Frances writes on the readings for this coming Sunday :- This section of Luke’s gospel (Luke 12:32-48) is all part of his exploration of the Christian life. As it was most likely written for converts from paganism, I think we can get some insights from his use of Jesus’ teachings, by way of looking at the world with which they were so familiar on an everyday basis. Jesus consistently taught that he had not come to be served but to serve, not as master but as servant, slave of the Good News; of his Father’s will. He taught about this by way of parables, memorable stories which fixed the meaning of his teaching in the minds of his hearers. Jesus’ understanding of what it was to be God was astoundingly different from any belief about pagan gods, just as it shattered the ideas of Jews about the meaning and being of God. But just what did that imply; was it demanding of a revolution or was it suggestive of an approach to God in which their everyday world acquired a new perspective?
Converts from paganism would have been very familiar with Saturnalia, (17-23rd December), the winter festival in which slaves would dress up as the master of the house and lord it over all for the holiday. It was a time of frivolity and rejoicing in which this great role-reversal served to emphasise the master-servant role, not diminish it. It was part of that vast network of obligations and meanings that bound master and servant, patron and clients in an unassailable web of relationships of dependency. Happy those servants (slaves) whom the master finds awake when he comes. I tell you solemnly, he will put on an apron, sit them down at table and wait on them. Readiness, alertness to what was going on, was fundamental both to the festival and the wider meaning of the interrelationships between all involved; and both Jesus and Luke emphasised this to the full in the new community of the Christian Church. Here mutuality and dependency were fundamental to the life of the Church. Nowhere was it suggested that the new faith was about the rejection of one’s social duties, far from it, they now became an essential part of belonging to the household of God in which the earthly community played its essential part.
This is why the use of parables continues, with its emphasis on the need for household security, reminding us that the larger houses would have had guards or night watchmen, and continues through this imagery with the issue of stewardship. By the 1st century AD large tracts of Italy, Sicily and North Africa had become either Imperial property, or the large estates of the very rich, and these would have been under the supervision of stewards, often senior slaves or freedmen dependants of the owners. Their behaviour was critical to the smooth running of the estate, and a negligent steward could bring about its decline whilst a diligent one ensure its success, and both could expect to be treated accordingly. Inadequate stewards could well be downgraded and maltreated whilst the successful might expect their freedom and be set up in business by their master. All ex slaves would be keenly aware of the continuing power of their patrons over their lives which even extended to future misdemeanours and powers of inheritance. The maxim when a man has had a great deal given him on trust, even more will be expected of him, would have rung bells in the mindset of many at this time. Ancient Christianity was definitely not about a liberal society but about obligations and duties performed in honour of a great deity.
Our reading from Hebrews, (Heb 11:1-2.8-19), speaks a lot of ‘faith’. When we look at the explanation given, we see that this is not some intrinsic ability to believe given by God, but rather a call to action on behalf of the recipients. Abraham set out on his journey to the Promised Land; Sarah conceived a child who would bring the race into being, and their descendants are those ‘in search’ of a homeland or, rather a full relationship with God, their ‘heavenly homeland’. Abraham was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of Isaac, his only son, to God. In this sense then ‘faith’ seems to be about actions, behaviour which make one’s relationship with God, and with the community of which they were so vital a part. In fulfilling their obligations to it they became what they were intended to be. If Abraham had stopped at home in Southern Iraq he could never have been the founder of the Jewish people, and the whole of his story, of his losing his ancestral gods and of the ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac, is about the forging of this new relationship with the one God and his rejection of older practices such as infant sacrifice. Abraham had all these experiences not on his own, but from within a community that he made into the People of God.
The Book of Wisdom, (18:6-9), was probably written about 50 BC, at a time when Palestine had been occupied by the Romans. Its’ aim appears to be to bolster the scattered Jewish diaspora, be that in Egypt or other parts of the Mediterranean or at home, by emphasising the correct behaviour for the Jew. It consistently favourably contrasts the behaviour of the righteous with that of the unrighteous or their enemies, non-believers, and promises triumph, success and prosperity for correct worship of God and the ultimate downfall of their opponents. We find such a simplistic and rather crass approach unpalatable and even unrealistic today, but it nevertheless raises real issues for us. What is the meaning of belonging to the Christian community? How do we express this and what will be the consequences of our neglect of these obligations to specific congregations? If the writer of Wisdom was driven to write this tract, how are we today to be aroused to play our part in the continuation of the Church we fully expect to be there for our sons and daughters in the future?