Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- Mark Chapter 13 is always spoken of as Apocalyptic, or Revelation; the action of God in the lives of his people; the coming of God into our world. Here, in Mark (13:33-37) Jesus delivers a parable illustrating the need for alertness on the part of believers. This, as he says is Kairos time, God’s time of coming to us, and not chronological time.
He uses a situation which would have been familiar to all those who knew the workings of great houses. Mark of course was writing for Christians in Rome, so to those intimately acquainted with the properties of the rich, either as slaves to their masters, or as clients and even the passers-by who would have been able to see into the atria of great houses whose doors would have been open in daylight in a society where privacy was unknown and it was essential to display one’s wealth to the public. Households such as these had a plethora of slaves each with their appointed task, from lowliest scullery maid to cooks, masseurs, hairdressers, tutors to the children, book-keepers, dwarfs and entertainers, and so on, quite apart from the slaves who worked their estates. The door-keeper had an important position, with the power to admit to the presence of the Lord or deny it. His role was to safeguard access to the property day and night, and woe betide the lazy doorkeeper who was either not available or tardy on the job. Our master here has not simply left his slaves ‘in charge’, but, as the Greek says, ‘in authority’. Theirs were important roles, essential for the smooth running of the household and the owner’s estates and business affairs. Diligence, or rather watchfulness was the vital ingredient of their role, and incompetents would quickly have been sold off or sent to work in the fields or mines. Privileged positions in the household could well see a slave rise to powerful and influential positions in society upon their manumission from slavery. In this society it was the rich master, here the Lord (Kurios) who called all the shots. So our parable gives a clear indication of precisely just how vitally important the attention to detail of the slave was to a masters comings and goings.
Our Old Testament reading from Third Isaiah (63:1. 3-8) speaks of another situation where the Lord is in total control, but where watchfulness was required of recipients of his bounty. Third Isaiah was the prophet of the return from exile in Babylonia. The Persians had conquered the Babylonian empire and their policy was to establish willing vassal states by returning exiles to their native territory. It was a time of immense rejoicing, full of hope as Israel was in process of restoration. Cyrus the Persian was described as Messiah; God’s anointed one – and a pagan at that – for his magnanimity. Isaiah describes the significance of this action thus: “Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down – at your presence the mountains would melt.” This opening of the heavens, literally the opening of God to his creation, is what true apocalyptic is about; the initiative is all his and the human response must be of gratitude and alert obedience: “Lord, you are our Father; we the clay, you the potter, we are all the work of your hand.”
St Paul was mindful of a similar situation when he wrote to the Christians of Corinth (1 Cor 1:3-9). Given that much of his letters to the Corinthians deal with matters of their inappropriate behaviour as members of the Christian redeemed, it is important to see how he begins this letter. What we witness is the fact that their coming to belief at all is due precisely to the inbreaking of God into their lives. Corinthian Christians were converts from paganism and in pagan religion there was no ‘belief-in’; none of the theology so central to Judaism or Christianity, and thus no moral imperative either. Paganism was a social requirement, it was the ‘glue’ which made and sustained the Roman Empire, and beyond loyalty to its values it did not suggest for a moment that there were ways of living incompatible with ones worship of the gods. To tell a pagan to become modelled on the behaviour of one of their gods would have been to incite behaviour which was frequently deplorable. The major difference then was that the revelation of God in Christ, the apocalyptic event of the incarnation, was so momentous as to completely alter their whole way of life – or it should have been. It is through and in Christ that we have our ability to live as faithful Christians at all. So why do we have all these readings which look to the end time? Surely it is because Advent marks the start of this yearly process. It leads to Christmas, in which we meet God become totally one with us for our salvation. God ‘silly in a crib and foolish on the cross’ (St Bernard of Clairvaux), the great apocalyptic event which begins His work of our redemption.