We are traveling with Jesus during this period of Lent. Today we arrive at the outskirts of Jerusalem. Many people believe that we are on the edge of a moment of great triumph. However, Jesus has warned that Jerusalem represents death at the hand of powerful people.
Let me start by taking you back to an earlier point in the gospel of Luke. Jesus sent out 70 disciples on a mission. He told them that the harvest was great. This creates the image of people working hard in a field knowing that only when their labour is over there will there be a harvest celebration. He also warned that his missioners would be like sheep among wolves. This is an image of vulnerability, weakness, and danger. Somehow the two images go together. Whenever we think of the mission of the church and our participation in it, we can reflect on the dedication of workers at harvest time and also of our vulnerability in the context of violence and power.
The 70 return after a period of time. They give an account of their experiences. Jesus responds with a stunning statement: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening.” The words are striking. At face value the saying means that the power of evil is overcome in social locations where women and men enter as sheep among wolves and as peasants at harvest time. The forces of evil suffer defeat in diverse places where ordinary people are sent by Jesus to serve with dedication, steadfast endurance, and with the awareness of their relative weakness before the powers of the world.
I have been particularly troubled by the power of evil in the past weeks. I was given an assignment to write a piece for CBM’s publication mosaic. The topic was the famine in South Sudan. The level of human evil defies rational explanation except to say that there is an immense and perverse power behind government actions in South Sudan. The United Nations Human Rights report on South Sudan is a testimony of organized and disorganized evil. Let me give you a few examples. Ethnic cleansing approaching genocide has been committed by the national army. The army, police, and government sponsored militias are responsible for the majority of human rights abuses. Villages have been burned and crops destroyed. Women and girls have been raped and abducted for the purposes of sexual slavery. Civilian populations have been bombed by the air force. There are 2 million displaced people and 1.5 million refugees from South Sudan. The government has allowed inflation to hit 900% with a devastating impact on food costs. 5.5 million people are severely food insecure. Aid workers have been killed and food supplies looted by the army. A new policy requires foreign aid workers to purchase visas at the cost of $10 thousand dollars. Political leaders are accused of hate speech and incitement to violence. Hunger in South Sudan is not an accident or a result of unforeseen circumstances. Human actors are responsible for the misery and repression of people. It is dangerous for dissidents who seek to stand against that government. It is the most dangerous place in the world for journalists.
Events in South Sudan bring back memories of the evil use of power in Rwanda, the DRC, Cambodia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. Armenians recall the horrors of the genocide unleashed by Turkey between 1915 and 1917. Jewish people never will forget the holocaust or Shoah. Ukrainians remember the Holodomor when Joseph Stalin created a famine that took the lives of up to 10 million people. People of El Salvador recall that 70 thousand people were killed or disappeared during the civil conflict. The power of state leaders can unleash the hidden hatred and brutality of ordinary people. The big guys give orders. It is the little guys that obey them and somehow, find a strange pleasure in cruelty. The big guys do not torture, abduct, kill with machetes, and make people disappear. But they are the authors of the killings and destruction. In the context of government sponsored violence it is dangerous to be a dissident.
Scripture: Luke 19.11.27
Jesus tells a story in Jericho about a dissident slave. The parable holds his final words before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The narrative describes the way the world works as a warning. It is a frightening alarm about how repressive regimes handle dissent. The narrative builds on a historical account. When Herod the Great died, his son Archelaus travelled to Rome to entreat the emperor to grant him the kingdom of his late father. During an extended time in Rome, a group of Jewish leaders travelled to petition the emperor to not appoint Archelaus because of his cruelty and violence. Perhaps the emperor listened. Archelaus was given only half of his father’s kingdom. When he returned to Jerusalem he gained revenge on those that had publicly opposed him.
The story of the minas has often interpreted moralistically. I think that way of reading the story is wrong. I cannot imagine comparing God or Jesus to the actions of the king in the parable. Here is the reading I prefer.
A rich noble traveled to a distant country to be granted a kingship and its territory. He calls ten of his slaves who work for him in the area of his finances. Slaves were useful because they were not hired employees. They worked for emancipation or out of motivations of fear. Each of the ten slaves is given an equivalent sum of money. The value of the mina was about 100 days of work for a laboring man. The slaves are told to go make money during the master’s extended absence.
There was one main way to make money in a pre-industrial agrarian economy. It was through land acquisition and production. Rich people could expand their wealth by making calculated loans to peasants. When the loan could not be repaid, the land was seized. Taking advantage of peasants through loans or violence resulted in profit. We need to remember that there was no stock market in the first century.
So here we have the main narrative about the ten slaves sent out to squeeze the peasants. But there is a second story. A group of influential people in the homeland send representatives to the distant country. They advocate against the nobleman. “We do not want this man to rule over us.”
