Jesus tells two parables to teach about discipleship. He shows the need to be watchful and faithful.
Jesus tells two parables to teach about discipleship. He shows the need to be watchful and faithful.
Hello and welcome to Series 8 and Episode 15. 'Being watchful and faithful' is our theme. We're still in Luke's Gospel and if you've been following us in recent episodes, you'll realise we've been in Luke's Gospel for quite a long time. Luke 12: 35 - 48 is the passage that we are studying today.
Introduction and Recap
This episode takes place in that period of time that Luke finds particularly interesting, and focuses a lot of his material on, which is the time of Jesus travelling south from Galilee to Jerusalem in the final phase of his ministry in a very determined and focused way. He'd left Galilee and in Series 7, we saw the circumstances in which he decided to leave Galilee. He's heading to Jerusalem and is really focusing on the final events of his ministry. He knows that he'll be dying, rising again from the dead - dying in a substitutionary, sacrifice in the form of atonement for the sins of mankind. He's focusing on that aspect of his ministry. He's leaving behind the popularity of Galilee - he's on the road. Luke describes all sorts of things that are happening on this journey.
John gives us material, which we looked at earlier in Series 8, but now we are following the narrative of Luke as he helps us to understand what's going on and gives a much bigger picture than the other Gospels of the strategy that Jesus is undertaking at this time, which involves getting the message out to the central and southern parts of Israel - Samaria and Judea - through sending out 72 disciples, as recorded in Luke 10, all the way across the countryside - travelling far and wide. We don't know exactly where he went for most of the occasions. Not many places are actually named but we can sense the structure of his journey and the fact he's trying to consolidate his message and impact, across the whole country and not just leave it to be located in northern Galilee through his three years' work there. Jesus is on the move and we see crowds being drawn to him - people who'd perhaps hadn't an opportunity to see him because he's never been in their district before; people who were animated and activated by hearing some of the 72 preachers as they travel around the country; people who have heard of Jesus and now are using the opportunity when he is nearby to come and see him.
We have also noticed the theme of opposition. It's quite a major theme in what Luke tells us, and also what John tells us in slightly earlier material. Opposition is growing. It's orchestrated and led by the Pharisees, the Teachers of the Law, the Jewish ruling council known as the Sanhedrin, and the authorities in Jerusalem. They're feeling threatened. They're aware that Jesus is coming gradually closer to the city. They're aware of crowds still being very large that are following him and they're not feeling comfortable about that situation. They've already denounced him as a false Messiah, as we saw in Matthew 12: 22 - 24. That denunciation and opposition continues very firmly. In episodes that we have just covered, we've noticed that. Particularly in an event when a Pharisee invited Jesus to come in for some hospitality and to eat a meal with him. He and other Pharisees and Teachers of the Law entered into a debate with Jesus. They started denouncing him publicly as soon as they left the house. It's a complicated environment - opposition rising. popularity variable but people fascinated by Jesus, confused about whether to believe in him because they've got the contrary message coming from the religious authorities.
In that context, one of the themes that emerges in Luke's Gospel at this particular point is the theme of discipleship. What does it really mean to follow Jesus in the context of all these pressures, uncertainties and indeed temptations to take an easy life, and also direct opposition because that direct opposition is coming? You have to remember when there's opposition to Jesus in the gospels, the opposition also extends to the disciples. They're getting some of the opposition themselves.
The context of this particular passage is Jesus teaching on discipleship, facing opposition and overcoming materialism and other temptations. The form of this particular passage is in fact two parables that are linked together and are on related themes, which reminds us again of how rich Luke's Gospel is in parables, for which we're very grateful. It also reminds us what powerful stories parables are. They stay in the mind, they linger in the heart, they capture the imagination, they focus your mind on a key theme and indeed that's the whole point of them. One key theme is the best way to understand the parable and not try and work out how every detail exactly fits another situation such as your own. These two parables are going to help us to understand more about what Jesus said on discipleship. He's also given, recently in his travels, another bit of teaching to his disciples about discipleship in Luke 12: 1 - 12. If you go back to that episode, you'll see some details there. He's calling people in that context to face up to the reality of persecution and opposition, the possibility of physical harm and even the ultimate possibility of physical death - martyrdom through persecution. He's encouraging them to hold firm to their faith in all circumstances and always to look to eternal rewards rather than the comfortable life now, and that in a sense is the essence of Christian discipleship.
