Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The Watchmen, the Steward, and the Thief


(1) Mark 13:34-36; Luke 12:35-38 (2) Matthew 24:42-44; Luke 12:39-40 (3) Matthew 24:45-51; Luke 12:42-46

Three different parables are discussed in this chapter. Their theme is vigilance with regard to the Second Coming of Christ. The first parable in Mark is somewhat general. The master goes away and is coming back at an unannounced hour. He expects those he has left behind to be prepared at any time for his return. In a variant of this parable In Luke, the master has gone to a wedding banquet and he expects his slaves to "open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks" (Luke 12:36). They know where he has gone and while they do not know the exact time, they know approximately when he will return. "If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves" (Luke 12:38). An interesting feature in this parable is the fact that if the master finds them alert and ready, he will gird himself and serve them their meal. In those days, this was highly unusual conduct

but significant, because this is exactly how Jesus portrays the kingdom of God elsewhere, notably through his acted parable of washing the disciples' feet at the last supper (in John 13:1-17) and also through his words explaining his own death as the model of Christian service and the antithesis of worldly styles of leadership (see Matthew 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 22:25-27). The kingdom of God is all to do with the unbelievable generosity and condescension on the part of `the Lord' to his servants. Our parable speaks of this in looking forward to the coming feast of the kingdom; Jesus demonstrated it at the feast of the last supper and in his death, and he called his disciples to do the same. 1

The second parable deals with a thief who comes at an unexpected hour. The unexpectedness of the coming of Christ will be like that of a thief. A thief does not schedule his activity and announce it to his victims. His success is wholly dependent on the element of surprise. Unlike a robber who overcomes his victims by threat and force, the thief operates on the sly. He slips into people's homes when they are not at home or when they don't expect him. It is very difficult if not impossible, therefore, to be ready for the coming of a thief. Is the Lord expecting the impossible?

The third parable deals with a manager who is appointed by his master to take care of his slaves and property. He expects the manager to be a faithful steward who will see that everyone does his work efficiently and is paid properly. If he continues his faithful and efficient work until the master returns, the manager will be blessed and given even greater responsibilities. However, it turns out that he is simply a hireling. He works hard only when the master is present but when he is gone the manager begins to take advantage of the power he has been given. He figures the master won't be coming back very soon so he beats the other slaves, he unlocks the cupboards where all the good food and wine are stored and begins to eat and get drunk. He is having the time of his life. His plan is to stop doing this and put everything in order before the master comes back, but while he is away, the manager is going to have a good time. Unfortunately for him, the master comes when the manager doesn’t expect him. The master is outraged at his behavior and punishes him accordingly. In Luke, the severity of the punishment depends upon the extent of the manager’s responsibilities.)

What is common to all three parables is the necessity of vigilance. Jesus is emphasizing the need to be alert and watchful at all times because we do not know when he will return. The uncertainty of the time of his return is described as "during the middle of the night, or near dawn" (Luke 12:3;8), "at an unexpected hour" like that of a thief, and "at an hour that he [the manager] does not know" (Luke 12:46).

Why this uncertainty? Why does Jesus not simply let us know when he is coming and let us prepare for him? Suppose his coming was announced at A.D. 2006, how would people react who were living at the time the story was told? They could very well have said, “It's so distant that we need not concern ourselves.” But what about people living in the year 2006?

The element of uncertainty makes it fair and keeps us all honest. It gives no advantage for those living 2000 years ago or those living now. Both need to relate to the Lord as though he were coming in their time. Both need to relate to the Lord as though he may not be coming for a long time. Christ wants us to be prepared for his coming at every moment not just in the hour or year before he comes. These parables teach that our relationship to him and our relationships with others must be no different whether he is absent or present.

In the second parable Jesus' coming is compared to that of a thief. We indicated that Jesus might be expecting the impossible if he expects us to be as ready for him as for a thief. In First Thessalonians 5, Paul describes that the Lord will come "like a thief in the night", but then goes on to say, "But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness." In other words the Lord comes like a thief only to those who are the children of darkness, those not expecting him. 2

How does one prepare for the master's return when we do not know when it will be? It is obvious that it is dangerous to predict the time of his return the way the manager did in the third parable. Not only did he miscalculate the time of his master’s return, but his planned “readiness” was only a sham designed to fool the master into thinking all was well and that he had behaved responsibly.

It should not make any difference in our conduct whether Christ’s coming is near or distant. We should live urgently and soberly regardless of the time of his coming because it is the right thing to do. And this is what Jesus is stressing in these parables. If we are faithful stewards and managers, we are going to be that way whether he is present or absent, whether he is coming soon or coming late, whether he is delayed or whether he is on time. Our business is to be faithful stewards.

This parable is as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. Christ expected those who lived in his day to be ready even as he expects us to be ready today. The Lord has promised to return, but he has not given us specific information as to the time of his return. He has left us to “manage the store” in his absence but with a clear understanding that even though we do not know when he is coming, his coming is certain. Our conduct must be predicated on the certain proposition that he will return and that we are accountable to him for our stewardship.

1 Wenham, p.74.

2 In 2 Peter 3:10, Revelation 3:3, and 16:15, the same imagery of the thief is presented as in this parable. Jesus is coming as a thief presumably to all including believers. In the parable and these passages, however, the point of comparison and the emphasis are on the unexpectedness of the coming rather than the impossibility of being prepared for the coming of a real thief.

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