By pairing the parable about the Master and attentive servants and the commands to sell our possessions so that we might make treasures in heaven (i.e., be rich in the things of God), verse 32 becomes the major point of doctrine: We need not be afraid because it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.
Having set the big picture of all the various parts of the lectionary passage in perspective, let’s hone in a bit on the fear that Jesus starts out by naming. We need not fear, Jesus says, and we (hopefully) think back to the teaching of the parable of the friend at midnight. We need not fear because our good God, our good Father, knows how to give us good things that we need. We need not fear missing out, so there’s no need to hoard or preserve for ourselves (ahem, build bigger barns…) what can be shared with others already now, thereby storing up treasures in heaven that are fit for the form and character of the kingdom of God.
In his commentary, Luke Timothy Johnson sees how we need to be convinced by God, “the source of all reality” that life is literally a gift in order to remove our fear. That freedom from fear is what is symbolized by “the generous disposition of possessions;” we can let go of our closed fists and let loose with generosity when we are not afraid.
The story of the attentive slaves and generous Master shows us a picture of this freedom. There’s no FOMO here (fear-of-missing-out). As per usual with these Lukan stories, I’m drawing on the helpful cultural-historical and contextual background provided by scholar Kenneth Bailey.
The scene is of a wedding banquet, but in a room far removed from where the party is happening. Though the Master is described as “returning” in verse 36, the verb is a bit more ambiguous, and Bailey argues that the party is probably happening in the home of this Master, in the large hall, and the slaves are waiting in the bedchambers. Because these are not the servants serving at the party, Bailey says that we should understand them to be the lowest ranking staff of the household.
Even though they are at the bottom of things, they are depicted as being at the ready to perform their duties. They are dressed, tunics cinched up, and are keeping the lamps lit for the Master’s return throughout the long hours of the night—verse 38 points out that the Master may come in the middle of the night, or he may come at dawn. Keeping the lamps lit is a complicated process of keeping an oil supply near and cutting the wicks, etc. In other words, you cannot snooze and keep a lamp lit.
At this point of the story, we don’t know why the slaves have this good work ethic. Are they afraid of the repercussions if they are found sleeping? Are they trying to earn recognition so that they may be chosen to serve at the party, moving up the servitude power structure?
Keeping in mind our earlier verses, Jesus’s wisdom about not being afraid, we see the slaves’ motivations by the picture of the kind of Master they serve. This Master leaves the party while it is still going on, and he takes the time to serve the lowest of his household as though he was their slave. The Master literally brings the party to those who are being left out of it.
They do not fear missing out because their good Master provides for their inclusion by his own hands. He takes on the form of a servant, takes on the work and posture of a slave, and tells them to sit and recline as a Master does so that they too can enjoy the bounty of the wedding feast.
Now, it is likely that this scene is taking place in the Master’s bedchamber, which means that the Master already had this purpose in mind. When he left the party, he took a portion of the feast with him—he isn’t described as going to the kitchen and preparing the meal, he is described as coming to them and serving them. The word picture of the Master coming to them, and the servants waiting for him, is repeated 5 times.
The promise that the Master is coming to include us in the wedding feast is meant to show us that we can wait expectantly, attentively, to the values of the kingdom of God without fear that we are missing out on some other, greater experience. The promise that the Master is coming to lay a table for us, his servants, grows our gratitude and willingness to serve him because God is a good Master. The promise that the Master is coming to us hopefully makes us eager to receive him.
But the waiting may be long, and we may be tempted back to our fears. Spoiler alert: the commentary in the story about waiting for the Master throughout the night, as well as the warnings about not knowing when the thief is coming are meant to alert us that our joy and enjoyment may not be nearly as instantaneous as we would like.
We will, however, remain blessed if we remain in the posture of attentive discipleship. We will fall back to fear, selfishness, and stingy-scarcity if let our eyes and hearts be turned from the one for whom we wait. This is a real possibility; “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” and we are people prone to wondering if what God has said is really so…
What really helps me is seeing how Jesus paired this teaching with this story. We are meant to understand that this wasn’t just some special circumstance or event by the Master: this is the kind of Good Master he has always been. God is not just tantalizing us with good that is to come, God is working to cast out our fear by inviting us already to be wedding banquet people. To be like God, who shares the gifts of the kingdom of God with everyone.
In other words, our being ready as his disciples is about managing our current resources with future values. “For where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.”
Jesus uses the same verb to describe the slaves being ready to serve, and the master dressing himself as he sets about serving. The word is connected to the phrase “gird up your loins” and is literally about putting on a belt or sash that pulls up long, loose tunics (the standard dress of the time) so that your legs are free to move quickly.
The CBS show “Undercover Boss” has been on the air since 2010! The basic premise is that a high-powered CEO puts on a disguise and joins the rank and file of the lowest-level staff. The boss gets a sense of the working conditions, the people, the culture, and what employees think of the higher-ups. Often, the episode ends with at least one of the lower-level employees receiving some sort of extra support or acknowledgment by the CEO.
Undercover Boss is not the picture of the Master that Jesus portrays. Our True Master doesn’t need to learn any lessons or encounter his workers for the first time: he is intimately in relationship with them. The Master in Jesus’ parable is already thinking of and providing blessing to his servants. The Master that Jesus embodies as God doesn’t just go undercover for a few days, but joins our human nature and works like, as one of us.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 7, 2022
Luke 12:32-40 Commentary