After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
12 Happy the nation whose God is the Lord •
and the people he has chosen for his own.
13 The Lord looks down from heaven •
and beholds all the children of earth.
14 From where he sits enthroned he turns his gaze •
on all who dwell on the earth.
15 He fashions all the hearts of them •
and understands all their works.
16 No king is saved by the might of his host; •
no warrior delivered by his great strength.
17 A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; •
for all its strength it cannot save.
18 Behold, the eye of the Lord
is upon those who fear him, •
on those who wait in hope for his steadfast love,
19 To deliver their soul from death •
and to feed them in time of famine.
20 Our soul waits longingly for the Lord; •
he is our help and our shield.
21 Indeed, our heart rejoices in him; •
in his holy name have we put our trust.
22 Let your loving-kindness, O Lord, be upon us, •
as we have set our hope on you.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:1–3, 8–16
‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
‘But know 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. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’
Sermon on Eleventh Sunday of Trinity
I think we would find a parable more familiar than these sayings from Luke today. We might know it as “the parable of the wise and foolish virgins” – or, perhaps, we should call it in this more corrupt period, “the parable of the young women” – that parable comes from Matthew. Our reading from Luke, however, yields essentially the same message about our King. – Doesn’t our King expect everyone to be ready for his arrival? Doesn’t our King look to us to prepare the way for his coming into this fallen world? So let’s consider our gospel reading today.
‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.’
Of course our contemporaries don’t understand such language, do they? Sometimes, we ourselves who have studied the bible don’t quite get what the readings and lessons have to teach us. Who, I wonder, speaks of “their master” for whom they would wait to return? We today don’t have any conception of indented service or slavery for ourselves, do we? Yet that is what the bible speaks of time and again. Who are these slaves who are ready for anything, dressed for action and having lamps lit to brighten the home for their master? Would we modern people be so devoted? I don’t think so. We don’t often give any part of ourselves to our friends or neighbours let alone our lives, and I think we only give of ourselves to our families rarely, and perhaps grudgingly. So how can we begin to understand what the original hearers of the parables comprehended when they heard the words, slave and master?
So how can we get to grips with this statement?
‘Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.’
We may be able to approximate the meaning of slave and master, if we put the words in a modern context, but we truly don’t understand the quixotic and absolute power of a master over a slave in the Hellenistic period – nor in the medieval period for that matter. However, we can approach the might of the master if we consider Rules and Regulations in our modern society, where even a game of conkers is governed by arbitrary restrictions. (But I digress.) The legal is what has the same authority over one’s life as a master did over a slave in biblical times. We must always obey the law, we say to ourselves all the time. When we trust and obey the law, we should be taken care of. Justice and righteousness will prevail we tell ourselves. Well that has to be true in a perfect world, doesn’t it? But is this a perfect world?
We live as twenty-first century schizoid men and women, don’t we? Our lives are not in our own control. We yield our freedom to rules and regulations as part of the social contract which the philosopher talks about – because as he says we want to live peaceably with one another – and then we complain and moan amongst ourselves because the rules and regulations don’t deal with the human being which we think we are.
We serve the master of the law today, don’t we? So I think we really do know the absolute power of any master in other times and places. I think we can also reckon on the totally arbitrary nature of rules and regulations.
However, and I think more importantly, another thing we can understand is Jesus’ objecting to the legalism of the pharisees, the knuckling under the arbitrary Law. Jesus wanted the law of God to serve the purpose of human being, not to restrict what people can do. The law should free us to have life in all its fullness, a theme I have looked at before, so I will not continue. So, we have to admit that we really do understand what Jesus was talking about when he contended that “the law was made for man, not man for the law.” So should the relationship be between master and slave. The servant serves the master and the master lords it over the servant to the benefit of each. I am a slave to the law today because the law is a slave for me.
But we have all noticed that there is something odd about this story about the master coming home to find his slaves up and ready to welcome him. When the master comes home to find his household alert and prepared for his arrival, what happens? What does the master do to his slaves?
It is totally unexpected. The slaves certainly would not expect it, nor could we possibly say what would happen based on our own experience of lords and masters in modernity, especially this epoch defined by the rise of capitalism and the rule of the law.
What did the master do? Instead of throwing off his travelling garments, he tightens his belt and begins to serve his slaves. This is a role reversal on a spectacular scale. Can you imagine in our own time someone who has won at law deciding to throw all the gain aside in order to tend and care for the adversary in the legal case? This is what Jesus is talking about.
This “eschatalogical reversal” is common throughout the teaching of Jesus. The life of Jesus himself is the cosmic act of salvation, and it is played out not in terms of the great battalions and clever generals, but in the life of a carpenter who was crucified by seemingly corrupt and certainly unmerciful authorities. This act of salvation is the eschatological reversal for the whole of creation.
The weakness of the lamb before the slaughter becomes the act of salvation, not the legions of angels descending upon the benighted earth. This is the event of the end of time which so many expect. Certainly Paul and the first christians did, but what about us? What will happen at the end of time? Will it be more of the same, the corrupt overcoming the good in spite of all our expectations of the reverse?
Jesus foreshadows the universal eschatological reversal in his life and teaching. This, in fact, is our own expectation for ordinary life, let alone our hope for salvation. We want the master to come and serve us, just once, don’t we? We want to be able to go to law and find that mercy and justice is combined so that we can live well with one another and in peace. Don’t we want this statement to be true of us, we who are slaves of Christ?
‘If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them ready, blessed are those slaves.’