Just a Thought
Today, in our readings we see the Lord, still on the road to Jerusalem, still teaching his disciples, preparing them for the mission that he himself will bequeath to them after his departure. To-day he speaks to them of having faith and vigilance, being prepared for their Masters return. As we see in the letter to the Hebrews: ‘Faith’ it says ‘is a confident assurance concerning what we hope for and conviction about things we do not see.’ But faith cannot be reduced, says the author, to an interior conviction, as it has so often been called. It allows one already to enter into possession of what is not yet possessed. It brings one into communion with invisible realities. Faith is not a vain hope one clings to which contains no real guarantee, but rests on the Word of God that does and will do what it says; it rests on the Promise — the Promise of God.
We see three examples of this promise of God and the faith in our first reading, involving Abraham, our father in faith. Three events of Abraham’s life are recalled: his departure ‘to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance,’ the birth of his son Isaac and the ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac. These three episodes are a fine illustration of the definition of faith given at the beginning. Abraham went ‘not knowing where he was going,’ assured only by the Word of God, fully confident, both for himself and his heirs, of a promised city ‘whose designer and maker is God.’ Further, despite her age, it is ‘by faith’ that Sarah, Abraham’s wife, was made capable of bearing a child. It would be difficult to find a better example of the power of faith. Finally, though having received a message that ‘through Isaac descendants shall bear [his] name,’ Abraham shows himself ready to sacrifice his only son. His faith assures him that Isaac’s death will not negate God’s promise.
Faith enables you to hold fast (no matter what) to the realities yet to come, toward which you travel confidently; nothing, not even death, should make you doubt the reliability of these things.
To Abraham God said: ‘Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation.’ And Abraham who was firmly rooted in Ur in Chaldea, who was very rich ‘in livestock, silver and gold… went as the Lord directed him.’ ( Gen 12:1,4; 13:2)
Jesus does not tell his disciples to leave their land, their families, and the houses of their fathers, but to sell what they own — those things that Abraham took with him — and give them to the poor.
God promised Abraham prosperity, numerous as the stars, and a country. Jesus assures his disciples: ‘It has pleased your Father to give you the kingdom’; to rid yourselves of earthly goods is to gain’ purses….. that do not wear out, a never failing treasure with the Lord.’
In spite of the differences of circumstances and vocation — exceptional in the case of Abraham, but common to all the disciples — this is the same call to faith and confidence in the Word: Jesus assures the disciples that they have already received the kingdom since they can, right now, lay up treasure in heaven.
Abraham had no children and was, like his wife, advanced in years when God promised him a long line of descendants. The disciples are only a ‘little flock’ but one to whom Jesus says: ‘Do not live in fear’: ‘trust in my word and throw yourselves into the arena of faith!’ The passage from Luke selected for the liturgy today, begins by once again speaking of the goods that one should possess, and of their ‘prudent’ use. But as addressed to the community of believers— the ‘little flock’ — it clearly concerns their preparation and vigilance for the return of the Lord.
In one way or another, they are constantly admonished to ‘be on their guard,’ to remain ‘ready,’ ‘wide awake,’ busy during the Master’s absence, in order not to be surprised by the arrival of the Son of Man. Out of fourteen verses seven of them take up this theme. The meaning of each parable or comparison is clear. But it is worth the trouble to discover the way they resonate, their harmonies.
The first — ‘Awaiting their Master’s return from a wedding’ — has a definitely Eucharistic flavour, which appears more clearly when it is read within the Sunday liturgy. Notice the themes of the ‘wedding’ and the ‘table’ where the Master himself serves the guests as at the Last Supper: ‘Happy are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.’ See also the exhortation to have ‘belts fastened’ which recalls the Passover eaten by the Hebrews with loins girded and sandals on their feet. Finally, one is reminded that Jesus himself directly associated the Paschal meal with the waiting for his return. In conformity with his words, we always celebrate the Eucharist in readiness ‘to greet him when he comes again,’ as proclaimed in the memorial (‘anamnesis’) after the words of institution.