In the last episode, we saw another dimension of discipleship when Jesus was addressing the question of materialism. He restates, some material there in the middle section of Luke 12: 22 - 34, that appeared first of all in the Sermon on the Mount, which is really warning people not to allow material comfort, and seeking after material security, divert you from making the Kingdom of God an absolute priority. It's clear to me, just reading Luke's account, that in this particular part of his Gospel, discipleship is an underlying theme, and he's got a lot of materials at his disposal, which he's gathered through research as we've found out when we studied the first few verses in Luke's Gospel right at the very beginning of this teaching. Luke has focused here on giving us material that helps us to understand the life of discipleship. For me this is incredibly important because the discipleship of Christians is shaped biblically, more than anything else, by the Gospels. It is those people who engage with the Gospels at a substantial level, who read carefully, study, reflect on, meditate on the Gospels, who come to understand that Jesus never called anybody to a comfortable or an easy life. He called them to a life of immense purpose, immense meaning, immense fulfilment in the sense that we're aligning ourselves to God and his purposes for us. Nothing can take away from the glory and the wonder of that. At the same time, of considerable personal cost: he's calling us to a life of real courage, to trust him, not to seek to be comfortable, not to seek to be secure, not to seek an easy life and not to shy away from conflict and difficulty when we face it in this world. It's a very realistic type of message and here in the middle of Luke's Gospel we have some very rich material to help us understand this life of discipleship, and help us to enter into it more fully.
The Parable of the Returning Master
With those thoughts in mind we'll now turn to the first of these two parables, the parable of the Master's return. We're reading from Luke 12: 35 - 40.
‘35“Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, 36like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. 37It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. 38It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak. 39But understand 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. 40You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”’Luke 12:35-40, NIV
This parable is very similar to one recorded in Matthew 25: 45 - 51 which is another example of similar material being used in different contexts by Jesus as a standard teaching method. What's the main story here? The master goes out of a household. This is someone who is fairly rich, who has servants and there were quite a number of people like that in Israel at the time. Those sort of people often feature in Jesus' stories because they're very good stories for talking to us about servanthood, which is a key part of discipleship. The master goes out for the evening, maybe goes out to a feast, or celebration, or wedding, or something. He may say that he'll come back when it's finished at a time that's unknown to his servants. In any traditional household where there are people serving, their responsibility is to be available to meet the needs of those who are their masters and mistresses at any time of day or night within reason. If the master in this context has gone out and it's not known when he's coming back, it is obvious that the servant's responsibility is to stay awake and alert because he could come back at any time. He'll knock on the door and he'll expect a welcome, the door to be opened up quickly and for his needs to be met. Whatever he wants done at that point needs to be done, even if that's 2 o'clock or 3 o'clock in the morning. That's the implication of this story.
It seems like an unlikely story to tell, unless we realise that Jesus is making a reasonable comparison between his relationship with his disciples as servants and that master's relationship with his servants because Jesus is going to go away from his disciples. He's going to depart this earth. He's going to leave. He's going to rise again from the dead. He's going to ascend to his Father's right hand. He's going to send the Holy Spirit and the Church is going to be launched, and, as the Gospels made clear in quite a number of different places, Jesus is going to return. The whole of the theology of the New Testament revolves around the fact that Jesus' relationship with this world and his ministry to this world is based on two separate and distinct appearances amongst mankind - very different appearances - the first coming and the second coming. This is taught very explicitly by Jesus on a number of occasions and we'll see this very notably, for example in the teaching about the end times that appears at the end of Matthew, Mark and Luke, with particular emphasis on the material in Matthew. We'll come to all that later on but we already know, and we can restate very clearly in this context, that Jesus comes to the earth twice. His first coming is obviously known to us - the incarnation, coming as a baby and as an infant, living out his earthly life, conducting his earthly ministry, dying, rising again from the dead and returning to his Father's right hand - the ascension - and sending the Holy Spirit. That's the first coming. That's what's described in the Gospels. That's the story we're in the midst of - the first coming of Jesus. He predicts decisively and clearly that he is going to return from heaven to this earth and he also predicts that that return is going to be very different from the first coming. It's going to be a return in power, in glory, in public display of his majesty that will be evident all the way round the world. How that is to be, is an interesting question. I'm going to discuss that very thoroughly when we come to discuss the teaching in Mark 13, Luke 21 and Matthew 24 which are parallel passages and discuss this issue very clearly. He's going to return publicly. He will return, not to bring hope and salvation to people so much as to bring judgement. It's the final moment of opportunity for humanity. Those who have already embraced his salvation will be vindicated - whether they've died or whether they're still alive at the time. Those who've rejected him, and are continuing to reject him, will face his judgement, as he brings in a new creation - a new heaven and a new earth, stage by stage after that time. That's, roughly speaking, the story of the Second Coming as described in the Gospels and also in other parts of the New Testament - the epistles and the book of Revelation are very clear about this.