The scene changes when the nobleman returns as king. The ten slaves are summoned to give account. The first has used the one mina to make ten. He is commended as a good slave. He is given authority over ten cities to administer for the newly appointed king. He is in charge of taxation and revenues. The second slave reports that he has generated five minas of wealth. The king does not call him good. But he does put him in charge of revenues from five cities. We presume that the following seven slaves report various results and receive new responsibilities according to the profit generated.
The tenth slave is different. He reports that he wrapped the mina in a sweat band and hid it. He refused to participate in loan sharking the peasants to gain more land for the king. He publicly confronts the king with a description of his character. “I fear you. You are a harsh and cruel man. You demand an outrageous return on any investments. You forcefully take crops from peasants that you did not sow.” His words unmask the king in his own court.
The dissident slave has done two things. (1) He has refused to participate in a repressive economic system that victimizes the poor. (2) He has confronted the king with a critique of his use of power and ambitions.
We need to notice that the king does not refute the accusations. He calls the slave evil rather than lazy. He asks why he did not invest the mina at a money lenders table where someone else could have done the dirty work. The king then orders that the mina be given to the slave that generated ten minas. This slave knows how to make money for the royal court.
We then listen to Jesus summary statement: “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.” This is how a repressive regime works. Look at the lifestyles of rulers and their associates. The high priestly families were more rich than pious in the time of Jesus. Herod Antipas lived in luxury. And today, according to human rights reports, President Salva Kiir of South Sudan has amassed enormous wealth inside and outside his country. His family and his associates “… own multimillion-dollar properties, drive luxury cars and stay at expensive hotels, all while much of their country’s population suffers from the consequences of a brutal civil war and, in many places, experiences near-famine conditions.” The same accusations are made of opposition leader Riek Machar.
The parable ends with the gruesome revenge of the king on the dissident delegation that traveled to the far country to oppose his appointment. “But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here to the royal court and slaughter them in my presence.”
It is brutal. The cross is brutal. Carrying the cross can be brutal in context of oppression. The dissident slave is a model of courageous discipleship in a repressive regime. He acts like a prophet. He is committed to live for God’s rule rather than an earthly empire built on unrighteousness and violence.
I want to draw a few conclusions for our Lenten walk with Jesus. We can ask ourselves what meaning do we find in the figure of the dissident slave? We can connect him with the seventy that were sent out like sheep among wolves to gather a harvest. We can serve prayerfully and stubbornly with the hope that Satan, the personification of evil, will fall from the sky like lightening
Those of us who live in liberal democracies are challenged to renew our solidarity with Christian sisters and brothers who live with fear of governments and armies. In Bolivia, I served with a gifted theologian named Emigdio Veizaga. He and his family had been forced into exile because of death threats from agents of the government. There are dangers of working for and witnessing to God’s kingdom in places where there is the condoned violence of religious fundamentalists, para military bands, and ethnic killers. It takes courage to raise one’s voice in the name of God inviting people to faith and the journey of discipleship.
Canada and the United States are liberal democracies. However, there are growing threats to our values and freedoms. Democracy is breaking down. The reasoned exchange of opinions has degenerated into the shouting of slogans and the refusal to enter into respectful dialogue. We have become afraid of strangers that have been exiled from their own countries.
Christians, as followers of Jesus, hold to deeper values than those of a liberal democracy. We believe that every child is born with the image of God. The organization for which I work, Canadian Baptist Ministries (CBM), has launched an advocacy and fundraising program named She Matters. It is a way of joining with our international partners to raise awareness of the importance of girl’s education, economic opportunities for women, and gender based human rights. CBM partners with the Christian environmental organization A Rocha. We are making a statement that we are concerned about conservation, water, soil, crops, and biodiversity. Our work for the poor communicates a condemnation, in the name of God, of the growing economic disparity in the world. and here at home. We are committed to peace building and reconciliation even when it means entering into the midst of animosity and accusations that we are taking sides. We are struggling to find ways to walk the pathways of reconciliation with indigenous people in Canada.
We have been criticized for watering down the gospel. I do not see it that way. I think we are taking the values of the gospel and trying to make them the heartbeat of our organization. We understand that Jesus calls us to live as dissidents. We pray that the power of evil is defeated in places where we work as vulnerable disciples of Jesus.
As I have thought about this passage, I have been examining my own life. I am concerned that I fit too comfortably into a consumeristic and individualistic society devoid of deep meaning. I need to reflect more deeply on the courage of the dissident slave in Luke 19.
- Breathe slowly. Be comfortable.
- What strikes you about the tenth slave in this way of reading the parable?
- Is there someone who is a model of dissident discipleship for you? What stands out in this person’s life?
- Is there one issue to which you would like to develop a dissident approach as a follower of Jesus? How might this be done?
- What grace do you seek from God in this week?
 New York Times, 12 September, 2016.