The TV ads are sounding off more intently, “It’s mid-summer. Take some time to relax and (use our product / go to our vacation site / stay at home and drink X, Y, or Z).” Finally, in spite of these early school openings, we just might have some time to relax. Nat King Cole hit the top of the charts in 1963 with a song for this season: “Those Lazy Hazy Days of Summer.” Maybe this is the weekend for some serious lazy summertime. Then, along comes our Gospel Lesson. It starts out “Gird your loins and light your lamps.” “Get ready for action,” Jesus proclaims. In place of lazy hazy days, we are urged to “Watch” and “Be ready.” So much for our plans for this mid-summer weekend.
The urgency and watchfulness of Jesus message is embodied in a little parable. “Be like servants,” he tells his listeners, “who await their master’s return from a wedding.” Adjust your robes like you’re ready to run a race—tuck them into your belts. Keep moving about the great house checking the lamps. New wicks needed? Fix them. More oil for those lamps? Go get some and top them up. The master of the house is away, attending a wedding feast. And we do remember from the wedding at Cana in Galilee how long those wedding celebrations can last! But when the master returns and knocks on the door, be ready to open it immediately. “Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival,” Jesus proclaims. They will be “blessed” or “happy” or “fortunate.” No focus at all on servants who might not have been prepared to open the door for their master, no casting them into outer darkness. Just the insistent message: Watch. Be vigilant. Be ready.
Now we do sense some familiarity here in this little parable. There is a conventional plot to such biblical calls for vigilance at the coming of the Lord. We think about the three moves in this image. First, someone or a group of people are called to wait and watch. Then the Lord appears with sudden surprise, or the bridegroom appears, or the householder arrives. Last, there are various states of readiness or un-readiness. Those who demonstrate their vigilance will be welcomed into the wedding banquet, the household, or the kingdom. Others who fail the test, do not keep watch, and are lacking in vigilance are cast out. They crash into the judgment of the One who has come. So the three scenes of the conventional story are these: One—a group of folks who hold something in common are set into a situation that calls for alert watching, vigilance, and faithful waiting. Two: the master—owner—Lord comes back at a time delayed and not foreseen. Three: the individuals within the group are judged and divided into “sheep and goats” or wise and foolish maidens or,… the list goes on.
So in our little parable, we have arrived at the second scene—the master returns. Their watchful care has been rewarded. They do hear the master’s knock at the door and the lamps are burning bright at his return. Maybe an additional scene could be inserted into the parable. Finally, they could knock it off and go get some sleep. In this version of the parable, no real judgment comes with the return of the master, just the relief that their duties are over for a time and they can go to bed. For some hours, they can set aside all that watchfulness and vigilance. They are “off the clock.” Speaking of that experience of looking forward to being done with some intensive, lengthy work, we are familiar with how it goes:
The parish is a member of a “Interfaith Hospitality Network” set up to welcome homeless persons, feed them an evening meal, and be on call at night as the individuals and families sleep on cots. Your shift has included preparing the evening meal and helping to set up the sleeping arrangements. At midnight, you have completed your duties and it is time to other parishioners to arrive and hold forth during the night. At this point, though, you have the feeling of a ministry that matters and a job well done. But mainly, you are ready for other church members to relieve you. Time for you to relax and get to bed.
In this “real world” version we have just created, the story ends not with a bang, but a snore.
On the other hand, in the standard version of the “Day of Reckoning” story, the servants or slaves or bridegrooms are called to watchfulness and preparation. Finally, the master or bridegroom or vineyard owner arrives, thus leading to a final judgement scene. The vigilant and watchful are praised, welcomed to the joyous feast and those who had let their readiness for action flag or who flaunted their responsibilities are harshly judged. They are excluded from the feast, the vineyard, the kingdom of God. In our “softer” version of the story’s sequence, the servants just fulfilled their duties on time and with care. Then they were “off the clock” and simply dispersed to have a long-awaited rest. Not so in the “Day of Reckoning” version.
