Pentecost 9: 11 August Luke 12:32-40
We should probably begin this passage with the preceding verse, which speaks of seeking the kingdom and receiving what one had been anxious about. Certainly the opening verse sets the framework for what follows. God wants to give us the kingdom! That needs unpacking. It means God wants us to benefit from what will happen when God’s will finally triumphs. To long for the kingdom is to long for something which is promised and promising. Our ultimate hope then rests in God’s own being as one who wants to give. This is trust which sets us free.
It sets us free to deal with wealth creatively. 12:33 speaks of selling property and using the proceeds for others. Today this is complex, but the principle is simple. The complexity of our situation can be our camouflage for inaction. The reality is that we need to address the underlying possessive anxieties which our world has a way of escalating. When we do so, then we can be free to let our wealth go and use it (as wisely as our best caring strategies determine). This is both something which grace generates and something where the sequence is not automatic. Grace needs a shove because the sophisticated rationalisations for selfishness create heavy drag.
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.
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.
The verses 35-40 may sound like a confused merging of the parable of the girls in Matthew 25, warnings about returning householders in Mark 13, burglars and Jesus' washing his disciples’ feet. More likely it reflects an earlier stage of such traditions. The wedding image was commonly used to picture the coming of the kingdom. It is an image of celebration and feasting, doubtless reflecting its central place as an event of celebration in every day life. The feasting image also stands behind the symbolic meals of special groups who yearned for God’s justice to triumph, not least those of the Jesus movement who met over what we now call the eucharistic feast. ‘Your kingdom come’ takes on these contours. So this is the same as the gift of the kingdom in 12:32 and the treasury of hope in 12:22-24.
The wedding reached its climax with the husband bringing his wife home. The household slaves would need to stay up waiting for whenever the party would come. Parents may connect this with waiting up for their teenage children to come home! But it is really all part of the celebration. The imagery should not be pressed too hard, but it is unmistakably filled with expectation and joy, even if it is being described within the hierarchical framework of the ancient household of slaves. Joy is central. What gives us joy? That is where Luke wants us to locate our spirituality.
Notice the extraordinary behaviour of the bridegroom. He will come and serve the slaves as if they are the masters and he, their slave. This may refer to an unknown tradition linked with the ceremony. We do not know. Certainly it fits the image of the kingdom as Jesus develops the image. For the kingdom is not about power and control but about compassion. Though I am not convinced that the author of John’s gospel knew this passage, the image of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet which we find in John 13 certainly belongs in the same ball park. It is this kind of kingdom - where love and caring rules.
12:39-40 look at the other side of the coin. 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. But 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.
Epistle: Pentecost 9: 11 August Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16