Here Jesus introduces this theme, makes it clear - verse 40, ‘The son of man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.’ Nobody knows when he'll return and that's the comparison between our situation as disciples and the situation of the servants with their master. He had not told them when the party was over, when his event was over, when he was going to come back. It was entirely up to him when he came back. It could be right in the middle of the night. It could be at the time where they're most desperate to be asleep and resting. They have to stay awake. The theme here is watchfulness, wakefulness. It's hard in the night to stay awake. Have you ever tried? I'm sure you have. I'm sure you know what I mean. Those who have to stay awake because of their work; those who have to stay awake because of people they're waiting to come back to their homes and they're worried about the safety and welfare of the people - members of the family - ;those who have to stay awake at night because of caring for young children, or for elderly or disabled relatives. There are so many reasons why from time to time we have to be awake, when our body cries out for sleep. This watchfulness is hard. This watchfulness can be summarised as active faith. The responsible servants were actively involved in waiting and making sure everything was in order at home, listening for the knock at the door. They were exercising active faith. They were trusting that the master would come back sometime. They were expecting him. They weren't thinking maybe he'll never bother to come back. Far from it, they knew him. They knew that he was a man of his word. They knew that he would be back.
Parable of the Wise Manager
Let's read our second parable; Luke 12: 41 - 48.
‘41Peter asked, “Lord, are you telling this parable to us, or to everyone?” 42The Lord answered, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? 43It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. 44Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 45But suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk. 46The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers. 47The servant who knows the master's will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”’Luke 12:41-48, NIV
This is the parable of the wise manager. It has some similarities with the other one we've got here. Servants and a master. Again a very good analogy, a very good framework for thinking about our duties as disciples. We are the servants of a master. The master in this case goes away and he leaves the manager in charge of the affairs of the household. The manager has the opportunity to look after everyone, keep everything in order, make sure the schedules are working, make sure that food is served, make sure that the needs of the servants are met, make sure that the jobs that they are supposed to do get done. That's what he can do. He doesn't know how long he's going to have to do this but he is a steward. He is responsible to act on behalf of his master for as long as it's going to take. On the other hand, he could be negligent, he could eat, get drunk, and beat the servants. He could exploit control. He had a lot of power. He was in charge of the whole household. The message here is that Jesus is going away and he's going to leave his disciples - very similar to the message of the previous parable. Then he'll return at an unexpected time. Same theme - and the manager needs to be ready for his return.
What character does he need to display? Principally faithfulness. The servants in the previous story needed to be watchful, to stay awake. Here the manager needs to be faithful in carrying out his responsibility. He must attend to all the affairs of the household. He mustn't become selfish and he must look after the people that he is called to care for. Again the Second Coming is a major theme. Jesus is very explicit. This really is nuts and bolts discipleship teaching isn't it? There is no way that there can be healthy Christian discipleship without a very vivid understanding that we are serving a master who has been, has saved us and commissioned us, and who's going to come back into this world. We could be alive at the point when he returns. At that point our lives will be before him. Have we been advancing his Kingdom? Have we been using the resources he's given us? Or have we just slipped back into selfishness, materialism and forgetfulness? That's an important question. We have to face the same issue as we die and we face our maker before the return of Jesus. He's looking for disciples who are watchful and faithful.
