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"Bartholomew and the Oobleck" by Jillian Hankamer


 

June 9, 2024

Luke 19: 12-27

 

 

            In 2015 The Sentinel newspaper based in Carlisle, PA published a series of weekly articles based on a prompt for kids. The prompt for the week of January 15th was “If I ruled the world, I would get rid of…” As you’d expect the paper got some great answers.

 

            Taniyah Henry, 9 years old, said if she ruled the world she’d rid it of “annoying boys, everything in school besides special, lunch and recess, hunger, gravity, eggs, sweet potatoes, and other things.”[1] Conley Dunner, also 9 would get rid of “7 hours of school and turn it into one hour of lunch and 6 hours of recess.”[2] Gabe Wells, a sixth grader, got straight to the point with his answer, “If I ruled the world, I would get rid of global warming so people don’t die.” But it's a 7-year-old Ethan Redmond’s answer that shows the best theological thought; “If I ruled the world, I would get rid of mean people so the world could be peaceful and there would not be any sins. God would not be sad because he knows that everybody sins. The purpose is not to be sad when you sin because God still loves you.”[3]

 

            What would you get rid of if you ruled the world? Would it be global problems such as hunger and racism? Would you address national issues like school shootings or caring for veterans? Maybe while you’re helping others you’ll make a couple of three things happen for yourself like ensuring that nothing interferes with Bucknell basketball games or guaranteeing yourself a parking spot within a block of church on Sunday mornings. Personally, I’d get rid of student loan debt and give myself The Little Mermaid hair I’ve wanted since 1989.

            Both of this morning’s stories are about people ruling with only themselves in mind. Old King Derwin of Didd is bored with the weather and chafes at the limits of his power. Then in his attempt to change both, he unleashes destruction on his kingdom. The nobleman in Jesus’ parable “receives for himself a kingdom,” but is widely disliked and not above having his critics slaughtered in front of him.

 

            Like others we’ve studied, this is an ugly parable that leaves a bitter aftertaste when it’s read it aloud. The same story is told by Jesus in Matthew 25 in the Parable of the Talents, and while Luke follows the outline and story arch, his version is uniquely brutal.

 

If you’re wondering why these accounts of the same parable differ it’s helpful to understand something scholars call the two-source theory/two-source hypothesis which suggests that Matthew and Luke are similar because they both pull from Mark - the oldest of the gospels - and from a now lost second source scholars call Q (from the German word for “source”). Not all New Testament scholars agree on this theory, and neither do they agree on whether this parable is one “that Matthew and/or Luke revised, or two parables because Jesus and his early followers told it more than one way.”[4]

 

One important difference in Luke’s parable is money and how it’s handled. A talent is an enormous sum equaling 6,000 denarii, while the mina is equal to 100 denarii or 100 days of unskilled labor. So, in his giving of one mina to ten servants, we see something of Luke’s “king-to-be...He does not empty his bank account, as Matthew’s man does, and the sum of what he gives is one-sixth of what Matthew’s guy gives to the least-able servant.”[5]

 

In addition, Luke’s ruler gives his servants explicit instructions his Matthean counterpart doesn’t find necessary, and his first act upon returning to the kingdom is to discover how much profit his servants have made. As commentator Richard B. Vinson says, “Talk about your micro-manager - he owns a kingdom, but he’s worried about his penny stocks are doing.”[6]

 

The first servant manages to increase the new king’s mina tenfold which begs the question, how does he manage this feat in the short time it took the king to secure the kingdom? Luke leaves this to our imagination, but there’s “no ancient stock market...ordinary money lenders could hardly get away with charging 1,000 percent interest; no commercial venture…[could turn] such a profit without years of patience.”[7] Most likely Servant One used predatory, “anything for a buck”[8] strategies for which his master calls him “good” and gives him “authority over ten cities.”

 

Servant Two is less successful and gets no words of praise from his master, though he is given “authority over five cities.” Then there’s Servant Three who, out of his fear of his “strict” master, hides his mina in a handkerchief. This is a silly place to hide something as servants rarely had private quarters in which to keep things concealed, and the master responds to Servant Three by condemning him for not at least putting the money into the bank. He then gives the third servant’s mina to Servant One despite the people’s protests and his justification for his actions speaks volumes. Employing a parable format the king says, “To everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” This terrifying logic is followed by the king’s command for his detractors to be slaughtered before him.

 

There aren’t any good characters in Luke’s parable. Neither is there a Bartholomew Cubbins around to be the new king’s conscience. So why does Jesus tell this parable? What’s his point?

 

While stuck behind the lines during the Battle of the Bulge Theodor Geisel, the man who would become Dr. Seuss, overheard one soldier complain to his friend, “Rain, always rain! Why can’t we have something different for a change?”[9] That comment inspired Bartholomew and the Oobleck in which Dr. Seuss crafted this fantastical example of worst-case scenario leadership. Jesus embraces this same worst-case scenario theme in crafting this ugly parable “about a greedy, ruthless man who gains a kingdom, shares power with a slave who shares his values, and slaughters those who object.” His point is for his audience to examine if this is the kind of empire they want to be part of - because the people Jesus is speaking to certainly would have recognized Herod the Great in this would-be king - and to make it clear that such self-focus and dependence on power is not what he stands for.

 

To follow Jesus is not to be a citizen of a new empire in which Christ-followers get to rule the world. What Jesus offers is the exact opposite; eternal life of which God is the master. That isn’t to say that we don’t have free will or the ability to make choices that have lifelong effects. Neither does this mean that we should see every coincidence as God’s doing. Most often bushes burn because they’re on fire.

 

But if we profess that Jesus is Lord, we’re professing our willingness to lay our lives in God’s hands. To live in such a way that people see God in us and through us.

 

To profess Jesus as Lord is to recognize that the world would not be better if you or I were given carte blanche over others because you can’t rule what is already God’s.

 

It is, in fact, daring to anchor our lives in the belief that God is ultimately in control because it means that we aren’t. Such belief forces us to recognize our limitations, our shortcomings, our mistakes.

 

 But if we’re willing to be daring, if we’re willing to center our lives on the assurance that even in our worst moments we are loved, looked after, and cared for, we are free. Free from the temptations of power. Free from the need for control. Free to live focused on pursing God’s love and justice and care for all people.

 

 My friends, our prompt today and every day is not “If I ruled the world, I would get rid of…,” our prompt is “God rules the world, and we can celebrate that Good News by…”

 

Beloved how will you fill in the blank? How should our church fill in that blank?


[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Richard B. Vinson, “Luke,” Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary, pgs. 593-594.

[5] Ibid, 595.

[6] Ibid, 597.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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