Ready for what?

Week of Sunday 11 August – Pentecost 12
Gospel: Luke 12:32-40

32 ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

35 ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.37Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

39 ‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’

Luke is addressed to the lover of God; a person whose name is literally God-lover ie Theo-philus. The Gospel begins in the temple of God. It presents an alternative reality to the world in which we live. It speaks of a kingdom which will have no end.

A kingdom where 

He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty. Luke 1:51-53

When Caesar decides to register the whole world, an act of arrogance on the level of building a tower up to heaven, God mocks him by subverting his plan and using it to bring the Messiah to the town where he must be born. (Luke 2:1-7)

This is not a cultic religious kingdom. "Beware of the corrupting yeast of the Pharisees that is their hypocrisy." (Luke 12:1)  This is a kingdom of compassion; ritual holiness are empty nothings without the doing of compassion.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” asks John. . . . ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’ (Luke 7:20-23)

The kingdom is not a simple sharing of money; some kind of socialism. Jesus will not be involved in the dispute between the two brothers; life does not consist in consist in the abundance of possessions. (Luke 12:16) Greed for possessions is dangerous.

Life is about being rich towards God, (21) and striving for the Kingdom. Being rich toward God results in a turning upside down of our expectations. It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:31-32)

Brian Stoffregen writes that a

A whole sermon could center on this contrast: religion…[ is  our attempt] to gain something from god -- usually through proper conduct, creeds, or cultic actions. (These are terms Robert Capon uses about religion.) Christianity is centered on receiving what God has given us.

The upturning continues, as Brian shows.

In Luke, I don't think that a person could be a faithful follower of Jesus and have lots of possessions. The proper use of one's abundance is to give them away or share them (or the money received from selling them) for the common good.

Luke's people did not have garage sales to provide the funds to buy more things for themselves. Sell you possessions and give alms, it says.

Stoffregen goes onto say

We also know that this communal structure did not last very long in the early church. Yet, a few years ago, I heard a pastor talk about his congregation living by the dictum: "There will be no needy among us." They have a fund from which members in need can use. The only way such a fund could exist is if the wealthier members give from their excess…..

There will be no needy among us does not mean that we must be like the church of Acts 2. We should be careful about assuming that if we do not fit that exact model of holding everything in common that there is no other way of ensuring "there will be no needy among us." Neither should we imagine that a Godly church means to emulate what can only be our imagining of the early church.

Stoffregen notes that

… in the first century, it was believed that there was a fixed and limited amount of wealth. If someone gained wealth, someone else had to lose it. They didn't believe that everyone becoming wealthier [was possible.] Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) state: "Acquisition was always considered stealing" (p. 359 emphasis in original). So, if the poor were to escape their poverty, it would have to come from the wealthy sharing their possessions. In essence, the wealthy would have to become poorer if the poor were to gain some wealth…

We like to think that we produce wealth, not steal it. When we look at how many of our material possession are produced in poor countries, where people are sometimes a  barely paid slave labour, often locked in factories which burn down to produce to the schedule of our fashion houses and supermarkets; when we look at the ecological costs of our wealth production and the looming climate apocalypse which we may not survive; when we remember the appallingly skewed distribution of wealth even in the west, it becomes clear that Luke's radical gospel is not confined to its own time. It is still relevant; we still steal, and perhaps more than ever. The Kingdom is still opposed to Caesar.

Bill Loader writes of the selling of possessions that there

… is something liberating in the honesty of the passage. There is no pretending here that we cease caring about ourselves. The passage even uses monetary metaphors to make the point. Go for wealth that will pay dividends. Go for purses that will not wear thin and lose your money. In other words, the sayings challenge people to act in their own best interests and within the framework of the gospel that means to merge inseparably together: love of self, love of others and love of God.

So much Christian talk in this area is denial if not dishonest, when it implies that in choosing this way we are somehow not acting in our own interests. The trouble with such approaches is that the denied self-interest then takes the liberty to run wild and sometimes out of control creating havoc. Such "selfless" people become unaware through such denial that their self-centredness distorts their lives surreptitiously.

I have inserted the inverted commas around "selfless" into this paragraph to emphasise the  frequently  abusive nature of church life when we are not honest about our motivations. There is a difference between costly discipleship and "selflessness" which is being taken advantage of, or is motivated by the need or desire to look good, or is simply unconscious of what drives it. One of the terrible things we do, of course, is pretend we are being faithful in this unconsciousness and denial. Bill continues

There is, nevertheless, the equally serious danger that these words are not connected to the wider context of the gospel and that Christian faith becomes only self-interest with all else, including love for God and neighbour, just a means to the end of gaining the reward. It is a very marketable approach but denies the heart of the gospel.  Bill Loader

Those who claim to follow the gospel must hear Brian Stoffregen, "In Luke, I don't think that a person could be a faithful follower of Jesus" if it does not entail serious cost, even if that cost is the opportunity cost of not seeking to be part of the empire of Caesar. The same is true today. The cost of discipleship is a useful rule of thumb. If it is not costing us, then perhaps we have strayed from the balance of what Bill called the inseparable three: "love of self, love of others and love of God."

We move on the chapter 12:39-40 and the return of the master.  

Loader says that

At one level it functions as a warning to be alert and ready for the coming of the Son of Man, which even Luke contemplated as likely to happen at any time. 2000 years later it is hard to pump up the readiness argument in the same way.