In this parable, it's obviously appropriate to ask the question - who is particularly being spoken of here? I think the context of the Jewish nation at the time is really helpful to understand. Peter asked the question - who are you telling the story about? Jesus doesn't directly answer the question but the context would suggest that he's also speaking to the situation of the Jewish nation at the time. Faithful disciples will be rewarded - verse 43.
‘It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.’Luke 12:43-44, NIV
- rewards for faithfulness. We notice in verse 45, a very negative attitude on the part of the servant who is selfish and the punishment that comes to him is very severe - verses 46 - 47, he'll be beaten with many blows. In other words this could easily refer to the situation of the Jewish leaders. This is making an inference from the text but it's a reasonable one in the context. They knew everything. They had a great deal of responsibility. They had a great opportunity to serve Christ and they chose not to do so. They take a major punishment. Verse 48 - ordinary people, who don't know so much about what's really going on but still are unbelieving, they don't use the opportunities they have, will face punishment as well. There could be a direct reference to the Jewish nation at the time and a warning to them, part of a whole series of warnings about the consequences of the missed opportunity of the time when Jesus came amongst them, face-to-face as the Messiah. I've been talking about this theme on many occasions as we've gone through the text of the Gospels because it's so clear that that is a major focus. It's a particularly important focus at this time as Jesus' warnings about what's going to happen to that nation become more intense and more specific and, as mentioned on many other occasions, Jesus prophetically predicted a judgement coming on the nation, which in fact was ultimately enacted by the pagan Roman armies, who came, crushed a Jewish revolt from 66 to 70AD - one generation after Jesus died or the end of that generation. They destroyed the city of Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and tried to destroy Judaism altogether.
Having looked at these parables, and as we come towards the end of our study in this episode, what can we learn? What are reflections for us in the 21st century? Our context is very different from the one in which Jesus spoke on this occasion. There are things we can learn. First of all, the importance of maintaining the reality of the first and second coming of Jesus in our way of thinking. He didn't just come to the world once and he's now just leaving it to tick over for more or less an eternal length of time. No, the time of this world is constrained. It's controlled by God's sovereign power and there is a set time that only God the Father knows when his Son will return to the earth. That should focus our minds. Everything we do now is a preparation for the Second Coming of Christ - whether we live to see it or not. We want to glorify him, prepare the way, advance the Kingdom, so the Kingdom can be advancing strongly when he comes and brings his vindication and judgement.
A secondary theme here is that Israel is going to be divided over the Messiah and the Gospel. There are going to be faithful servants amongst the Jewish people and there are going to be unfaithful servants who are going to be significantly punished. Undoubtedly, the first audience listening to this would have drawn that conclusion from what Jesus said. It's always a good principle of Bible interpretation to ask the question first. What would the first audience, those who hear Jesus speak, those who read Luke's Gospel in the generation after Jesus, have understood it? I think they'd have understood that there is at least a secondary theme here - that Israel is under the microscope, is being examined by God and is going to be divided. There'll be faithful Jews who follow Christ and many who do not, who will experience God's wrath as a result.
In conclusion, there are two things that we can aspire to as Christians seeking to be disciples and you'll notice I use the word disciple very frequently because it's a very good characterisation of the culture of faith that Jesus is trying to develop and nurture in those early days. Two characteristics: from the first parable we know we should be watchful, active, alert, self disciplined, prayerful, obedient, focused, watchful. That's a wonderful thing. Secondly, we should be faithful. That means doing the things that we know God wants us to do over a long period of time. That's a key thing - the long period of time is implied by the second story. They're waiting and waiting for the master to return. They don't know when he's going to return. He comes unexpectedly but there's obviously been a significant delay. It's impossible to overestimate the importance in Christian discipleship of faithfulness. Being the same kind of person in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s if you live that long. Being consistent in your lifestyle, being consistent in your faith, being consistent in your commitment to a local church community, being consistent in your witness to Christ, being consistent in your prayer life and in reading the Bible, being consistent in your family relationships - that's faithfulness - being consistent in sharing your material resources and seeking God's Kingdom. God is looking for watchfulness and faithfulness. Let's be watchful and let's be faithful in all the things God gives us responsibility for in our lives. Let's reflect on that as we seek to gain the benefits of our thinking about this remarkable and challenging passage of Scripture.