Gospel for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (11 August 2019)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Oil Lamp (by carrotmadman6 from Mauritius)
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell 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. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be 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. Blessed 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. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
“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. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Luke 12:32-40 – NRSV).
We find parts of this text from Luke are shared by 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”) and 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.”).
Luke is here continuing to address the dangers of greed, before moving on to the related topic of being watchful and ready: “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.)
“Jesus’ teaching to the disciples continues without any break .... but the theme switches from that of ceasing to be anxious about worldly possessions to that of being spiritually prepared for the coming of the Son of man (v. 40). Freed from worldly cares through trust in the fatherly care of God and hope in the coming of the kingdom, the disciples are not to let themselves be enticed by the temptations of the world to laziness, self-indulgence and self-assertion, but are to spend their time profitably and in readiness to serve the Son of man when he appears. This lesson is given by means of parabolic teaching. The opening parable likens the disciples to servants waiting expectantly for the return of their master at night and promises them a reward beyond human imagining in the picture of the master serving the servants (12:35–38)” (I H Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek text, Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1978, 532-533).
Do not be afraid: This verse is unique to Luke. However, Matthew strikes a similar chord in 6:34 when he writes: “Do not be worried about tomorrow ...”. “It is likely that both evangelists have added further (traditional) material to their shared source. ‘Your Father’ and ‘kingdom’ provide immediate links with vv 30–31, and ‘do not be afraid’ can be linked with the worry/anxiety language of the unit. ‘Do not fear’ reflects the vulnerability of the flock in its littleness (cf. Amos 7:2, 5). (J Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34 (Vol. 35B), Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993, 693). N T Wright reminds us: “Do you know what the most frequent command in the Bible turns out to be? What instruction, what order, is given, again and again, by God, by angels, by Jesus, by prophets and apostles? What do you think—‘Be good’? ‘Be holy, for I am holy’? Or, negatively, ‘Don’t sin’? ‘Don’t be immoral’? No. The most frequent command in the Bible is: ‘Don’t be afraid.’” (N T Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship, SPCK, 1994, 56.)
little flock etc: “‘Flock’ is a stock image for Israel/Judah (Jer 13:17; Ezek 34; Zech 10:3; etc.). ‘To give you the kingdom’ probably alludes to Dan 7:14, 27 (cf. vv 17, 22). Taken alone, the text announces the coming of salvation, rather than the judgment of God, or (its expression in [ongoing]) oppression by the Gentiles. It is, however, regularly (and probably correctly) assumed that this language is spoken not to a general audience but to those who have responded to the ministry of Jesus and in connection with whom the prophetic promises alluded to are to come to their fulfillment. Discussion over whether the historical Jesus could have spoken like this has been dominated by the question of whether a remnant consciousness can be predicated of him. In the terms in which the question is normally put, Jesus must be distanced from groups of his day that were concerned about the gathering of the holy remnant (e.g., Qumran). But as Meyer (JBL 84  123–30) has shown, Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom and of coming judgment, his links with John the Baptist (who was concerned with the salvation of a [repentant and baptized] remnant), his experience of rejection by some, and a realization that a preserved remnant of Israel can actually co-exist with a universalist salvific mission combine to make it not unlikely that Jesus did think in terms of the salvation of a remnant” (J Nolland, op cit, 693-694).
For where your treasure is etc: We are reminded of St Augustine’s statement at the beginning of his Confessions: “Our heart is restless until it rests in You”. The heart is the symbol of the “true self”. We are created by God and will never stop yearning for communion with God. That communion is precisely what is on offer in Jesus. “In a way v.34 sums it all up. The heart as the seat of human yearning must have its proper attraction: a heavenly treasure. The maxim does not tell the reader what that treasure is or even why it lasts; it suggests rather why the seeking for the kingdom can find an obstacle in the seeking for food, drink, and clothing—attractions that seduce. Even though the maxim in itself is devoid of an eschatological dimension, yet in the context it assumes one; however, that background is not the eschatological crisis, but the fate of the individual after death (so W. Pesch, “Zur Exegese,” 374). In such a context one must guard that the heart is not seduced by earthly possessions. With these two verses Jesus’ counsels about greed come to an end. The next sayings will move to a new topic” (Joseph A Fitzmyer S. J. The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes, (Vol. 28A), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 982).
Be dressed for action: Two Greek words are used here – osphys (loins, waist) and perizōnnymi (gird oneself). The literal translation is “your loins must be girded”. The words remind us of Exodus 12:11: “This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the LORD”. Luke’s expression here – no matter how we translate it – places discipleship within the Exodus (Passover) tradition. Perhaps it also signals a “New Exodus” with a “New Passover”.
like those who are waiting for their master: The passage has some points of resemblance (lamps/wedding/servants/waiting/night) to the parable of the ten virgins in Matt 24:42–51.
