Luke 19:1-10 | Matthew 25:14-30

This week we have returned to two stories today that I suspect we’ve all heard many times – the story of Zacchaeus, and the parable of the talents. In Luke’s gospel they are placed immediately after one another, but this being the year of Matthew we’ve heard his version of the story.

Before we get into the stories, though, I’d like to ask you to hold a thought in the back of your mind: in the story of Zacchaeus we read that Zacchaeus had to climb a tree to see Jesus because he was a short man. It’s in the children’s stories, it’s in the songs, we’ve known it since Sunday School.

Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus because he was short.

But there is no indication in the language (Greek or English) to tell us which of the two men – Zacchaeus or Jesus – was the ‘he’ who was short. Either would make perfect linguistic and logical sense. But we always tell the story with Zacchaeus being the short man. Never Jesus.

But before we come back to Zacchaeus, we have one of Jesus’ more troubling parables (although the more I read, the more I think all of Jesus’ parables are troubling in one way or another, and that that might be part of the point).

The parable of the talents.

Now I’m guessing that you’ve heard this parable before, and if the sermons you’ve heard have been anything like the ones I’ve heard they will have dwelt on the basic moral: use the gifts that you’ve been given for the good of the Kingdom of God.

I’m also guessing that the king’s words “to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” have been left a little bit hanging; perhaps rather unconvincingly interpreted, perhaps omitted entirely. And as for the sentence after that, “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”, I wonder if you even recognised it as part of the story. I’ve certainly never heard a preacher (outside of the fire and brimstone tradition) speak on that part of the text. And Matthew’s version omits the words Luke ends with: “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”.

We tend to skip over those bits of the parable. Which is a shame, really. Because the fact that those parts of the story really don’t seem to fit might cause us to wonder whether we have got the story completely the wrong way around.

Why, I wonder, do we identify the nobleman in the story with Jesus, or with God? Why do we place him on side of the angels?

In Luke’s account, the nobleman starts off ‘going to a distant country to get royal power for himself’, and ends up publicly slaughtering all those who refuse to have him as their king. Both Luke and Matthew record that he is accused – and lives up to the accusation – of being a harsh man, taking what he doesn’t deposit, reaping what he doesn’t sow. He tells his servant that he ought to have put the money in the bank to earn interest, even though lending money for interest was forbidden in the law of Moses, (that’s particularly telling here in Matthew’s gospel – for as I’ve mentioned before, Matthew never records Jesus as going against the Mosaic law) – and he declares that those who have nothing will have even what they have taken away from them.

Does any of that actually sound the remotest bit like Jesus is talking about himself to you?

Doesn’t it sound a lot more like a description of the way that the kings of the world behave than the ways of the Kingdom of God?

In fact, what those difficult words “from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” reminded me of more than anything were the story the prophet Nathan told to King David, after David had arranged for Uriah to be killed so he could marry Bathsheba, his wife.

In that story the prophet tells of a poor man who has just one possession, a baby kid; and a wealthy man who, when a visitor arrives, takes the kid from the poor man to entertain his guest. David condemns the wealthy man: “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die” only for Nathan to reply “You are that man”.

From those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” – are those the words of the God of grace who sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous? Who proclaims good news to the poor?

In the David story, his fault is that he has begun to behave in the way that the kings of the world behave, not the way that God’s people are called to behave.

Now go back to the context of the story: Luke records that Jesus tells it, “because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear”. They were drawing near to the centre of power, and the people were expecting the arrival of the Kingdom. Matthew places it in the middle of a passage of teaching about the reign of God, and how different it would be from what they expected.

Perhaps this isn’t a story in which the nobleman, is an allegory of Jesus, but exactly the opposite. It’s a story all about how completely broken the human way of operating is, of all that goes wrong, of the way that greed and the quest for power lead to increased injustice and violence: and of why no-one should expect Jesus’ kingdom, or kingship, to look anything like the kingdoms they are used to.

Why the Kingdom of God is, in so many ways, an upside-down version of all the other kingdoms of the world.

Which brings us back to the story of Zacchaeus.

Because what has just happened with Zacchaeus is exactly the change in mindset, the change in approach, that Jesus is pointing to.

Zacchaeus’ life has been a spectacular success in the way of the world. He isn’t just a tax-collector, he’s the chief tax-collector; he has others working for him, he’s skimming the cream off their profits at the expense of his fellow Jews. In fact, he’s done exactly what the first servant in the parable has done – taken his position as a servant of the empire, and used it to make a considerable profit both for himself and for the king.

If the Roman governor of the day had paid a visit, Zacchaeus would have received his praise: “well done, good and faithful servant!”

But instead, he receives a visit from a very different sort of King. And encountering Jesus, Zacchaeus suddenly gets it. His work for the kings of the world, his loyal service to them and to himself, is rendered meaningless. All the rewards he had earned for himself, all the praise of rulers and trappings of empire, were nothing compared to what he had lost.

Like Matthew himself, a tax-collector called by Jesus to follow. I’ve just finished watching the third season of The Chosen – really recommend it – and I think in that depiction Matthew might even be my favourite character – nerdy, probably on the autism spectrum, often confused, but passionately committed to his task of recording the story.

There are lots of sermons in the story of Zacchaeus, lots we can learn about discipleship from his encounter with Jesus. There’s a whole load of stuff around the character and personality of Zacchaeus – his enthusiasm to see Jesus, his willingness to do something a bit out of the ordinary; Jesus’ recognition of the longing for change in the heart of a man that had been written off as a sinner and a collaborator by the masses; Zacchaeus’ understanding of the need for genuine change in response to the grace of God shown to him in Jesus’ greeting.

Then there’s the fact that Jesus’ willingness to welcome the outsider, the reject, was not just for those who had, as it were, been pushed out of the bottom of society – the leper, the foreigner, women, children – but also was available for those, like Zacchaeus, who had effectively excluded themselves at the top of the ladder, who had gained the whole world but lost their soul in doing so.

But for me the story of Zacchaeus is most of all about value, and about what matters. About how we identify winners and losers, the valuable and the pitiful. About the way we read the parable of the talents and simply assume that the man who gets the most rewards at the end is the winner. About why we assume Zacchaeus was short, not Jesus.

Zacchaeus teaches us about the radical reordering of the kingdom. About the way that value in the economy of God is not measured by wealth or status, but by generosity, by faithfulness, by repentance, by justice.

Discipleship invites us to reconsider what we mean when we speak of success. Because Jesus’ definition seems distinctly different from that of the world, or, all too often, that of the Church.

So let me leave you with that question: what is success?