Sometimes reading just a passage of Scripture is like reading a paragraph of a mystery novel. We need more to help us figure out what is happening, what it might mean in order for us to solve the mystery. In the case of Scripture, we need some context from the time in which it was written to help us interpret it for today. As we have made our way through the Gospel of Luke this summer, Jesus has taught a lot, as well as healed. Jesus has taught about how to be good neighbors, how to pray, what to treasure in life. Just before the passage we read today, Jesus said, “Do not worry about your life, what you eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens; they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds?” (12:22-23) So Jesus said not to worry as well, but to trust in God for all things, for all of life.
As his teachings continue, though, they become more of a mystery to us. Today’s passage seems somehow more urgent: “Be dressed for action, and have your lamps lit…You also must be ready, for the Son of man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (12:25, 40). After this passage, he sounds even more stringent, saying “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” (12:49).
And we perhaps become more puzzled than comforted as he goes on, talking about being prepared against the thief, or of households divided against one another. Jesus is not as loving, as comforting, as healing here.
Jesus was talking just to the disciples at this point. He was addressing those he was preparing to be the leaders of the faith community. And it seems that he expected more of them. “Be dressed for action…like those who are waiting for their master to return,” he said. The image of being prepared with lamps lit reminds us of the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids in Matthew 25, where five remained ready with plenty of oil to lamp their lights even though the bridegroom was late. But five did not prepare, and could not light the lamps when the bridegroom finally arrived, and they were locked out of the banquet hall. (Matthew 25:1-12). It is still mysterious.
Though Jesus does not say anything against slavery, which was a custom of his time on earth, he does depict in today’s passage, a role reversal, telling about the master returning and hiking up his robes into his belt so that he can serve the servants. Then Jesus says to be as prepared as if you were anticipating a thief in the night, that the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. These are references to the Parousia, the Second Coming, and we could delve into that, but that would be a whole other chapter, or sermon.
If we continue to investigate, we find that after the passage we read, Peter asked Jesus to interpret these words for them. So even the disciples did not quite get what he was saying. And in his interpretation, his images got even harsher about the prospects of not being prepared. Jesus concluded with these words: “From everyone to whom much is given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (12:48) This certainly is mysterious, and a bit scary, if we are called to volunteer for anything at church. Yet this often rings true in churches – those who lead do more than lead just one committee, or carry out one event. Those who lead are often on many committees and wear many hats in the world of church work. Most of us, I dare to say, hearing that even more will be demanded of us, would naturally decline to sign up for the responsibilities asked in the first place!
And yet, Jesus, with not so nice words, tells us that if we are not prepared, we can expect disaster, we can expect to miss the Kingdom of God. The mystery deepens. What in the world does this mean for us today?!?
Psalm 82, which we also read, seems very similar in tone. And it is indeed a Psalm that sounds more like the words of the prophets. In it, God has judged the gods of the earth (little g, so probably it refers to the kings and rulers, those, who in that time, were, at least in theory, supposed to be shepherds of the people as well as their rulers). And yet, in the Psalm, God rails at them for not giving “justice to the weak and the orphan,” not maintaining “the right of the lowly and the destitute,” not rescuing the weak and the needy, delivering them from the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:3-4) “They have neither knowledge or understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken” says the Lord (82:5).
From the Old Testament to the New, then, the message becomes clearer. We can see that God expects more of us, especially those of us who have plenty, and who come to church and know more about God’s will. The more we know, the more we have, the more we should do. It hardly seems fair, and yet it is the call of God that pulls upon us if we do as Jesus asks, and prepare ourselves. Preparation comes from things like Bible study, worship, prayer, acts of compassion, a spiritual walk that inspires our living. Spiritual preparation is not something we can do at the last minute (as so many of us tend to do with many things!). It has to be done consistently and over a long period of time. Regular spiritual practices on a daily basis feed us, as does worship or Bible study with a community on a weekly basis. Practicing kindness and doing acts of justice regularly prepare us to for when such things get harder, when we meet resistance and are pushed to abandon carrying out the good will of God. If we are not used to doing such acts, it is much easier to set them aside.
I read where Elie Wiesel died not too long ago, on July 2. He wrote a small but powerful book, Night, telling about the horrors of the Holocaust, which he survived. He felt that he survived for a reason, and he spent his life working to keep the message of the Holocaust alive, but also promoting peace and atonement. He was described as charismatic but intense, never ceasing in his pursuit of the goals he sought to preserve dignity for every human being on this planet. Though he was Jewish, Elie Wiesel lived this life, it seems to me, of which Jesus speaks. He was always prepared, always steeped in the message of God for a struggling, hurting world, and always working for the good of others. Perhaps you can think of others who epitomize this vigilant way of living. Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi also come to mind. But there are so many who are not as prominent. There are those in our midst, in our church and in our community, who live prepared lives. Maybe you do, very quietly, as you read the Bible and pray each day, as you prepare for and help to lead Church School, as you fix or serve a meal for a neighbor or for Families Moving Forward.
Jesus is calling us to be prepared, perhaps, in the way that an emergency room is prepared for a large disaster, like a multiple car crash or a storm that injures many people. When the hospital gets word that multiple injuries are headed their way, they call in extra staff, they check their supplies, they find spaces to care for those who will soon arrive. They stay alert and ready for the patients to arrive. They are also prepared by the years of training and experience they have. It is the same for us as church members and leaders, says Jesus. We need to “be dressed for action” as if the most urgent of situations were coming soon. Jesus is not asking us to literally be dressed or up all night, but to be prepared in our hearts, in our bodies, in our souls, for whatever will be needed to make the kingdom of God a reality on earth.
This little meal we share symbolically nurtures us for the work ahead. When we take this bread and drink from this cup, we remember Jesus setting the example by hiking up his robes and serving the disciples, and us. The mystery of what Jesus tells us may never be totally solved. We may always be working towards the solution. But some things are clear. Too many people in our world are hurting and in need. God loves every single one of them. God loves every single one of us. And Jesus tells us to be prepared, to be ready to step in with God’s great love whenever we are called.
Thanks be to God! Amen.