Sunday reflection: Luke 12:32–48

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.”

We live our lives by expectations. Our parents expect us to apply ourselves and study properly. We expect our friends to support us unconditionally. We expect our employers to treat us properly and pay us on time, and we expect that they expect us to do our jobs properly in return. We expect our children to obey us, and our spouses to be faithful.

When those expectations don’t pan out, we tend to get pretty irritable about it, to say the least. Some of that is a rational response to relationships that turn inequitable. But part of this reaction is an emotional reaction to the unpleasant fact that things don’t always turn out as expected. Expectations are assumptions of orderliness that we place on a chaotic, fallen world. They are inward attempts to control the uncontrollable through the force of our will.

Our readings today are all about expectations — expectations not met, expectations exceeded, and the consequence and benefits that result. When we hope against normal expectations — when we have faith despite what our assumptions and expectations tell us should happen — we grow closer to the Lord.

For instance, consider our first reading from Wisdom 18, which recounts the night of the first Passover. The Israelites had lived in slavery for four hundred years; Moses and Aaron had arrived demanding their freedom, and plagues followed Pharaoh’s refusals. The worldly expectations of the Israelites would have led them to fear the wrath of the Egyptians, and in fact some Israelites rebuked the two for stirring up Pharaoh’s anger. “The LORD look upon you and judge,” some told Moses and Aaron (Exodus 5:21), “because you have made us offensive in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”

Yet those who had faith, and who placed hope in the Lord above the expectations their experience had set, persevered. As the passage from Wisdom notes, they had “sure knowledge of the oaths in which they put their faith,” and took courage in knowledge of the Passover to come. “For in secret the holy children of the good were offering sacrifice and putting into effect with one accord the divine institution.” They looked past the expectations and assumptions of their entire experience and believed in the Lord’s deliverance — even though they had never known it before.

Paul writes to the Hebrews in our second reading about a similar Old Testament example: Abraham. He had lived to an old age with no children at all, “as good as dead,” as Paul puts it. His expectation should have been that he would pass with no legacy at all, no family to carry on his name or his memory. But Abraham had faith and hope beyond his own experience that the Lord would revive his line, and ended up with “descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and countless as the sand on the seashore.”

But Abraham’s faith ran even stronger. After he had been given a son with Sarah, Abraham expected Isaac to carry on his name. When the Lord called on Abraham to kill Isaac as an offering, a man of lesser faith would have expected his hopes to be dashed and balk at the command. Instead, Abraham’s faith remained in the Lord, and he did not withhold his son from Him. The Lord rewarded him with descendants — spiritual and physical — that have filled the world.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus uses the parable of the servants to turn expectations on their head. Even though all of our worldly expectations and experience point to the finality of death, Jesus urges us to serve the Lord to prepare ourselves for eternal life and salvation. The master may not be in view, but we are to continue to serve him faithfully anyway. Those who fail in their stewardship because they expect that their deeds will not be known to the master will find their lack of faith in Him to be, well … a serious mistake.

This passage recalls last week’s reflection on stewardship. The Lord has expectations of us, too — to stand watch, to treat others well, to keep His house in order, and to do His bidding not just out of fear but out of love for Him. Jesus promises in the parable not just that the master would be pleased with the servants, but that the master will “have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them.” That is not the actions of a lord, but of a member of the family. The parable instructs that those who keep the faith and hope in salvation will not be servants, but will become the children of God.

That exceeds all experience, all expectations that remained tied up in worldliness. We have not experienced the Lord in His fullness, although many of us have felt as though we have experienced small glimpses of His love and mercy. Jesus calls us to put aside expectations, assumptions, and worldliness to remain faithful and hope in what seems impossible. We need to be the faithful and prudent stewards of our Lord’s house, and prepare ourselves for His always-unexpected return at an hour we do not expect.

Life teaches those who pay attention that we cannot impose our own will on a chaotic and fallen world. But we can align our will and our hearts with the Lord, whose will prevails in the end — whenever that may be.

The front-page image is The Parable of the Unjust Steward, by Marinus van Reymerswaele, c. 1540. 

“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.