Perception is Reality

Luke 19:11-27

Read with me Luke 19:11,

“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.”

This afternoon, we find ourselves with Jesus, his companions, and the hodge-podge group of followers—religious and non-religious, Jews and gentiles alike, some who are curious about Jesus, some desiring to get something from Jesus, some intrigued but conflicted by Jesus, and others out-right hating Jesus—all on the road to Jerusalem for the last time. In a few days Jesus will enter the city, be arrested, beaten and mockingly crucified as ‘king of the Jews’. But that is still in the future, and such tragic events were the last thing on the minds of all but Jesus himself.

All along, through his actions, teachings and stories, Jesus has been turning this group’s, and hopefully our own, perceptions of God and what God is doing upside down. He has unsettled their view of religion, of who are the insiders and who are the outsiders, of what God might being in and through their neighbors, and even who they are and what role they play in salvation history. He’s unsettled them but not left them orbiting in gravity-less space. They have been unsettled so that they might be grounded in a new reality—a new way of seeing, a new way of living. The word that captures the gravitational force of this new reality to which they have become enlightened is kingdom.

Mark starts his gospel with Jesus’ destination already upon us,

“…Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of god is at hand; repent and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14-15)

Kingdom is a big idea word. We may talk of building our own kingdoms today, but in truth we own little and control little. We are not queens or kings of much. Kingdom is no small thing. Even an insignificant kingdom—such as Israel for example—would have history, wealth, organization, institutions, hierarchy, celebrations, traditions, military and power. Thus, one kingdom overtaking another kingdom is no small thing either. Such an invasion and overcoming would require spectacular means—whether through cunning, coercion, violence, or stubborn fortitude—kingdom work was glorious and grand.

And so, as this most eclectic band set their bearings toward Jerusalem at the time when the entire nation is remembering the great overcoming of Egyptian oppression even as they are under the thumb of Rome, one’s mind would naturally wander to visions of God’s Kingdom overcoming this new oppressor, even overcoming the synchronistic and parasitic religious order that flourished under it. Yes! Thy kingdom come God! Yes! Today salvation comes to this house, the house of David! Yes, finally, the Day of the Lord is here!

And who could blame them? Kingdom is a big enough word to stir imaginations of what could be, a big enough word to get everyone in on the action, to open up all the possibilities of a new life. Kingdom is profound! And here is the thing, when we experience something profound—like being someone always on the outside but now on the inside, blind but now able to see the faces of the voices we’ve always only heard, lame but now able to dance about the streets, chronically ill but now perfectly healthy, dead but now alive—we want more of the same! Whatever Jesus is up to we are in!

Are you and I any different? Are we any less excitable? Any less impassioned by kingdom talk? Any less desirous of more profound experience, longing for new life?

In every generation, the most passionate among us, with the sincerest intentions, stir the faithful and the desperate to rise up and enter the kingdom—a good thing—but more often than not fail to recognize that the way the kingdom comes is just as important as the kingdom itself. In fact, Jesus would say that the way to and the way of the kingdom are actually one-in-the-same, “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:16).

Enthusiasm is great, even encouraged, just not enough to change the world. As we just read in Mark 1, Jesus’ declaration is that the kingdom is here so repent, literally turn from going one way and go another way. Whatever idea of the kingdom you have or whatever kingdom you might be serving, turn around and believe the gospel, the good news, that God is doing something different and therefore live differently. Jesus’ proclamation is an invitation to a new way of life in this world, in God’s world. And everything hinges on this. So it is not simply acknowledgement, even enthusiastic acknowledgement, there is action involved (obedience is the common word Jesus and his disciples would use for such action).

This God kingdom, especially at first and roused in euphoric states of excitement and praise songs, feels—in mind, spirit and body—like a totally other world, something big, something grand, something other than here and now. Yet, and it is important to pay attention to this, that Jesus brings attention to the kingdom right there in first century Palestine amongst fisherman, Pharisees, peasants, priests, unclean and noble alike. It is not a wholly different world that we are awakened to in Jesus; rather, we are grounded to “…live in [this] world, but as if it had an extra dimension or two invisible to most.”[1] That is, to live by a different way, in a different way.

