust I am forgiven and saved by the Lord, I fear that I have done little of what I could have done to serve him, and that my epitaph will be, 'Saved soul, wasted life.' And Jesus told this parable to spare us that kind of regret, knowing that what we want written over our lives is not 'Wasted', but 'Well done.'