But know this, that if the master of the house 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 hour you do not expect.”
I thought that I finally had a totally positive sermon for you today!
I’ve been under rather trenchant criticism of late for repeatedly giving sermons focused on the theme of judgement and on the hard path of discipleship, and I admit that I have been looking for that text, “Come to me, all ye who labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” as a basis for some blessed relief!
Unfortunately the authors of our lectionary have been dragging their feet somewhat in getting to that text, and yet I thought I’d found an equally joyous one this week when I first glanced at the scheduled Gospel reading from Luke chapter 12 – a passage that includes one of Jesus’ greatparty stories, where the Kingdom of God is depicted in terms of a great big wedding feast, and where we are exhorted to be ready, as nobody is quite sure about the timing of the great event!
Jesus, as I’m sure you know, regularly depicted the Kingdom of God as a party, and a number of His parables speak of a great wedding banquet to which absolutely everybody is invited. Some decide not to come of course, and others have too much on, and there are a few who simply fail to be at the reception centre when the party starts because they are out getting more oil for their lamps! Even so, the Kingdom of God is a party, and it is going to be great, and we are all invited!
Are you getting excited? I was, and especially as the focus of the passage is on being ‘ready’. I was thinking, “Oh yeah, we are ready, Lord! Let the Party begin! We have waited long enough, Lord. We and our sisters and brothers around the world have been through enough. We have struggled in this broken and divided world for too long. We have been through enough. We’ve suffered enough. We have seen too much. Open wide the doors, Lord! Let the party begin!”
And then I realised that the disciples in this parable are not being compared to the guests at the party at all. They are not guests, waiting for the festivities to begin, but rather to the servants of one of the persons who was invited. These servants are not at the party, waiting for it to start. They’re at their master’s home waiting for it to end so that they can get some sleep!
“be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks.” (12:36)
And in case you missed this relatively negative spin, Jesus then follows it up with another rather painful image: ‘that if the owner of the house had known at what time he was going to be broken into, he wouldn’t have left the house!’ (12:39).
True enough! And those of us who have had their houses broken into, as we have, and as many of us no doubt have, know full well what a painful feeling of violation that is, even apart from the monetary loss. If only we’d known the time for which the break-in had been scheduled. We could have could stayed home and kept the house secure. That would have been great! (though not as great as actually going to the party)
The Kingdom of God is a party. I believe that. It’s a party to which everybody is invited – rich and poor, young and old, male and female, slave and free. Everybody is invited and the party is going to be great! Even so, as these parables do remind us, the joy you get from the party is entirely dependant on the role you play in it!
“Be ready!” Jesus says. That’s actually the thrust of these stories of course, which truly focus less on the party as such as they do on the whole concept of being ready.
And of course, if you’ve ever held a party (and if you’re a parent you have held lots of parties) you know full well that in any party there is always an awful lot to get ready! Even so, the emphasis here is not on the preparations for the actual party, but on the preparations being made for the return home of the master who is a guest at the party: “be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast”
And it’s clear in this context that the master in the story is not the groom, for if he was, the reception would have almost certainly have been held at his house, and the servants wouldn’t be making preparations only for him, but for the happy couple!
No. The role of the servants here is simply that they’re waiting up for their master to get back from this party. It has probably been going all night. They are staying up, we’re told, right through to the second and even the third watch (and there were only three). This master is coming home late, but the servants are going to make sure that they are up and ready for him when he comes!
Why is it so important that these hard-working domestics are still up? Couldn’t they draw straws and appoint one team-member to sit on watch by the front door, ready to let the master in when he gets back, while the others get some kip? Surely he is not going to be calling on his team to feed him when he gets in at whatever ungodly hour the party finally finishes! Surely he’s eaten and drunk his fill already!
But no! These servants are a dedicated team, and they are making sure that they are up and working at whatever time their master finally trundles in! So they’re all busy dusting and polishing and working on the books when the master gets back, even though they’re making out like they just hadn’t realised it was quite so late.
