Jesus warns us to be prepared
By Father Paul Turner
Catholic Key Scripture Columni
The Good News for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 12, 2001
Wisdom 18: 6-9
Hebrews 11: 1-2, 8-19
Luke 12: 32-48
and the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 19, 2001
Jeremiah 38: 4-6, 8-10
Hebrews 12: 1-4
Luke 12: 49-53
Nothing kills summer like a back-to-school sale. As soon as the ads appear, everyone knows summer is over.
It won't seem completely out of place over the next two Sundays (12:32-48 and 49-53) then, when Jesus all but wears a placard saying, "The end is near." But we usually expect this language later in the liturgical year. November, perhaps. When the leaves are falling, the coats are buttoned, and mortality looms large, we hear passages from the end of Jesus' ministry about the end of our world. But into the middle of chapter 12, the middle of his Gospel and the middle of Ordinary Time, Luke unleashes an ominous cry about the end.
Several images darken the specter of these texts. The thief, the prophet Elijah, and reversals all make the mood creepy.
Jesus says if the master knew when the thief was arriving, security would not have been breached. This metaphor appears frequently in the New Testament (Matthew 24:43; 1 Thessalonians 5:2,4; 2 Peter 3:10; and Revelation 16:15). In every case the meaning is clear. Jesus will come back as unexpectedly as a thief. If you know a thief is coming, but you do not know when, you will be vigilant. Jesus wanted disciples in that anxious state, for it heightened their attention and commitment to the Gospel.
Contributing to the spookiness of the next two Sundays' Gospels is the prophet Elijah. Luke never mentions him by name, but his memory lurks behind several verses.
For example, when Jesus says, "Gird your loins," he urges people to get ready to move. He could have said something like "Lace your shoes," or "Zip up your jacket." But the expression he chose recalls 1 Kings 18:46, a verse from a story about the end of a drought. Elijah, ecstatic that God's prophecy has been fulfilled, cinches up his robe and outruns the rain.
"Gird your loins," Jesus says. The time of fulfillment is at hand. Get ready to move with prophetic joy.
Later, Jesus says he has come "to set the earth on fire." He could have said something like, "to stir up excitement," or "to shake things up." But he chose an expression reminiscent of something Elijah actually did in 1 Kings 18:36-40. There he called down fire from God in a contest with the prophets of Baal. He did the same thing against the soldiers of King Ahaziah in 2 Kings 1:10-14.
By saying he would set the earth on fire, Jesus affirms his prophetic ministry and his ultimate power over evil. He may also be foreshadowing Pentecost, which Luke also records (Acts 2:3). On that day, tongues of fire came down from heaven as a sign of the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Elijah hides behind the disturbing words that close these passages. Jesus predicts that parents will be divided against children. But earlier in the Gospel, when introducing the infant John the Baptist (1:17), Luke said that John would be like Elijah in turning the hearts of parents toward their children. This time, Jesus comes not to fulfill what Elijah did, but horribly to reverse it. This passage probably reflects unfortunate family situations in the early church, when belief in Jesus divided loyalties.
This is not the only reversal that surprises the reader of these texts. An-other one appears earlier, in a passage on authority. Jesus describes what it will be like for vigilant servants when the master of the household returns. The reader expects that servants will go back to being servants. But no. The master will have the servants recline at table. He will gird himself and begin to wait on them. No one expected that kind of authority.
This saying about leadership is placed in the context of fears about the end of the world. For the readers of Luke, it indicated the kind of faithful leadership their community should foster. The community could expect their leaders to take an attitude of service. Leaders who failed to present this image, who took advantage of their positions of authority, lost divine favor.
At first, these Gospels are not very comforting at all. They threaten ill to careless servants and authoritative leaders. They warn about conflicts that will tear families apart.
Underneath them lies the strong image of the end. The Son of Man will come. We do not know when. But we do know it will happen. Those who await the return of Jesus with a hopeful and attentive spirit will receive their reward.Father Paul Turner is pastor of St. Munchin Parish, Cameron.