Therefore, it is within the perspective of the final manifestation (Parousia) of the Lord that this first parable on vigilance is placed: ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.’ (Book of Revelation)But it is not simply to any vigilance whatever that Jesus exhorts his disciples. He and he alone is the Master who, upon his return, will take those faithful to his service, ‘seat them at table’ and ‘proceed to wait on them.’
The next parable insists on the uncertainty of the day and the hour of his return: ‘Be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.’ To be sure, this can be understood as the day and hour of death, but the parable is addressed to the whole community and fundamentally alludes to the ‘eschatological’ manifestation of the Lord — The Last Day — The end of the age.
The image of a thief may be surprising. But it occurs several times in the New Testament. It does not mean to imply that the Lord behaves like a thief, but the day of his coming will be sudden, unforeseeable. ‘You know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.’ ‘Behold I am coming like a thief. Blessed is the one who watches and keeps his clothes ready so that he may not go naked and people see him exposed.’ (Rev 22:20) The Church, far from dreading this coming, which will inaugurate the definitive Pasch, looks for it constantly, especially when it celebrates the Eucharist exclaiming ‘Come Lord Jesus.’
The third parable is introduced by a question from Peter, who ask if what Jesus is saying is meant only for the group to which Peter belongs — ‘us’— that is to say the Twelve, or for ‘everyone.’ Jesus then speaks of the conduct of a ‘steward.’ In the New Testament, this is one of those terms that designates those who hold authority in the communities, about whom Paul spoke most directly when he laid the charge on Titus: ‘For a bishop as God’s steward must be blameless.’ This ‘bishop’ is a ‘servant’ of the master, but one to whom the master has more particularly conferred the care of his goods and delegated a personal authority over the other servants. He must prove himself to be faithful and wise in proportion to the trust placed in him. A more rigorous account will be demanded of him, and he can look forward to a more severe punishment if he is found unworthy. The other servants are ‘flogged,’ but yet receive fewer ‘stripes’ if they conduct themselves poorly during the Master’s absence. He, on the other hand, will be rejected and ranked among those ‘undeserving of trust.’ The parable speaks of what can lead a ‘steward’ to forsake his duties: laxity, finding that his Master ‘is taking his time coming.’ He allows himself ‘to abuse the housemen and servant girls, to eat and drink and get drunk.’ Is this an exaggeration that goes beyond the bounds of probability? Why should we think so? We sometimes see people who are delegated certain amount of responsibility become intoxicated with their authority, become tyrannical to their subordinates, and, both out of distain for the absent Master and the very logic of their behaviour, force those whom they maltreat and humiliate to witness their drunkenness. In any case, the parable presents the extraordinary antithesis to the service of a faithful and circumspect steward, the authentic representative of the master who serves his servants.
Each member of the community must draw the conclusion: ‘When much has been given to a man, much will be required of him. More will be asked of a man to whom more has been entrusted.’ For no-one is without responsibility in the community. What authority/responsibility has been entrusted to each one of us? Are we faithful stewards? The life of the Church, of the Christian communities, of each believer is — must be — dynamically driven by the expectation of the full realisation of the promises and the return of the Lord. This expectation is hope based on faith in the word of God, ‘confident assurance concerning what we hope for, and conviction about things we do not [yet] see.’ This is at the heart of the celebration of the Eucharist, the Paschal supper of a people marching toward the Promised Land into which, on his return, Christ will bring them. Such assurance banishes all fear in the ‘little flock’ already gathered under the staff of the Shepherd who has gone before them to prepare their place in the kingdom.
For the Church, the ‘stewards’ of the communities, for all ‘pilgrims to the city of God,’ as Augustine calls Christians, it is a time of wakefulness and vigilance, toilsome to be sure, but undertaken in joy. Uncertainty as to the day and the hour must not lead to fretfulness or complacency, but must rather stimulate the fidelity and the hope that each Eucharist reawakens. For the apostles to-day’s teachings are a rude awakening in their formation. But not only for the apostles, for us also.
‘Stand ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’