And Jesus knows that it is important that we recognize the difference. So he, as is his way, tells a story. A story that reminds us that how we perceive God and how we perceive our place in the kingdom is of utmost importance. Our perception will become our reality. Let’s read together the rest of the story in Luke 19:12-27.

The story begins in a familiar context for the listeners. Under Roman rule, authority was not merely a birth right, but could be won and lost on a variety of factors. There were certainly advantages to being the son of a king, but not a guarantee that the rule would be passed on to you. In fact Herod, you know the one who the wisemen met at the birth of Jesus, made a similar trip to this nobleman some 40 years before Jesus’ story to Rome to secure his kingship; a trip that was ultimately successful. His son, 35 years after his father, made the same expedition and lost out on the opportunity to rule.

Perhaps today it would be like a politician who had served in office and seemed ready for the next level of leadership, yet still had to win an election in order to take on this new level of leadership and authority of the city, county, state or nation he was residing. And, like in our elections today, there would inevitably be an opposing candidate to whomever desired to be in authority. In both Jesus’ and our scenario, there is a chance, at the beginning of the story for the nobleman or politician might not to win. After all, there is sever resistance, even venomous opposition. Nothing like we are used to in our political environment of course!

All this is to be expected in a new kingdom coming. Opposition, to both nobleman’s authority and also to those who exercise his authority as his servants. Being affiliated with this would-be-king was risky—he might come back successful or at all—and to be associated with him meant that you would receive opposition to your daily living. Thus, it would be expected for those allied with the-would-be king to receive an exhortation (encouraging command) to “Engage in business because I am returning”, or to say it more plainly, “Go about your business in a manner that is aligned with my agenda, confident that if I am going to indeed return as king.

So the story begins in a way that anyone wanting this God kingdom, whatever picture of that kingdom they had in their mind, to come immediately would think is absolutely normal, even familiar. Opposing forces ready to do battle, an epic up-heavily of glory! With a little twist…by now we should expect nothing less from Jesus!

The story shifts from the king to his servants. Wouldn’t you expect a story of a new kingdom coming to be about the would-be-king, or at least the people going off with him to claim his authority? Yet, Jesus story shifts away from the action of kingdom overthrow and to the mundanity of those servants left to wait. No warriors, only servants. No battles only ordinary business.

And here is another twist, the nobleman does not merely leave a charge to those who followed him to remain faithful to the way in which he ruled the kingdom, but actually bestows the resources necessary for the servants to make a difference. A mina, or 100 days wages, 3 months of resources to get you started. A significant gift, especially since it would have been presumed that the nobleman’s servants would either live off the land—that is whatever they could produce themselves—or those loyal to the nobleman would have had their own resources to use—being wealthy themselves. There is an assumption then, and the first listeners would have picked up on, that those supporting the nobleman were in no position to keep this kingdom progressing themselves, and yet there were needed, even expected, to do just that. They were invited to participate and gifted what they needed to do so.

The nobleman embarks upon his odyssey to secure his kingdom—an epic to which the servants are mere observers, but whose task was to keep the kingdom prospering nonetheless. Time passes, a significant enough amount of time that the servants’ labors are expected to have borne fruit. When the nobleman returns, he does so as King, and calls those same servants back to inquire of what “business they had transacted[2], which, according to several scholars and Middle Eastern experts is a more accurate that the ESV translation of “gained by doing business”.  In other words, the now King has expected that his servants would have put their gifts to use for the betterment of the kingdom. An implied command based on the reports from the first two servants who did just that, and the reward they received. Indeed they used their resources in a manner similar to the way the King would have and the land prospered, so they were given more responsibility to rule as the King rules—10 cities and 5 cities. They were rewarded not with wealth, but with greater responsibility.

And get this, they were rewarded because of their faithfulness, not their success. Read again the King’s response to the first servant’s report in verse 17,

“‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’”

What was the servant faithful to do? Use the gift in a way that aligned with the King’s values for the prosperity of the kingdom. So, it is not about the quantity that the servant produced, but faithful use of what she had been given. Which should be shocking to our capitalistic ears. Success not faithfulness is the measure of a person in our culture. You are only faithful if you are a success, to say it another way.

