NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 14: 25-33
TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
USCCB Link to all three readings
Great crowds were traveling with Jesus,
and he turned and addressed them,
“If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters,
and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple.
Which of you wishing to construct a tower
does not first sit down and calculate the cost
to see if there is enough for its completion?
Otherwise, after laying the foundation
and finding himself unable to finish the work
the onlookers should laugh at him and say,
‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’
Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down
and decide whether with ten thousand troops
he can successfully oppose another king
advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops?
But if not, while he is still far away,
he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms.
In the same way,
anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions
cannot be my disciple.”
Here is yet another of the “hard sayings” of Jesus that have dominated the summer liturgies. It builds directly upon preceding Sunday readings, including Jesus’ earlier instruction that he had come to set families at odds with each other by the radical nature of his call, and last weekend’s passage about inviting the wrong guests to one’s banquet for the wrong reasons. In this Sunday’s sequence Luke begins by reminding us yet again that Jesus is on the journey to Jerusalem for the final showdown, and that he is attracting larger crowds as he progresses. Joel Green describes the crowd as neutral observers whose decisions about the demands of the kingdom are still in the contemplative stage, so to speak. Given that later in this reading Jesus speaks of a king setting off for battle with an adequate army, it is not so far-fetched to think that Jesus is building his army of the new kingdom before it is too late and the door to the kingdom will be shut.
The fact that Jesus had to turn to address his crowd (v. 25) makes sense in that he had “set his face for Jerusalem,” and he proceeds here to talk yet again about the true meaning of discipleship. It has been a significant experience for me to blog weekly on this string of discipleship teachings this summer, and despite the discomfort of soul these texts arouse, I feel like my life and theological work has been vitalized by awakening to the full dimension of Jesus’ call. I can only imagine how these words were received in Jesus’ time, as he states that no one who loves his family—and even life itself—cannot be a disciple, and thus not admittedly to the glory of life after death.
Verse 26 is not a command to disown or despise one’s roots, but to realize how loyalties to family and society interfere with the greater business of discipleship. Verse 27 speaks of taking up the cross. Green observes that the text is written in the present tense, as if to rule out an interpretation of “I’ll be ready someday if asked.” Green’s quote about the true cross bearing disciple deserves quotation: “Such persons would live as though they were condemned to death by crucifixion, oblivious to the pursuit of noble status, finding no interest in securing one’s future via securing obligations from others or by stockpiling possessions, free to identify with Jesus in his dishonorable suffering.” (p. 566)
The two parables in Sunday’s text are addressed to those in the crowd contemplating what to do about Jesus’ words. Green suggests that this multitude included professional men and solders, who would have understood the intricacies of engineering and military campaigns respectively. In both examples the parties involved—a landowner building a tower and a king marching into battle—are confronted with the reality that neither has thought through his plans carefully nor have they the resources to so what they intended. The second example—where the king is advised to send delegates for peace talks before it is too late—is probably the clearer example. For Jesus has indicated that time is running out and the moment of judgment is nearly at land. An ill-equipped army moving inexorably forward to a certain battle is like watching an auto accident about to unfold. It is a vivid word picture, and the crowd (as well as readers of our time) are challenged to reflect upon how well-armed they are for the last battle, and what they can and should do to remedy a catastrophe ready to fall in on their heads.
In application to our Church life today, those of us who teach moral theology generally find ourselves in a dilemma. The Church puts considerable emphasis upon detailing the kinds and gravity of sins we must avoid. This is done in a number of ways—papal teaching, as in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical in 1968 on artificial birth control; parish preaching and catechetics; the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There is an expectation from above and below (Church authority and many of the faithful) that we teachers “teach the book,” as we used to say in college. I never agreed with that model on the grounds that if all morality was summed up in books as the famous Manuals purported to do, there was no need for teachers. (I did find a copy of a 1924 Manual here.)
On the other hand, the source and summit of all Judeo-Christian morality is in fact the person and example of Jesus Christ, and careful reading of his words in Luke’s Gospel, for example, reveals an open-ended morality of self-giving in which none of us can say, “Well, I’m OK” or “I’ve done enough.” The only honest way to address morality—in the heart, the confessional, the classroom—is to return to its core, to the extraordinary demand and reward of discipleship. As one famous theologian put it, Christianity is the only one of the world’s religions that demands that its follows strive to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Luke, during the summer heat, slams home the truth that discipleship is neither metaphor nor hyperbole.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 14: 1, 7-14
TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
On a Sabbath Jesus went to dine
at the home of one of the leading Pharisees,
and the people there were observing him carefully.
He told a parable to those who had been invited,
noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table.