Blessed are those slaves: The word “slaves” – douloi – jars on the modern ear. However, we must avoid bringing a 21st century interpretation to the 1st century world: ““Modern readers must overcome their temptation to read into any ancient Jewish, Greek or Roman text their knowledge of modern slavery. The meanings of any familiar-sounding terms can be determined only by a close investigation of the particular social systems and cultural values the early Christian writers took for granted (see Malina). Among the distinctive and often surprising features of slavery as practiced around the Mediterranean in the early centuries of our era are these:
1. An enslaved person generally could not be identified by appearance or clothing; racial or ethnic origins were not reliable indicators of social or legal status.
2. The cultural and religious traditions of slaves were usually those of their owners and other free persons.
3. Education of slaves was encouraged, enhancing their value; some slaves were better educated than their owners. Rome’s cultural leadership in the empire largely depended on educated, foreign-born slaves who had been taken there.
4. Partially as a result, many slaves functioned in highly responsible and sensitive positions such as workshop and household managers, accountants, tutors, personal secretaries, sea captains and physicians (see Martin, 1–49). An important minority of slaves had considerable influence and social power, even over freeborn persons of lesser status than the slaves’ owners.
5. By no means were the enslaved regularly to be found at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid. Rather those free and impoverished persons who had to seek work each day without any certainty of employment occupied the lowest level. Some of them sold themselves into slavery in order to obtain job security, food, clothing and shelter.
6. Slaves could own property, including their own slaves. They could accumulate funds that they might use to purchase their own freedom.
7. Because slaves were owned by persons across the range of economic levels, they developed no consciousness of being a social class or of suffering a common plight (see Garnsey and Saller, 109–25). Thus no laws were needed to hinder public assembly of slaves.
8. In contrast to New World slavery, ancient owners did not regard their adult slaves paternalistically; they clearly distinguished the roles of parents and of owners and felt no need to justify the institution of slavery.
9. Persons not infrequently sold themselves to pay debts, to escape poverty, to climb socially or to obtain special governmental positions (see Dio Chrysostom 15.23).
10. A large number of domestic and urban slaves, perhaps the majority, could anticipate being set free (manumitted) by age thirty, becoming a freedman or a freedwoman (see Acts 6:9, “the synagogue of the freedmen”). At any moment innumerable ex-slaves throughout the empire were proof that slavery need not be a permanent condition (see Bradley 1987, 81–112). And even ancient Greek commentators expressed astonishment that slaves freed by Roman citizens usually became Roman citizens themselves at their manumission. Notable in Acts 23–25 is the Roman governor Marcus Antonius Felix, who had been a slave until Antonia, the emperor Claudius’s mother, manumitted him.
“Slavery then was a fundamental aspect of daily life in the early Roman Empire, and virtually no one questioned its morality. Roman jurists and philosophers, some of whom noted that holding human beings as slaves was contra naturam, seemed never to have doubted the practical necessity or moral appropriateness of this practice. Not even the Stoic-Cynic philosopher Epictetus, who was raised and educated in slavery, regarded release from legal slavery as a desirable goal in itself. For him, as for the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, a person’s achieving inner freedom from domination by social conventions, life’s circumstances and one’s passions was far more important than any change in one’s social-legal status” (S S Bartchy, “Slave, Slavery”, in R. P. Martin & P. H. Davids (Eds.), Dictionary of the later New Testament and its developments (electronic ed., pp. 1098–1099). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997, 1098-1099).
whom the master finds alert: Being alert and awake, ready and attentive to the “master” is a crucial quality for the disciple. 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.)
One of the delights of sharing a meal with friends at a restaurant is perusing the menu, talking about what is on offer, perhaps asking the waiter to explain this or that item, then deciding what you would like to order. But what if the item you would like is one that you know is bad for you? That will provoke a dilemma calling for a choice between a reaction driven by feelings and a response driven by a deeper truth. Depending on which wins out, you will have a rewarding evening or an unrewarding evening!
What we like is a function of feeling and emotion. What we want is an expression of being, a summons, in fact, to be who and what we are. At our best, we all want what is true and good – no matter what it costs us personally. Feelings can seduce us into making decisions that are not in our best interests. Indeed, much of our sense of well-being in life is determined by our ability to know what it is we really want – as distinct from what it is we simply like – and then having the ability to choose what we want and follow through on that choice. Always doing what we feel like doing can quite literally destroy us.
The contrast between liking and wanting brings us face to face with two of the most significant matters in our lives: Vocation and conscience. To deal adequately with these we must go beyond what we feel like. Both of these are in the realm of what we really want. And we might find that we do not like what we want. You are your vocation. Conscience is the witness to your vocation. Without mentioning vocation as such, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council speak eloquently of the interdependence of conscience and vocation:
“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths. In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor. In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships” (Gaudium et Spes, #16).
What will it profit you if you gain the whole world but fail to become who and what you are? (see Mark 8:36).