We cannot construct a faith where there is not some "coming" in mind; some fruition; some completion; some overthrowing of the present age. It would make no sense of the faith we have. What are we, some kind of protest movement who symbolically talks about a coming kingdom we don't think is real? If we do not have some kind of hope of the kingdom of God being enacted then what is Luke about? Such a view would make a mockery of the whole Gospel which is so emphatically against the powers that be—or perhaps it is an amazing heroism: this can never be, but it should be so, so I will live for it anyway.

Despite what Bill said of Luke's understanding,  Luke is not naïve. It has been fifty years since the cross; it is likely that Luke himself was born after Jesus death! He is not like those in the early chapters of Acts who are expecting the return any day now. He has begun to deal with the reality of the delay.

We cannot ignore the delay of Jesus' or the Kingdom's coming.  It would mock the poor and the suffering. Why is there a delay, can God not see our pain?

I have three writers' response to this issue.

Loader says

... alertness is just as urgent in other ways. Our problem is not the occasional break in, but the constant infiltration of those values which burgle the gospel and besiege the believer with alternative value systems designed to sustain profit for the well off. Our task is more like needing to be alert for the occasional apostle of justice and humanity, to offer them hospitality and support in a world where all the subtle and not so subtle messages are calling for more of the same, more for us and less for them.

Here our alertness keeps us awake to the little hints of Kingdom as they happen around us and let us be a part of them, and support them; no little thing.

Brian Stoffregen reflects aspects of this outlook:

...  the Greek for "coming" in both 39, 40 is present tense, not future! This is also true in the phrase from Revelation, "who was, who is, and who is coming". It may have a future sense, but it may also have a continually present sense -- being prepared for the one who is always coming…

We are seeking the signs of the Kingdom now and supporting them. He also notes the similarity between the rite of communion and the return of the Master who serves. I understand this to mean there is a partaking of the kingdom in allowing ourselves to be immersed in Communion or Eucharist. This rite cannot be empty words if it has any real meaning. It demands immersion in the life of the congregations, and it is in such immersion we will find that we, the slaves and servants, are also being served in the presently coming kingdom, and as we receive bread and wine.

Part of being prepared is to expect it. The slaves work as if the master were already present. The homeowner anticipates a thief and secures his house and treasures. Christians know Jesus is coming and we are to live as if he were already here: not building up wealth for ourselves, but giving alms (showing mercy), which builds up a treasure in heaven that will not be taken from us. 

John Petty writes

The word kurios is used twice (12: 36, 37) and clearly refers to Jesus in each case. Moreover, he is coming from a wedding banquet, an event of great festivity and gaiety. Indeed, the wedding banquet is an important biblical symbol for the Great Banquet at the end of time (Is 25:6, Rev. 19: 7-9).

The Lord is not grim-faced as he "comes and knocks." He will not come with a fearsome accounting of one's misdeeds. He will not come with pious exhortations to try harder. He will not come to put anyone in their place.

Quite the contrary. He's coming from a party. He has a spring in his step and a song in his heart. To those who are watching for him, "he will gird (himself)"--that is, he too is in a condition of heightened anticipation and readiness for action--except that, in his case, his action will be to "sit down with them, and drawing near, will serve them"!

Talk about status reversal. Just as serving the weak is the same as serving the Almighty, so the Lord comes to his "slaves," draws near to them, and serves the them. (This is what God's reign looks like. Oddball and out-of-sync with our current arrangements it may be, but this is the way that wins in the end...

Petty speaks about the thief...

Curiously, Luke gives us an image of the Lord as "thief." He is not alone in doing so. Paul used the same image in 1 Thessalonians 5:2, as did the author of Revelation (3:3). The thief is surreptitious, like Jesus. The thief quietly breaks in, like Jesus. Most of all, you don't know when the thief is coming, like Jesus.

This is how it usually works. We tend to identify with the "master of the house"--the oikodespotes, "the master of my domain," as Jerry Seinfeld puts it. If we think our house, or our lives, are about to be broken in to, we will post up our defenses--psychologically to be sure, even physically if we feel enough threat.

That's why the Lord uses so much misdirection. He comes in ways we do not expect, and a time we "think not" (he hora ou dokeite)--"an hour that seems like nothing." He doesn't bother trying to tear down our puny defenses. He sneaks around them instead.

In all three understandings the Lord still comes, now and in the future.

What do I do with these words about the master who returns?

The vision of Jesus for the Kingdom of God is necessary. The world in which we live is insufferable. Caesar must be brought down from his thrones, and the rich sent empty away.
There is no compromising with those who use their newspapers and mines to feather their own nests to the exclusion of others. They do not care.

But we must eschew the idea of a literal coming in the clouds... we know this kind of thing doesn't happen. The only cataclysms will be the ones about which we are in constant denial; climate and ecology, because we are committed to greed and the way of Caesar instead of the way of Jesus.

Christ coming in the clouds is magical thinking crying out  what we need to happen because the burden of our existence is just too much to bear. Understandable, it ought only be the last resort of those who have no other power than their imagination. For the rest of us it becomes too easily corrupted into leaving justice and compassion in the hands of a magic God; becoming passive, whereas the Gospels clearly envisage us being involved in the coming kingdom in some way.

I hope to God that God is involved in all this in some way! Yes, perhaps when I pray my distress at the nature of the world to my 'invisible friend,' I betray my lack of maturity and naivety. More naïve are those who think we can fix this on our own. Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, Jesus said, but despite our ready agreement with this, we in the West seem able only to act to possess. Blind self-interest of the foolish rich, which includes most of us, acts as though possessions do hold the meaning of life.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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