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet,
do not recline at table in the place of honor.
A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him,
and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say,
‘Give your place to this man,’
and then you would proceed with embarrassment
to take the lowest place.
Rather, when you are invited,
go and take the lowest place
so that when the host comes to you he may say,
‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’
Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table.
For every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Then he said to the host who invited him, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors,
in case they may invite you back and you have repayment.
Rather, when you hold a banquet,
invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind;
blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.
For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
As I continue to read Joel Green’s translation and text of St. Luke’s Gospel this year for the Tuesday posts, I am becoming aware of this Gospel’s revolutionary nature and its apocalyptic or future outlook to the “end times.” This weekend’s Gospel combines the two qualities impressively. It is important not to read this Gospel passage too literally as common sense advice, like wisdom from Ben Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” For Jesus takes the hard and fast rules of social etiquette in Roman times, turns them on their head, and makes another profound statement about the difficulties of entering the Kingdom of God.
This is text rich in irony. In verse one, Luke records that the dinner was held in the home of a “leading Pharisee,” and that the people were observing Jesus closely. Strange, then, that when Jesus opens his mouth, he for his part has evidently been watching the guests, too. He is observing banquet etiquette, which in Jesus’ day was enforced by strict if unwritten rules. Green quotes the sociologist Marshall Sahlins when he writes that “the sharing of food is a ‘delicate barometer’ of social relations.” (p. 550) There were in place “behavior codes” to enforce rank. Where one would sit at a banquet was a mark of one’s relative importance—and in fact the act of being invited or not invited was itself another “sacrament of status,” so to speak.
There are hints in the Gospel of Luke that Jesus was not unaware of the pride and “social climbing” of Pharisees, as here in the case of the competition for seats of honor. In Luke 18: 9-14 Jesus describes a Pharisee and a tax collector praying together. The Pharisee extolls to God his advanced observance of the Law, while the tax collector seeks mercy for his sins; Jesus observes that only the tax collector went home justified. So there is, in this Gospel here, a rather strong rebuke in Jesus’ words about seating a not-so-subtle warning to Pharisees about strict observance of the Law without an accompanying purity of spirit. Groveling for honor was a problem for the disciples, too, as in “arguing among themselves as to who was the greatest” in another text.
Prestige was the coinage of the social realm, and Jesus was indeed asking a lot when he talked of the exalted being humbled, and vice versa. Green points out, though, that Jesus raises the discussion to an even higher plane in Luke 14:12 when he segues into the thinking of the host of a banquet. In our own time one of our presidential candidates has written about “the art of the deal;” in the first century the “art of the invitation” would have been a best seller, too. For the host of a feast (wedding or otherwise) would gain or lose social rank by the number of powerful and influential people he could entice to his dinner. Then, of course, the attendees would hopefully reciprocate, confirming the host’s treasured position, not to mention the exchanges of indebtedness or “chits.”
In his observations about the invitational practices, Jesus again stands contemporary logic on its head when he expressed a preference for the blind, the poor, the lame, those who would be unable to reciprocate by throwing their own banquets. Moreover, holding a public banquet of down-and-outers would cause the host’s own social status to decrease, something along the lines of “the company you keep,” etc. Jesus’ statements here are a call to charity, pure and simple, one of the primary themes of both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. It is giving without measuring the cost.
But Jesus takes the discussion further. He moves into the apocalyptic world of judgment. Charity for charity’s sake is good. Charity rewarded by entrance into the Kingdom of God on the last Day is another thing. I have not talked much this year about the image of the Eschatological Banquet, but the term is a staple of Bible studies. In both Testaments the coming of God at the end of time is portrayed as a magnificent feast of the faithful that will never end. Recall last Sunday’s Gospel, “Lord, Lord, open [the banquet] for us.” The symbol of the Eschatological (or final and ultimate) Banquet is used liberally in St. Luke, right on through the Last Supper and the Resurrection appearances at Emmaus and the upper room.
In this Sunday’s Gospel Jesus explains that a faithful banquet host who invites the poor and the crippled will indeed receive an invitation in return—at the resurrection of the righteous. The unstated promise is a place at the Messianic or Eschatological Banquet at the end of time. If you are reading the Gospel of Luke at home, I suggest you continue with Luke 14: 15-24, which continues the banquet theme. In that text a wealthy householder spreads a banquet to which none of his rich friends attend, sending instead a stream of excuses. And, in Chapter 15, we find the famous parable of the Prodigal Son, whose repentance is met by his father’s killing the fatted calf for a feast which the hard-hearted, unforgiving son fails to attend.) Luke, it seems, likes his meals.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 13: 22-30
TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
Jesus passed through towns and villages,
teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem.
