Updated: Sep 11, 2019
Sermon #149 St. James the Less #57 8/11/19
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." Luke 12:35-38
Short Parables & Context
Today our gospel lesson is short and sweet. One thing I love about Jesus is that he knows how to make his point. And what’s so amazing is that his message is clear and concise and is even centered around a story. He doesn’t give you enough time to even start to daydream. Just like that (snap) and he’s done and headed to the next village.
I think preachers can take a hint…a longer sermon doesn’t always equal more depth or wisdom. And Jesus was a master of short, compact parables that were drenched with meaning.
A great example of this is the parable found in the middle of our passage this morning. It seems pretty straightforward: it has to do with servants waiting for their lord to return from a wedding banquet. It is only three sentences. If you blink, you may just miss it.
And partly the reason it’s so short is because Jesus knew that his audience could fill in the gaps. He didn’t have to explain every little detail because his audience understood the social and cultural dynamics that were at play in this scene.
Unfortunately for us, we have to fill in the gaps. We’ve never been to a first century Jewish wedding (I know some of y’all feel old but you’re not that old), and we don’t know the relationship between a master and his slaves during that time. If anything, our minds will fill in what we know of weddings (from our experiences) and slavery (from American history books) to fill in the gaps.
And that’s not always a good way to read the Bible. So, today we are going to take a closer look at this short parable and see what lesson it has for us as the church in 2019. Full disclosure, this may be my favorite parable.
It starts off like this: "Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” Literally it says, “Let your waist be girded.” In other words, tie a belt around you and light your oil lamps.
Back in those times men and women would wear loose fitting robes as a way to stay cool). In many Middle Eastern countries, this is still true just because it is so hot. But when it was time to go out in the fields and do physical labor, they would tie a rope around their waist so that their robes wouldn’t fly everywhere while they worked and so they wouldn’t step on it.
***A priest’s alb - this white robe - is based on the garments of that day and time. It’s actually very similar to what they wore. And we wear the rope (or cincture) around our waist because of this passage.
And so, Jesus starts off with this visual image of being ready to work, with a rope tied around your waist and a small lamp lit in your hand.
He then says, “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.”
Now here is where it gets even more interesting. We are told this is a master/slave relationship. This would have not been shocking to his audience. It was common around the Roman empire and was not based on race or social class.
When it came to households in the Roman empire the master, or lord, was at the very top and the slave was at the very bottom. The slave was associated simply with the work that they did, and that’s about it.
What’s remarkable is that Jesus tells his listeners to picture themselves as the slaves in this story. So, as the parable tells us, these servants are to be ready to work with a belt around their waste, as they wait for their master to return.
But some other languages have translated it a little differently, and it adds another perspective. In Arabic it says that they are “expecting” their lord as he “withdraws” from the banquet to come to them.
They aren’t passively waiting. They are expecting him, excited for their lord to join them. And he is not simply returning from the banquet when all the festivities are over, he is withdrawing from it, seemingly, while it is still going on, so that he can be with them.
I think the Arabic translation gets us closer to the actual cultural meaning here, and we begin to see a fuller picture. But it doesn’t end there.
Probably the biggest unspoken clue that we miss, is that this banquet was likely happening at his own house. With a little more background this will make sense.
It says that he goes to the door and knocks. But who knocks on their own door?
If anything, he would simply yell out to them, “Hey I’m here, open up.” Just like the parable we read a few weeks ago where a man who wakes his neighbor up by yelling at him through to door, asking for bread or something to give his visitor. That would have been the custom.
Wealthy homes, like the one assumed in our parable, at this time would’ve been broken down into a public quarter and a private quarter. The wedding banquet would be in the great house in the public quarter, and the parable assumes that the master withdraws quietly to the private quarter.
The master knocks because he doesn’t want his voice to echo to the other end of the complex because then the party goers would then realize that he’s left the party.
And the only reason a wedding banquet would be at his home, is if his daughter was the one getting married. You can see just how significant this situation is. This is not only their master paying them a visit, but the father of the bride.
Are you beginning to see the power of this short parable? It’s starting to come together, and with the cultural gaps being filled, we may be able to understand what Jesus’ original listeners naturally heard. As I explain the last section of this parable, let’s enter the story with them.
The servants are waiting in a backroom of the master’s house while the grand wedding banquet is going on. Laughter and music flow as easily as the wine being served. They know that they are missing out on something special-they can hear it faintly from the other quarter, but their duty is to care for the private, family area.
So they wait for the party to end so that they can serve their lord before he goes to bed.
But then they hear a knock. They open the door to see none other than the father of the bride smiling at them as he shows them a tray of food he snuck away with from the party…just for them.
But he doesn’t hand the food to them and head back to the party. As our parable says, he then goes to his bedroom and grabs a belt for himself; the one he uses when he works out in the fields with them.
Their master, their boss, the father of the bride on her big day, AND in his finest robes- decides to gird his waist with a belt… ready to work…like one of them.
They look at him strangely as he invites them to sit down.
And then the tables are completely turned on them. The Master becomes their servant and serves them a taste of the banquet feast, and in so doing he knowingly breaks every cultural and social norm.
In this small act, he lowers himself so that they might be elevated, and because of him they are able to participate in something much greater and grander than themselves.
As a proud father on his daughter’s wedding night, he allows the lowliest of servants to enter into his joy.
The Kingdom Banquet
It is no wonder, that Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a great wedding feast over and over again in the gospels, and he is the one who is bringing that banquet to the world.
This short parable gives us a powerful image of the lordship of Jesus; an image of a master who serves and invites the lowest of the low to taste the fruits of God’s abundant kingdom.
An Egyptian monk named Matta al-Miskin said about this parable, when the Master serves them, they are transformed from being servants, and are now partners in love and partners in glory. “He comes to them and wipes away the tears from their eyes and lets them taste his love in order that they might forget their suffering” (Bailey 373).
And I think that is exactly what we need to hear after a week and a half of wrestling with the shock and grief and anger over the senseless shootings in El Paso and Dayton. It feels like our country is living in a perpetual state of anxiety right now.
The general public is fearful whenever they are out running errands or sitting in a restaurant, while also grieving as a nation over the senseless killings rooted in racism. I don’t know about you, but I’ve just felt this darkness and weight come over our country.
Sometimes it may be hard for us Christians to realize what we are hoping and waiting for, and what we are to do while we wait for the “kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.” Our parable this morning focuses less on how we should wait…instead it gives us an amazing glimpse of who we are waiting for.
It gives us a glimpse into the Lord who loves even us, the broken sinners that we are. And though we aren’t able to taste the full heavenly banquet at this moment, he has given us just a small foretaste of what is to come.
Two thousand years ago, he snuck away from the heavenly banquet with food in hand, and showed us just a little bit of what God’s glorious feast is like.
We return to this place, week after week, not because we have forgotten the story of God over the past few days and need reminding.
No, we gather at the altar so that we can have a taste of that heavenly banquet. We eat and drink together, so that we may taste and know that the Lord is good.
That though God’s kingdom has not yet fully come, we know that he is bringing good news to the poor, he is binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.
We come to this altar to know who we are in the eyes of God, and to taste of his goodness and love.
And when we allow ourselves to do that, I believe the Egyptian monk is right…We are able to taste of his love and forget our suffering (even for just a moment), and we are raised up as his partners in love and glory.
(9 Pent. Proper 14. Track II. Year C. Lk 12:32-40. Based on Sermon #51 & Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, K. Bailey.)