On the Alert - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 12C
Luke 12:32-40 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 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. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 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. 37 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. 38 If 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. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
It does little good to hire a security firm to watch your property if the persons charged with keeping watch fall asleep. On the other hand, living as we do at a time when terrorist attacks and other violent events that have caught our attention come without warning, it’s easy to second guess intelligence agencies and the police when such violence occurs. Life is full of surprises, so how do you stay alert to all the possibilities? So it is with the kingdom of God.
It might seem odd to us that Jesus compares the coming of the Son of Man and the inauguration of God’s kingdom with a thief who strikes at night, but he gets the point across. A successful thief strikes when no one is looking. Thieves don’t make appointments. They don’t leave notes telling us when they’ll be coming. They look for an opening, and go for it. So, if you really want to prevent a thief breaking in, you’ll need to keep alert (or set up a fool-proof security system to do it for you). If you want to prevent a break-in, you’ll need to be vigilant. In our day, it’s not just the physical house or car that is a target. Cyber-crime can be even more devastating.
All of this discussion of thieves and their methods leads us to Jesus’ warning that the realm of God will come without warning. So, be on the alert!
As we read this passage from Luke’s Gospel it’s important to take note of its apocalyptic tone. Although some scholars would disagree, it seems to me that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher. He, and Paul after him, assumed that the days were short. God’s realm was going to break through into our reality sooner rather than later. That meant being prepared. The day of the judgment could come at any moment, just like a thief in the night. It’s a powerful message. I remember as a teenager reading David Wilkerson’s A Thief in the Night, as well as The Late Great Planet Earth. All the signs seemed to be suggest that we were, to use the title of Barry McGuire’s famous song, we were at the “Eve of Destruction” (I should note that when first released this was an anti-war protest song, which became an apocalyptic ballad after his conversion. That's when I first encountered it).
I’m not quite into the same apocalyptic theology as I was as a teenager, but there’s something powerful about the message here. By the time that the Gospel of Luke was written, it had been at least half a century since Jesus walked the earth. Several decades had passed since Paul had died. The expectation that the end was right around the corner had begun to fade. After all, it’s difficult to living on the edge for any significant amount of time. You can’t stay on red alert forever. Our ability to stay awake is tested by the delay. Since the coming of the kingdom has been delayed for two millennia, we rarely live with that same kind of expectation. It’s not that we grow complacent, it’s just hard to always be on your toes. The kingdom we pray for in the Lord’s prayer might come tomorrow, but maybe not. So we let our lamps go out. It’s only natural.
As for me, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the end of the age any longer. As is sometimes said in response to questions about one’s feelings toward apocalyptic expectations—I’m a pan-millennialist. Everything will pan out in the end. In the meantime, I’ll go about my business. That means planning for retirement, having life insurance in place, and making sure my will is up to date. I may not need these instruments of insurance, but it’s good to be prepared. After all, things may continue as they have since the time that Luke wrote this Gospel late in the first century.
Yes, I’m prepared for life as it has been for me since the day of my birth, but in this passage from Luke’s Gospel I hear Jesus calling on me to stay on the alert. I hear the call to discern God’s presence in our midst. After all, “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Staying alert, it seems, means keeping our focus on that which is most important. Instead of building bigger barns, we should store our treasure in heaven. That is because our hearts will go with our treasure. If you don’t think so, just ask yourself what is most important in life?
If we put our trust in God, expecting that God will bring about God’s realm, then we can act appropriately. Remember the story of the rich man who decided to build a bigger barn so as to store (hoard) his goods, rather than share them (Luke 12:13-21). Unfortunately for him, God chose that day to demand his life. He had set himself up for a nice retirement, but he died before he could enjoy these blessings. Better, Jesus says, to sell your possessions and give to the poor. Put your treasure where moth will not destroy. Why? Because God is faithful.
When we have things in proper perspective then we’ll be ready for the coming of the Lord. That eschatological moment won’t catch us by surprise. As the Psalmist puts it: “to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God (Psalm 50:23).