Gospel for the Nineteenth Sunday (7 August 2016)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
“Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the marriage feast, so that they may open to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes; truly, I say to you, he will gird himself and have them sit at table, and he will come and serve them. If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them so, blessed are those servants! But know this, that if the householder had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. You also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and wise steward, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will punish him, and put him with the unfaithful. And that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more. (Lk 12:32–48 – NRSVCE)
We find parts of this text in Matthew 6:21 (“where your treasure is there will your heart be also”), Mark 13:35 (“stay awake because you do not know the hour the master is coming”), Matthew 24:43-44 (“You may be quite sure of this, that if the householder had known .... because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”) and Matthew 24:45-51 (“What sort of a servant then ...... the master will cut him off and send him to the same fate as the hypocrites.”).
Luke is here continuing to address the dangers of greed, before moving on to the related topic of being watchful and ready. One commentator notes: “It is out of deep fear that the acquisitive instinct grows monstrous. Life seems so frail and contingent that many possessions are required to secure it, even though the possessions are frailer still than the life. Only the removal of fear by the persuasion that life is a gift given by the source of all reality can generate the spiritual freedom that is symbolized by the generous disposition of possessions.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 201.)
On the theme of watchfulness, Joseph Fitzmyer writes: “.... watchfulness connected with the eschatological day of Yahweh is abundant in OT prophets (Isa 13:6; Ezek 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1; Amos 5:18; Obad 15; Zeph 1:14–18). Even though that has to be understood at times in terms of specific events in the history of Israel, it became a theme which transcended them, calling for watchfulness in conduct (see Mal 3:23–24 [4:5–6E]).... Recall the vigil kept by the Essenes of Qumran: ‘Let the Many watch (yšqwdw) in common for a third of all the nights of the year, to read the Book and study the Law’ (1QS 6:7). Jesus’ words about vigilance could well have been uttered in such a context; they could also have fitted into his preaching about the ‘coming’ of the kingdom and the implication of judgment associated with it (see 9:26 [cf. pp. 155–156]).” (Joseph Fitzmyer, S. J., The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes, Yale University Press, 2008, 987.)
“Let your loins be girded ....” : The listener is reminded of the first Passover – see Exodus 12:11. There are also echoes here of Elijah running ahead of the rain – see 1 Kings 18:46.
truly, I say to you: The Greek word is amen (ἀμὴν). Johnson writes: “The locution is peculiar to Jesus. The term ‘amen’ would ordinarily respond to the speech of another (‘so be it’, ‘yes’), and come at the end. The Gospels show Jesus validating his own speech beforehand; an unmistakable sign of prophetic self-consciousness. The translation, ‘I assure you’ would be more idiosyncratic, but since the Greek carries over the Hebrew as a recognition of Jesus’ distinctive speech, so can the English (see also 12:37; 18:17, 29; 21:32; 23:43).” (Johnson, op cit, 80.)
the second or third watch: In other words, very late at night!
Blessed are those servants: The Greek word translated here as “blessed” is macarioi (μακάριοί) and is used twelve times in Luke’s Gospel. The word carries much more significance than the English word “happy” allows.
the thief was coming: This is a striking image that is also found in Matthew 24:43, 1 Thessalonians 5:2 & 4, 2 Peter 3:10 and Revelations 16:15.
Son of Man is coming: More often than not, Luke refers to Jesus’ ministry when he uses this expression – see 5:24; 6:5 & 22; 7:34; 9:56 & 58; 11:30; 12:10. Less often it is used in reference to his suffering – see 9:22, 26 & 44. However, from this point on, Luke more often uses the expression in references to the future coming of the Son of Man as judge – see 17:22, 24, 26 & 30; 18:8; 21:27 & 36; 22:69.
Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?”: Peter’s question allows Luke to focus on the authority structure within the Christian community.
the faithful and wise steward, whom his master will set over his household: “The household manager (oikonomos) is often translated as ‘steward’. He was himself a slave (doulos) just as those he oversees; despite his relative authority, he is equally subject to the authority of the master (kyrios). This language cannot help but evoke the relationship of Christians to their master, the risen kyrios.” (Johnson, op cit, 204)
Many years ago I was attending a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. A man told a story which has stayed with me. He described how he had spent a number of years under the influence of alcohol. When he finally joined the program and got his life back, he went with his family to the Blue Mountains. He recalled standing at Echo Point lookout and saying to his wife: “This is so beautiful! Why haven’t we come here before?” His wife said: “We have been before. Several times actually.”
The late Walker Percy has a character called Will Barrett in his novel, The Second Coming. Will is now a widower but he has had a very full and rewarding life, with all the good things money can buy. In a moment of reflectiveness, he wonders about the life he has led: “How did it happen that now for the first time in his life he could see everything so clearly? Something had given him leave to live in the present. Not once in his entire life had he allowed himself to come to rest in the quiet center of himself but had forever cast himself forward from some dark past he could not remember to a future which did not exist. Not once had he ever been present for his life. So his life had passed like a dream. Is it possible for people to miss their lives in the same way that one misses a plane?” (Walker Percy, The Second Coming, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980, 123-124.)
“Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake ....” Jesus seems to agree with Will Barrett. Can we actually live, as it were, in an unawakened state? Is it possible to be at the lookout but not see the view?
Luke has just been talking about freedom from pre-occupation with earthly possessions and cares. Whilst we are so pre-occupied we cannot see beyond the possessions and cares. To a hammer everything looks like a nail! The freedom from enables a freedom for – freedom for seeing what really matters. Wake up!
The kinds of things that blind us to what matters are bad habits, ignorance, fear, selfishness and pride. Typically we do not move beyond the inertia created by such things voluntarily or easily. It can take a very loud noise to wake us up, a big jolt to enable to us to see properly. Will Barrett concludes his reflection by asking: “How is it that death, the nearness of death, can restore a missed life? Why is it that without death one misses his life?”
In our Gospel passage, Luke seems to be suggesting the end time and the Second Coming. This evokes in the listener questions of purpose and personal limits and mortality. Am I awake to the deep, God-given purpose of my life? Do I see my limits and my mortality as promise or threat?