Wisdom 18:6-9; Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19; Luke 12:32-48
In the early days of Christianity, many sayings of Jesus were circulating in the living memory of various communities. When the evangelists put them in writing, they put a lot of them together, as if they had been spoken on the same occasion, when in reality they had come from Jesus in very diverse situations. Perhaps a word or two in one saying or story suggested another one. They came together in one paragraph or two in the gospel. Today, Luke, who in his journey section has Jesus instructing the disciples, gives us five such sayings or stories. There are big differences between them.
First, Luke spells out a key principle of any spiritual life. Dispossess yourself of things you have. Get rid of the perishables in your life. Moths or thieves will eventually have them if you try to keep them. Only then can you focus exclusively on ‘heaven', and make it the one treasure of your heart. This is not about helping the poor. This is seeing a real value in ‘spiritual poverty' itself as a way of living. I don't doubt Jesus said something like this, but the Buddha could have said the same thing. Every worthwhile spiritual tradition has done so. Christianity has a lot of common ground with spiritual wisdom, wherever it is found.
Secondly, Luke gives us a parable not found elsewhere in the gospels. Servants are waiting for the return of their master from his wedding banquet. [These feasts usually lasted a week.] He is late - it is perhaps the second or third watch at night (somewhere between 9 in the evening and 3 in the morning). If they are dressed for action, with the lights on, eagerly watching for his arrival, and opening up to welcome him immediately, he will put on one of their aprons and sit them down and be their waiter and serve them the meal they had prepared for him! (His wife may have wanted to divorce him for doing it!) There is a reversal in all parables, but this is quite a big reversal. The story is local, personal. The story is used to help the readers centre on the person of Jesus, returning soon. It sounds very original to primitive Christianity. It is very consistent with the earliest days, when believers (like Paul himself) expected the visible Parousia, or return, or second coming, of Jesus, within their own lifetime. The whole story reflects their urgent love for Jesus and impatient desire of his visible presence, and Jesus' enormous delight at seeing them in love for him, so much that he demonstrates their equality with him by becoming once again their servant. Isn't it strange that when he returns, it won't be to a community that worships him, it will be to a community that he worships and serves! That is the reversal that is classic in all parables.... It is very ‘early Christian', and very in tune with the original Jesus.
Thirdly, Luke remembers and includes a saying, found also in Matthew, about the precautions needed to avoid a break-in by thieves. I suppose the link is the idea of the late arrival of the master in the previous story. Now we have the possibility of a break-in by a thief late at night. But note: the mood has changed. This time it is a thief that comes, not the master, not Jesus. This time it is not the joy of welcome that is emphasized, but the need for due precaution. This is not a specifically Christian (or ‘Jesus') message. It is not even a properly religious one. It is just plain rational common sense! There is a place for that, too, in our lives! Lock your doors!
Fourthly, Luke follows this with another story about a late arrival. This time we are dealing with servants of some larger importance. They are stewards, providers, house managers. They have a supervisor to whom they themselves are responsible. This supervisor makes a visit for a performance review. In the story, he has delayed his coming - he hasn't arrived for some time. The house manager ‘beats his fellow servants' (verbal abuse? put-down?) and eats and drinks too much for his or anyone else's good (sounds like a very good lunch break leading to a ‘sickie'). This scenario looks as though it comes from a good observer of work place activities (or lack of them) anywhere, anytime. There is nothing here that is exactly Christian, or even religious. It fits into a more developed and organized period of Christianity, or of any other institution.
Then, fifthly, in the story, the supervisor arrives exactly at the time, when he is not expected - ‘on a day he does not expect, at an hour he does not know'. He would, wouldn't he? Those people do. Just the luck of the employee who thought he was getting away with it. But there is an interesting twist here. In step two of these words of Jesus that Luke gives us, the master (Jesus) was coming in the middle of the night. At a time unknown and unspecified. This time it is a supervisor who comes at that late hour. I find it interesting that the reminder that this could/will happen is given only to those who are not doing their job or meeting expectations. Neither Luke nor Jesus says or threatens good, hard-working people, doing their bit for love of Jesus and others, with any sort of sudden mid-night arrival for a check up. This means that good decent Christians can forget their fears of a sudden judgment from heaven when they happen to be at their worst. God, and Jesus, wouldn't do that. In the end, it is not watching clocks that is recommended, it is attention to the person of the coming Jesus. And we are back to the truly Christian point (from the parable above).
So how do we live? As spiritually wise people do, as Jesus-people do who long for his coming, as common sense, responsible people do, as people do who have discovered that their God isn't to be feared, but to be trusted to love them.
Even if Jesus didn't say all this on one particular day, Luke has put his various thoughts and sayings together in a rather useful way.
By Fr. Sean Wales