I have never really felt comfortable with the parable in Luke 19 – I think specifically because I was always taught that Jesus was speaking about Himself and, the more I got to know Jesus, the more and more certain I became that the king He was describing is in fact His complete opposite. I was relieved, therefore, to find that there is a growing number of arguments against the traditional teaching around this text. In November of last year, we (Warehouse staff team) read the Luke 19: 1-27 passage as part of a larger discernment process and some patterns fell very firmly into place for me. But, in case you have no idea of what I am talking about, or only vaguely: here is the passage in full. Do try, while reading it, to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal new things to you – whether you land on the same understanding of the text as I have is not as important to me as that we constantly allow the Holy Spirit to transform us through our engagement with the text.
“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’ ”
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. He said: “A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. ‘Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’ But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’
He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it.
The first one came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned ten more.’
‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’ The second came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned five more.’ His master answered, ‘You take charge of five cities.’
Then another servant came and said, ‘Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.’
His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?’ Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’
‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’
He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away. But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.’”
It is quite striking to me that these two stories are clearly told as a matching pair by Luke. “While they were listening to this”…while the crowd was still processing what Jesus had just said about Zacchaeus, while that news was spreading through the crowds…hot off the back of this, Jesus went on to tell them a parable …
A story of a particularly vicious, ruthless, power-grabbing man who goes off and, despite his own subjects’ hatred for him and their plea for him not to be made king, comes home in power over them. He institutes his reign in such a way that those who work for him and with him gain more and more privilege, wealth and power (from coins to entire cities!), while those who point out the injustice of his governance (“you take out what you have not put in, and reap what you have not sown”) or who have nothing, get the very little that they have taken away from them. The worst is left for those who oppose him outright – he is very expedient in calling for them to be killed, with a desire to be a direct witness to the deaths.
Jesus chooses to tell this story “while the crowds were listening to this…”. Straight after the crowds had heard Him say “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” Straight after the crowds have heard Jesus talk about a chief tax collector, a servant of the occupying Roman Empire, who had cheated and stolen from the poorest of the poor, whose wealth and power had multiplied through the impoverishment of those around him; after they had seen Jesus push through the crowd to speak to Zacchaeus, invite Himself home with him and then declare that he had been sought after and saved, that salvation had come – Jesus chooses to tell this story.
We see, as readers with some deeper “post-fact” insight, in the story of Zacchaeus, a King who is so attractive that crowds press in to see Him, that men of great privilege and power abandon all dignity to run – and climb trees in order to see Him. A King who, being in very nature God, didn’t consider equality with God something to be grasped, but poured Himself out, humbled Himself and became obedient even to death on the cross. We see this kindest of Kings address Zacchaeus by name, calling out his deeper identity: “pure and righteous one”, bestowing on him acceptance, grace and favour before he had even done anything to deserve it, demonstrating this to all around by inviting Himself to eat with Zacchaeus in his home. We see Zacchaeus responding to His invitation immediately and gladly. We see a man who has been corrupt and ostracised transformed through an encounter with this King – transformed to the point where he chooses to give half his wealth away and to pay back to anyone from whom he has stolen, four times the original amount. We see a public declaration by this kindest of Kings of salvation and restoration over Zacchaeus and his household.
A King who gives up power, who is attractive, who is intimate and loving, who invites others to give up their power and declares this to be a sign of salvation and sonship. Who we know laid down his life to save all that had been lost, “while we were yet sinners”, who offered salvation even to those who hated him, who pleaded forgiveness for those who killed him.
And a king who grabs power, whose subjects hate him, who is ruthless, harsh and hard, who reaps what he does not sow, who governs a system which multiplies the power and wealth of those who agree to be subject to him, who takes even the little that others have and leaves them with nothing and who puts to death anyone who opposes him.
I believe Jesus, and then Luke in the telling, is showing us two opposing kingdoms – or a Kingdom and an Empire. I think His illustration pertains to the Empire of the day, yes – an Empire which occupied Israel at the time, which was cruel and ruthless, which rewarded those who “shook hands with it” (as Zacchaeus had done for years), robbed those who had very little to begin with, and put to death anyone who opposed it – but I think more than that, Jesus is illustrating for us the Empire of sin and darkness, ruled by satan, which had kept people and systems enslaved for millenia. That very Empire that Jesus came to overthrow – whose darkness He pushed back with every act, with every miracle and teaching; from whose clutches He had pulled the sick, the marginalised, the outcast, the lame, the demon-possessed, the lost, the shamed, the disowned and at least one chief tax collector; and to whose most manifest form He submitted when He chose to die on the cross – the most vicious and humiliating instrument of execution of the Roman Empire – in order that He might overthrow it for once and for all.
Jesus knew that opposing this Empire, as He had been doing, would result in death – He had been trying to warn His disciples of this for quite some time now, and especially as they approached Jerusalem – the centre of Roman power in Judea.
I understand that this might be quite a lot to digest, so I am going to leave it there. Except to say that I believe that we are faced daily with which of these kings we will choose – not just as “non-believers”, but as tried and tested Jesus-followers who live in a world which is still being redeemed: will we choose the Kingdom, or the Empire? Will we choose the King who calls us to lay down our power and our wealth, or will we serve the Empire which rewards our gain with multiplication of power, privilege and wealth? Will we spend ourselves on the poor, the downtrodden, the broken-hearted, or will we wipe our brows, say “Shew! But for the grace of god, there go I” and protect our own interests? Will we follow a King who preaches acceptance, grace, identity, invitation and restoration, or will we shake hands with an Empire that “otherises”, alienates, robs, kills and destroys. Daily, in our thoughts, words, deeds and in what we leave undone, we choose which of these K/kings we will follow.
By Wendy Lewin