Life in the Kingdom

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :-

Scholars suggest that this collection of ‘Sayings of Jesus’ from Luke 12:32-40 have been lumped rather unceremoniously together; not without reason, for we do indeed seem to have rather a hotchpotch of material and not all apparently even on the same theme. The first saying relates to the gift of the Kingdom to us by God in the here and now: it has pleased your Father to give you the kingdom; speaking of the life of the Christian here and now within the world already transformed by Christ. The second statement speaks to a radical disinvestment of material possessions which would be so loved by later Gnostic groups who completely opted out of contemporary society. Our third saying however seems totally to contradict this latter for there we find a picture of conventional society in which the slaves of a great house diligently await the return of their master from a wedding feast (a metaphor for the kingdom), and have remained alert and at the ready, willing to serve him in whatever capacity required, which could have been anything from providing a carrying chair home from a banquet; or forming a group of guards during the dangerous night hours of the Greco-Roman city; or, putting their inebriated master to bed or in the case of the more abstemious acting as his secretary if he was a ‘night-bird’ who liked to work in the early hours.

The radical break injected and disrupting the perfectly conventional story appears with the reward the master gives his slaves for their diligence – breaking all the rules and serving them a meal as if he were their slave and they the house owner. In Roman society it was only at Saturnalia, feast of Saturn in December that a carnival atmosphere reigned and servant and master changed place for a day. But here we have a truly revolutionary reminder that God Incarnate assumed the role of slave to us and thereby, in the full reign of the kingdom, makes us gods with God the Father and even now, in the already given kingdom his heirs and utterly open to God! Luke’s Jesus quite deliberately tells this parable of a shocking reversal of the common order to illustrate what the kingdom was about, both for wealthy and for slaves and reminds his hearers of precisely what the sacrifice of Christ on the cross was all about and clearly something far greater than mere pecuniary advantage is implied. In order to carry on the call to diligence in the cause of the kingdom Jesus then appears to break with his context, telling the amusing precautionary tale of the fully prepared householder who stopped up all night to defend his property against burglars. Now, once again, this is unusual, since that was precisely why rich property owners owned literally hoards of servants slave and free. Their job or that of some of them was to work as guards and night watchmen, responsible for securing the property against unwelcomed intruders allowing the owner uninterrupted sleep in the recesses of the house. At this point however we suddenly return to our metaphor of life in the great household (for which read the kingdom), where the trusted servant, either slave or freed could be given responsibility for overseeing the rest of the slaves and the governing of the entire property. Slaves placed in such positions were of course entirely dependent on their master’s good will and naturally acted well and in his best interests and that of other slaves and as all in Greco-Roman society were keenly aware, the slave-steward who was found abusing his position of trust would find himself transported to the galleys or the mines and a thoroughly awful death. Life in the kingdom then is not something to be taken for granted or abused!

So our gospel takes up and uses the normal conditions of contemporary society to illustrate the meaning of life within the kingdom of God, in this context in Luke an already accomplished event. Like St Paul, Luke held that the kingdom of God ‘is among us’ because of the incarnation and also an awaited event at the end of time, but I think that in these passages he is speaking to his contemporaries of an already accomplished fact. Certainly watchfulness, alertness is called for, but also an acknowledgement of the norms of society within which the Christian church functioned so that rather than looking for a radical break with current conditions, recognisable changes will be a feature of the kingdom and yet the terms and conditions which govern normal society will apply. Luke remember was writing for a governor convert to the faith and to urban Christians in the mass of the pagan world and needed to enable his tiny Christian groups to function within the given world. So we find that the diligent and observant steward and slave will be rewarded or even punished for infringements of the demands of the kingdom just like any ordinary servant. Anyone expecting a dramatic shift to nirvana had better think twice in the Lucan account of the advent of Christ among us. Then, as our reading from Hebrews (11:1-2.8-19) insists, this great seismic shift in our being which is the coming of the kingdom will also be a gradual process and one induced by grace, whose gift, faith enables the believer to act well. It seems to work on a process of differed gratification in which our ancestors in the faith slowly responded to God’s call, Abraham leaving his ancestral homeland for the Promised Land and the gift to him and Sarah of natural offspring and the founding of a line of believers through times of testing and trial. So the writer of Hebrews concurs with Luke in showing that the coming to appreciate and experience the fullness of the faith is a long-drawn-out process in which we respond by grace in the everyday events and trials of life as is echoed in our portion of Wisdom (18:6-9), written in the late 1st century BC and clearly under times of duress: the devout children of worthy men offered sacrifice in secret….that the saints would share the same blessings and dangers alike. No, in the company of the Christians of the Lucan communities, it is how we live now to the kingdom that is important.

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