Want another shocker, listen again to the servant’s report, what does she say is the reason for her success? Verse 16,

The first came saying, ‘Lord your mina has made ten minas more.’”

What produced what? The gift given matured on its own? It is as if she is saying that when I used your gifted resources in the same way that you would use them, look it produced what you wanted it to produce! The second servant places the same emphasis on what he brings before the King,

“And the second came saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’”

Not only did the nobleman gift the resources necessary for the servants to prosper the kingdom, but it was the gifts used in a faithful manner, not the servants, abilities or inabilities, that bore the fruit. And so the servant is not only gifted resources but doubly gifted in being honored for using those resources in a good way.

My kids love pet machines, you know the ones outside of the grocery store that waste ever quarter put into them. Every time we pass by one, or any other money sucking machine for that matter, they always ask if they can play.

The best way I have been able to picture what is going on here is to think about giving Cohen or Lily a $10 bill and telling them that if they put that $10 bill into the machine just outside the store that they will receive back more than they put in.  And, once they choose to actually insert the bill and have received the positive return that was never-in-doubt because the machine always gives more than it takes, you give them a $20 dollar bill as reward! Is that not profound! Maybe not lame walking kind of profound, but certainly reality shifting profound, right?

Let’s stop here for a brief moment. In the story thus far, what are your perceptions of the noble King? What about how his kingdom operates? How about the participation of his servants?

Yet, the story does not end here. There is another servant—whether he was number 3 or 7 or 10 we don’t know—who, having witnessed what we have of the King, his kingdom and servant’s participation in it; reports something drastically different. Let’s read it again with our newly reframed perceptions of the reality in which this servant acts and makes accusations. Verses 20 -21 read,

“Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is you 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.’”

First, what is this servant’s perception of the King, the king’s kingdom, and his role in it? Does his perception of the King at all reflect what we know of the King so far in the story? Certainly there were those who hated him and did not want him to rule over them, was it because they too thought him severe? Was this servant afraid of them?

We have read the condemnation of verse 27, could that be it? More on that in a moment, for now, the servant doesn’t know this order when he makes his statement. What we know of the King thus far, does he take what is not his? It seems that he gives what is already his away—both in the minas and authority over the cities.

Would it be fair to say that this servant misperceived the nature and character of both the King and his kingdom? Yet, unlike the lost son and the dishonest steward, he fails to recognize his misperception offers an excuse for his unfavorable actions.

We know that the servant is a bit off, not just from the story but from his miss-guided response. You see, the unfaithful (wicked, if you want to get real) servant is actually attempting to give the King a compliment. No one would stand before their King and give a direct insult, especially not in that day and time. Essentially the servant is saying to his master that the King is a thief, but a really good one! Which seems odd, but not if you perceived the King to be like the Guals of the 4th and 5th centuries BCE or the Vikings in the 8th to 11th centuries AD, or the Bedouins of Jesus’ day, all of whom believed that the most noble way to earn fortune is by taking someone else’s.

You see, the servant perceives the King to rule in the same manner as many other rulers of his time. This kings way is not unlike any other kings ways. This servant failed to pick up on the different way in which this King lived and expected his servants to live.  The longer the noble king-to-be was away, the longer the gift sat dormant, hidden away in fear and a muddled view of how the kingdom really works, the more perverted the servants perception of the nature and character of the king became.  So twisted did the servant’s perception of the king and his kingdom’s reality become that he is called “wicked”; one who is aligned with the opposition party.

And, here is where story gets sad, and thus the warning to all of us so enthusiastic about the kingdom coming but forgetful that the way to and the way of the King and his kingdom is significant. The King responds, not validating the servant’s perception but letting the misperception become his reality saying,

You will be condemned by your own perceptions. You have experienced me as a hard man, taking up what I did not lay down and reaping what I did not sow (repeating the servant’s accusation), have you? Life in my kingdom has been that bad for you? If I am so ruthless, without consideration for justice, then you should have done the unjust thing and charged interest on my resources (an act forbidden by the Torah), and at least made something of what I gifted you. If I am as you perceive them I will let you to live in the reality you have created—taking what has be given as if it was not mine in the first place.

