It’s never easy to make a connection between the ideas and language of the new testament and the lives we live today. Be wary of those who don’t see a problem and imagine that when God spoke in the days of Jesus he has had nothing to say since. It’s amazing how contemporary the bible is – but you have to work at it rather than expect it to do the work for you.
There’s a lovely phrase in a book I once read – ‘it’s as if the words of the bible are tongued with fire’. And so they are, but the fire has to be rekindled in every place and time that we read the words. So, let’s look at what Luke is saying, visualising what it may have meant to first generation Christians and what it may mean now for us. A ‘then and now’ exercise.
Some straight talk first about possessions
. They aren’t that important. Real wealth is measured by God‘s love for you and your’s for him and for his ways. Money comes and goes, God is constant and the heart to heart connection you have with him is what matters. We can assume that Jesus is talking to people who didn’t have much money, certainly little enough to want more.
Here were people who were needy rather than greedy. There are other times when Jesus addressed bodily needs. He liked food and wine – indeed was blamed for enjoying the company of all sorts of people around the meal table. But here he is talking about priorities, about God giving himself to us and we treasuring the gift as we make it our own possession. It must have been hard to hear for people then, often struggling with poverty.
– hard too for people who live amongst plenty
. In varying degrees and despite the public debt that government tries to solve by personal loss, many of us are reasonably well off.
But being very well off has become the new way to become famous and becoming famous is the new way for getting even wealthier. The society we live in massively promotes greed, and it’s a hard pressure to resist. Epitomised in the latest banking scandal, it shouts at us from our TV screens. But your value as a person is not measured by wealth and fame but by integrity, by love, by peace, by good neighbourliness, by self-sacrifice, by living decently in the world that we see, and living emotionally in the realm of God’s heart and mind and will which is beyond sight. Much of the emphasis in the teaching of Jesus is on getting the priorities right. Money can be dangerous. Potentially seduced by a rapaciously acquisitive society, that’s a very hard lesson to learn. A message then for people in poverty, a message today for people in plenty.
Then there are words about being ready –waiting for the master to come back from the wedding feast so that his servants can look after him. Luke emphasises the danger that lay ahead for the followers of Jesus and which perhaps his readers – some 40 or 50 years after the crucifixion – were already experiencing. At the ready – almost the boy scouts motto –‘be prepared’. Instantaneous readiness; whatever time of the day or night. We just can’t know how much Luke writes into this fragment of story and what was actually in the mind of Jesus as he tells this parable. But one thing is sure, there is nothing predictable or routine about following this man of truth; it can be dangerous. That message at least would have been understood by his audience. Then.
And now? I see it as a warning about the limitations of habit. We can’t live without routine. It’s the way we pace our lives and build our economic and personal relationships. People need to know where we are and who we are. For most of us, tomorrow is likely to be very similar to today. But then suddenly, dramatically everything is different. The hospital gives us bad news about our health; the people we work for go bankrupt and we are without a job; a dear friend drops dead in the street or you get flooded and are told it won’t be safe to live in the house for the next six months. The changes forced upon us. But also the changes that belong to a person of faith, for whom tomorrow may not be about routine but about surprises. We should be aware that anything may happen to the person of faith, as we leave space in our consciousness for the ‘new’ and the unexpected, leaving room for God, the dynamic, life-changing Spirit of new beginnings.
And then the bit about the slaves. They were part of life in the time of Jesus and his campaigning was more about the limitations of a law-based religion than the injustice of a society dependent on bondage. But here – no doubt to the astonishment of his listeners -he says that if slaves are on the alert as the master requires, tables will be turned and the master will himself serve them. An astonishing reversal of roles- headline stuff, the boss starts acting as if he is the servant. A parable of how it is in the Kingdom of God, the workers lifted high (and the logic that follows – the bosses brought low). So – the listeners catching their breath here – the master values us; he- serves -us! That was so when Jesus washed his disciple’s feet – ‘not your job, our’s’, they say. But God is like this, says Jesus!!
And now? The politicians of all parties talk about equality of opportunity but the Christian mind asks for something else. We talk about equality full stop; about equal value, about the lowest of the low being loved by God so graciously that no one is left out of his care. If there is any argument for the continuing existence of the church of Christ, it is that we stand for equal rights before God. There are no hierarchies here – the stranger who comes to us today has the same intrinsic worth before God and in our society, as those who have laboured and loved the church for much of their lives. The same is true in the world. Politicians need to practice humility, for they are the servants. Our value is measured not by any power we may possess but by God’s unconditional love. That T shirt which I saw in the Podium with the words ‘Jesus loves everyone but I am his favourite’ which I have mentioned here before . Wishful thinking! Jesus loves everyone and that’s that.
And then the statement that the Son of Man will come when least expected. This is one of the mysteries of the newe testament where Son of Man appears eighty times. Its literal meaning is a member of the human race, but no one can be very sure of what the term meant for Jesus or how it was understood by those who heard him. It would have had messianic overtones but Jesus was very reluctant to be known as the Messiah and this may have been one of the ways he helped people to move on to their own conclusions. It may have been the way he associated himself equally with the divine purpose and with the human family, humanity and divinity in concord. Certainly in his day Jewish people expected that some great calamity might bring an end to life as they knew it and God would be responsible for it. There is this constant strain in the prophets – we heard it from Isaiah – that God will gather together and save and bring home a people who fear he may have forgotten them.
And now? Many have interpreted it as being a warning about the end-days of human history. So there is always someone or some group who will point to the latest disaster as a sign that that day is at hand. It was the Black Plague in medieval times. I remember the Bergman film ‘The Seventh Seal’, full of the dread of the evil pox as it claimed lives and destroyed the faith of those who tried to escape it. More recently the AIDS epidemic has tantalised the doom-lovers. I heard someone who calls himself a Christian Zionist on the radio say that climate change means God’s new day is on its way. Others have said that the recent flooding means that judgement day is near. One thing is certain. The humanity given us by God and become divine in Jesus, demands that we act responsibly in our care of the earth and the environment. God may have plans to end life on this planet in a form of divine glory, but one thing is now clear in this 21st. century –unless we behave as good stewards we shall have done God’s job for him, in which case there will be no glory just chaos.
So, the Word of God as it might have been when first written down for one audience, and words for us in changing times and amongst different groups of people.
For us a reminder of the ultimate worthlessness of possessions compared to the unique and loving relationship with God promised us by Jesus and the immense value of all precious relationships. We have to work at that idea for it isn’t the same as the prevailing views of our world, where so often what you have or aspire to have is thought to be of most importance.
The importance of not being in bondage to routine, and being ready to face the unexpected opportunities of discipleship. Habit is O.K. but don’t be ruled by it. Do something surprising before today is over, just to practice being ready for God’s surprises.
The topsy- turvey kingdom of God into which we are invited where the slave is ministered to by the master.
The ultimate to which every generation is drawn – the future which is in God’s hands and the future for which we are responsible, as we care for the earth and the environment.