And then we get this rather beautiful, if bizarre, conclusion to our story, where the master is so impressed to find his servants still awake, that he gets out the extra food that he has smuggled home from the feast, and there’s a reversal of roles, as the master sits his staff down and prepares some of the leftover party food for them.
“Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them.”(12:37)
And so it turns out that these faithful servants, who weren’t actually invited to the party themselves, do actually end up getting to share in the party (to an extent). “If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants!” (12:38)
And so this little story concludes with what I think must be one of the craziest scenes ever depicted by Jesus:
The master has finally stumbled in after a hard night of partying. His entire domestic staff are there to greet him at the door as he returns. They all tell him how glad they are to see him home safely, and then start with, “Oh dear, I didn’t realise it was so late, sir. I guess I’ll be catching a bit of shut-eye before my morning shift starts”, but the master is saying, “No, No! Not until you’ve tasted some of this quiche and tried some of this chardonnay. It’s exquisite!”. And so we see the master, madly pulling on an apron and dragging up chairs and getting bottles and plastic containers out of his duffle bag!
This has to be one of the most bizarre images of the Kingdom of God that Jesus ever gave us. ‘The Kingdom of God is like a midnight feast with Jesus that ruins you for the next day at work! ‘
Maybe this is just Jesus’ sense of humour? Either way, the main focus of the story, as we’ve said, is not really on the wedding, the party, or the midnight feast as such, but rather on the exhortation to be ready!.
‘Be ready’, says Jesus. ‘Be ready, like these terrific servants were ready’. And one of the great things about this parable, in contrast with so many parables that exhort us to be ready, is that we actually do get a quite straightforward understanding of what ‘being ready’ is all about. And it’s about getting on with your work!
“Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning”, says Jesus. Good servants are always getting on with their master’s business. They are doing the job that the master gave them 24/7 – looking after his house, helping him in his work, and always being there to open the door for him when he gets home.
This reminded of something I read from the US some time ago about the activities of theConnecticut House of Representatives on May 19, 1790, when the whole assembly suddenly fell into darkness during a totally unexpected solar eclipse! One of those present wrote in his diary,“And the skies at noon turned to grey, then to a deep black, with threatening sounds from the sky. It was as dark as midnight.”
Apparently some of the representatives there fell to their knees, while others panicked and called for adjournment, believing that the day of Armageddon had come! But the speaker of the house, a Colonel Davenport, gavelled the House back to order and said, “The day of judgment is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I for one choose to be found doing my duty.” He then ordered candles to be brought in and they got on with their work.
That’s about right, I think, in terms of what the parable considers ‘readiness’ to be. It’s about being a faithful servant. It’s about doing your job. It’s about being at the task the master has given you, even when it’s well past your bedtime and you’d rather be doing something else!
That sounds all very unromantic, I‘m afraid, yet we know it is true. Yes, discipleship is an adventure. Yes, in His service we find perfect freedom! Yes, the Kingdom of God is a party. But also, yeah, a lot of the time it’s just pure hard slog!
Now I know that this is not the all-happy, warm and cheerful message that we‘d been looking for, and I will get to that one of these days soon, I promise, but there is no escaping the clear message that Jesus gives us in today’s reading,
Jesus clearly doesn’t want us coming on board with a false understanding of what we have let ourselves in for. Serving Him will never be the soft job option. The hours are long, the expectations high, and the remuneration package is, sadly, pathetic, at least in the short term, as part of the employment contract, we are told quite explicitly here, requires of us that we shed our wealth and share it with the poor.
Even so, the good news, I think, is that there is nothing the master asks of us that He is not also willing to do for us. This is more than a traditional master/servant relationship. The one we serve is also the one who serves us!
Following Jesus: it’s long hours, hard work, costly, and a little bit crazy, but would we ever consider changing positions and serving someone else? Not a chance!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, August 2007.