What Jesus now provides us is a scene neither of judgment nor of that “soft ending” fadeaway by the servants. Instead, when the master finds that the servants all have maintained their watchfulness and been attentive to their duties, a very strange thing happens. The master then girds himself—he becomes ready for action—and has the servants recline at table. The master of the household now proceeds to wait on then! Yes, the Greek here is the “deacon” word; the master takes on the role of a servant! The reversal is stunning, and surprising. At his arrival, we have a bunch of servants and one long-awaited master. Once the master returns and finds vigilant, prepared servants, the script is flipped upside down. The master adopts all of the form and actions of a servant while the loyal servants are treated now as honored guests. Everything is shifted, reversed. Thinking about this amazing scene with some further insight from Scripture, it is implied that the master-now-become-servant provides all of those duties for guests at a meal, including foot-washing! A verse of a hymn that sings of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet on Maundy Thursday is strangely prophetic:
Kneels at the feet of his friends,
Silently washes their feet,
Master who acts as a slave to them.1
One thing in passing, here. Have you ever noticed that some of the “Marthas” (men and women “Marthas”) in a parish often have the most resistance to having their feet washed on Maundy Thursday? Perhaps it’s because that servant role is so important, so entrenched, that when this reversal comes, it is hard to become recipient of grace rather than provider of grace. Just imagine the initial words from those servants when the master begins reversing everything. “Oh no, Lord. I am all geared up for service, for helping, for action. What will happen to everyone if I do not continue my “Martha” ministry? Besides, it just feels out of place for you to be serving me. Sounds very much like the resistance Peter gave the Lord at that Maundy Thursday foot washing. But the master does gird himself, adopts the role of a servant, and proceeds to wait on them,…and on us. Now how disruptive is that to our old version of this story of the watchers and the waiters? Utterly?
In the final scene of our story, there is a further shift in imagery, even more strange and even ominous than anything come before. Jesus tells his followers of a householder who would not have let his house be broken into if he knew the hour of the thief’s coming. And we wonder who this thief must be. But then we remember that the Lord has been imaged precisely as a thief breaking into our ordered existence. In the Book of Revelation, the Lamb announces, “If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief and you will not know at what hour I will come to you” (Rev. 3:3). This surprise is startling and even hints of danger. Not at all a “Turn the lights on and everybody yell ‘Surprise!’” kind of birthday party. At the coming of Jesus, all sorts of new and fearful outcomes are in store for us and for his church. When Pope Saint John XXIII interpreted the then-in-session work of the Second Vatican Council it is attributed to the Pontiff that he walked to a window at his residence and said, “I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.” Could it be that the Lord Jesus was, in fact, breaking into his Church to evoke change and renewal? Such Dominical breaking and entering also occurs at the parish level as well. Just watch a parish that has recently adopted the RCIA and the energy that has burst forth with this new ministry. Lay members trained for effective evangelization, for mentoring of seekers and sponsorship of the Elect. The Easter Vigil gains a depth and vivid clarity that permeates the entire community. The newly baptized, mostly younger members of the parish, now bring their own gifts for ministry as well as a passion for the sacramental life. Some risks here? New directions for the church? Yes and Yes. Jesus is breaking into his Church again, for good. It is also a threat as well as a blessing when the Son of Man breaks into our own life. Not only is the timing usually a total surprise, Professor of Preaching Alyce McKenzie comments. She adds,
He returns to steal our false priorities and overturn our unjust structures. He returns to toss our complacency and lack of urgency. We will never be the same again, nor will our house, once he returns.2
So at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come. There is always waiting and watching, and the Lord’s Advent will even disrupt our script that should be followed when he returns. Those servants will never be the same again once the master turned all convention on its head and girded himself and served them. Once Jesus breaks into the Church, into our parish, into our lives, things will never be the same. He has already come in Bethlehem of Judea, born of the Virgin Mary. And he came to his fearful disciples on the First Day as their risen Lord. Jesus also continues to come in the faces of the poor and homeless. He comes to us in the breaking of the bread. He will come to welcome us into life eternal when our days on earth are completed. And he will come in glory to surprise and disrupt and bless all creation.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
1 Tom Colvin, “Jesu, Jesu,” The Upper Room Worshipbook, ed. Elise Eslinger (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2006), 116. One liturgical option is for a soloist or ensemble to sing “Jesu, Jesu,” perhaps at the end of the homily. See, for example, “Jesu, Jesu,” sung by Hari Bayani, July 21, 2021, accessed July 29, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cUiqQI2TjH8.
2 Alyce McKenzie, “Mise en Place: Reflections on Luke 12:32-40,” Patheos, August 1, 2013, accessed July 28, 2022, https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/mise-en-place-alyce-mckenzie-08-02-2013.