This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 12:32–48:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.
“Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them. And should he come in the second or third watch and find them prepared in this way, blessed are those servants. Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”
Then Peter said, “Lord, is this parable meant for us or for everyone?” And the Lord replied, “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants to distribute the food allowance at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing so. Truly, I say to you, the master will put the servant in charge of all his property. But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants, to eat and drink and get drunk, then that servant’s master will come on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour and will punish the servant severely and assign him a place with the unfaithful. That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly. “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”
In one sense, today’s Gospel reading could be summed up in the Boy Scouts’ motto — be prepared. Tom Lehrer had a lot of fun with that phrase a few decades ago in a song of the same title, but it’s good advice in general and certainly so for discipleship and salvation. Unfortunately, many of us — myself included — procrastinate rather than prepare. We assume that plenty of time remains for us to engage in the disciplines necessary to live by God’s word.
That was even true of one of the church’s great doctors, at least for a time. Augustine of Hippo’s struggled between commitment to salvation and attachment to worldly pleasures, even after significant experience with Christian thought and belief. Augustine prayed before his full conversion, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet,” in what might be called the Procrastinators’ Motto. Augustine was too attached to physical pleasure and material goods, and not yet willing to forgo them in order to prepare properly for salvation.
This was no small problem for those of faith who nevertheless struggle with temptation, and Jesus understood it. The Gospels contain several reflections from Jesus on this very point, especially in the passage from Mark 10 with the son of a rich man who wished to follow Jesus but could not part from his material wealth. Jesus tells this parable to counter that impulse of Augustine’s and of all others who would follow … in other words, the rest of us. He reminds people in this parable that death could come at any time, or that He could return and bring judgment to the entire world. It is not enough to “wake up” when the Master returns, Jesus warns; we have to have prepared ourselves for that eventuality by standing watch in order to be prepared for our personal salvation.
But it’s not just our personal salvation to which this warning instructs. What does it mean to “stand watch”? In military terms, it refers to an assigned duty for security. Even in non-military terms, it has a similar meaning. When camping with a group in an unfamiliar terrain, watches might be assigned to warn others if dangers appear, such as predatory animals, bad weather, or other people who may or may not have malign intent. It has a communal purpose, not just a personal purpose.
Consider too the context of these watches Jesus describes. What are the watches guarding? The Master’s property, not those who watch over it. The people who will be judged are its servants and stewards, not its owners who would have the right to use it as they see fit. In the extended parable Jesus tells Peter and the core disciples, the servant is not just failing to keep watch on his Master’s estate but is actively stealing from it to serve his gluttony and lust for power. The servant is sinning and coloring his own soul, to be sure, but he’s also abusing the community he’s supposed to be guarding and securing. And the more that servant knows of his Master’s will, Jesus warns, the more responsible he will be held for those sins and abuses.
This is an instruction not just for personal commitment to salvation, but personal commitment to love the community of God. It reminds everyone of their right relationship to the Lord and His Creation as well. We are stewards, not owners, although as stewards we have the responsibilities of the true Owner during our stewardship. We are not given that duty in order to intoxicate ourselves but to use it for safeguarding and building the community of God. Even the procrastination itself is an abuse of our roles as stewards, assuming we can waste the Master’s time along with all of his other resources rather than putting it to use for salvation for the many.
Standing watch, therefore, does more than just prevent us from a beating at the return of the Master. It forms us into better stewards, ones who will be more prepared to enter into God’s kingdom at the end of this life, more prepared to understand it. The Boy Scouts aren’t the only organization for which “be prepared” is a pretty good motto.
The front-page image is a detail from “Communion of the Apostles” by Luca Signorelli c.1512. Currently housed at the Diocesean Museun of Cortana, Tuscany. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.