“The judgement [the King]…passes on this unfaithful servant is that the servant is to be left with the twisted view of the [King] that was produced by the servant’s unfaithfulness…I will leave you with your self-created, distorted perceptions of my nature.”[3]

What an awful place to be. Living life in this God kingdom now in which you are gifted with all you need to prosper for yourself and others, a gift which used in a faithful manner returns back in bountifulness; yet to be so full of fear, doubt, timidity, apathy, misperception; that you enjoy none of this wondrous place and the generous King.

Do you think the King’s judgement is strange? Such self-created condemnation is not new in our biblical story. Psalm 18:25-26 reads in four different translations just so we get it…

With the loyal thou dost show thyself loyal;
with the blameless man thou dost show thyself blameless;
with the pure thou dost show thyself pure;
and with the crooked thou dost show thyself twisted.                     (Bailey)
To the faithful you show yourself faithful,
to the blameless you show yourself blameless,
To the pure you show yourself pure,

but to the devious you show yourself shrewd.                                 (NIV)
The good people taste your goodness,
The whole people taste your health,
The true people taste your truth,
The bad ones can’t figure you out.                                                    (Message)
With the merciful you show yourself merciful;
with the blameless man you show yourself blameless;
with the purified you show yourself pure;

and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous.                (ESV)

As one scholar notes, both the unfaithful servant and the psalmist “affirm that the way we live influences how we see God[4]. The ones who lived faithfully, in a way aligned with the nature and character of the King received more than they had been given, the one whose way of life was passive—out of fear or contempt—lost what he had been given; though, I think purposely[5], we are not told if this servant is removed from the kingdom, simply that his gift has been taken from him. As the apostle Peter, having heard this story as man most impassioned and desiring the kingdom to come immediately wrote years later, this servant is one who is “ineffective and unfruitful in his knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:8). As sad way to live as a servant of the King.

Finally, our story concludes with those opponents who made an appearance at the beginning, but who have been assumed to have been lurking around throughout, now summoned to destruction in verse 27. For time sake let me simply say this about this seemingly harsh response by the King who was kind and generous. The parable ends here, but the story keeps going. Directly following this Jesus enters into Jerusalem as the noble would-be-king atop a young donkey to the praise of a few with palm branches. As he enters, he weeps over the people of the city that did not recognize his nature and character, and thus the nature and character of God. He weeps because they misperceived him. Their misperceptions would lead to their destruction fully some thirty plus years later when the temple is destroyed. Likewise he rebukes the religious in the temple that have turned the presence and rule of God into exchanges, economics of any other kingdom. And then, he shows you what kind of king he is and what kind of kingdom he rules, he dies for these same enemies, these same ambivalent who did not want him to rule. Again, turning their world upside down.

As one author so pointedly remarks,

“We wake up already immersed in a large story of creation and covenant, of Israel and Jesus, the story of Jesus and the stories that Jesus told. We let ourselves be formed by these formative stories, and especially as we listen to the stories that Jesus tells, get a feel for the way he does it, the way he talks, the way he treats people, the Jesus way…The kingdom is here. We are in it…This [parable] is a sobering word: non-participation is not a causal matter…There are no non-participants in Jesus’ kingdom…A timid refusal to obey makes us liable to the same judgment as overt and defiant disobedience. Obediently following Jesus in this already inaugurated kingdom of God is serious business indeed.”[6]

So faith family, how do you perceive God? What reality are you living in? We will know our perceptions of who God is and how his kingdom works by the way we use the gifts he has given us. Do we use them in a faithful manner, a way aligned with his way of sacrifice, of kindness, of generosity, of courage, of seeking the good of others? Or, do we take what we have been given and hide it away out of fear, out of apathy, out of disobedience?

[1] Anthony Esolen, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, 214.

[2] Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 402. Darrell L. Bock, BECNT, Luke: 9:51–24:53 (Vol. 2), 1535.

[3] Bailey, 405.

[4] Ibid. 406.

[5] Charles H. Talbert offers a helpful discussion on the open-ended nature of the servant’s fate in Reading Luke: a literary and theological commentary on the third Gospel, 207-214.

[6] Eugene Peterson, Tell it Slant: a conversation on the language of Jesus in his stories and prayers, 154-155.