Someone asked him,
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
He answered them,
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.
After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door,
then will you stand outside knocking and saying,
‘Lord, open the door for us.’
He will say to you in reply,
‘I do not know where you are from.
And you will say,
‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’
Then he will say to you,
‘I do not know where you are from.
Depart from me, all you evildoers!’
And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth
when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
and all the prophets in the kingdom of God
and you yourselves cast out.
And people will come from the east and the west
and from the north and the south
and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.
For behold, some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.
This Sunday’s Gospel is just as disturbing as last weekend’s, when Jesus talked about bringing fire to the earth and divisions among families. This text is also an apocalyptic or future oriented sermon from Jesus, but in the Gospel of Luke’s full text it is divided from last week’s text by another curious incident that explains the anger of Jesus and the division he caused. The story in point is Luke 13: 10-21, in which Jesus is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath, and a profoundly crippled woman comes into Jesus’ line of vision. Luke notes parenthetically that she had suffered for eighteen years. Jesus immediately heals her, and Luke reports that “she began praising God.” However, the chief of the synagogue is described as indignant, complaining that there were six days on which “work ought to be done” and he scolds the crowd to come on those days for curing, and not the Sabbath.
One can imagine Jesus’ rage on many levels, not least of which being the cruelty of making a long-suffering woman wait another day for relief. The overarching obscenity here is the entire theological basis of worship: if the Sabbath is not a fitting day for God to break the chains of suffering of a faithful child of Abraham, then what exactly was the purpose of the Sabbath in the first place? Jesus indulges himself, so to speak, in pointed sarcasm, observing that his critics water their precious animals on the Sabbath with impunity.
This is the context of Sunday’s Gospel. Jesus is back on the road heading for Jerusalem and the final showdown, perhaps energized by the previous synagogue encounter, to tackle the paralysis of his Jewish faith head on. This is, as I mentioned, an apocalyptic text, meaning that in some way it provides a picture of future days or even the final days. Thus, the question of “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” is very appropriate, as it is now quite evident in Luke that the battle lines are being drawn between the status quo and the arrival of the Kingdom. All the same, Joel Green comments that the question about who will be saved in the future is answered by Jesus in the present text, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.”
Green concedes that Jesus’ answer is not exactly comforting to the questioner. Green writes that “asked concerning how few are being saved, [Jesus] remarks instead about on how many will not be saved.” (Joel Green, p. 530) Jesus goes on to warn that his followers must strive now, for “seeking to enter in the future is futile.” Appropriate for this Olympics week, the word strive has overtones of athletic struggle.
Not to be lost here is the reality that once the door of opportunity is closed, there will be many left outside who really believed they had a chance, or even the right, to make the final cut. (This passage always troubles me personally.) The expectation of the Christian reader—then and today—is that the first to be admitted [to the messianic banquet of salvation described by the Prophet Isaiah) would be the children of Abraham. However, Luke depicts Jesus as extending the cohort of expectations, making room for those who by faith and deed demonstrate that they have truly embraced his words, his preaching. The Good Samaritan type comes to mind. Note, too, that the teaching here in this reading is directed to “you,” i.e. those in his immediate hearing, and in the present tense, a clever way of saying “the future [judgment] is now.”
The image of salvation as a heavenly banquet is common in both testaments. Green points out that along with the expected cast of elders in the new banquet kingdom—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob—the guest list includes the Hebrew prophets. In Jesus’ day the classical prophets were remembered, of course, if not imitated in the breech. But in their own times, given their powerful and disruptive moral message, the prophets of Israel fared poorly in terms of treatment by their confreres of religious heritage. Some were killed, others moved about in the margins of the mainstream life of Israel. Luke reminds his readers often that Jesus, and John the Baptist for that matter, were of the prophetic stream and vision. Luke is strongly implying in our Sunday text that those who fail see and heed Jesus in his prophetic role will be excluded from the banquet in favor of those who listened. [In the next Lukan sequence, Jesus describes Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets….”] (Luke 13:34)
The inclusion of peoples from all four points of the compass may be a reference to the Christian mission among the Gentiles, at least a generation old when Luke composed his Gospel. It may also be a reference to the apocalyptic scene from Isaiah 60, read each year on the Feast of the Epiphany, where nations stream from the entire earth to worship in Jerusalem, bearing gifts on their camels. The idea of unclean Gentiles admitted—welcomed! —to the eternal banquet of salvation was indeed an incredible gesture of God, and many despised Jesus for daring to suggest it. When George Washington and the American colonists upset the British at Yorktown in 1781 and essentially guaranteed our freedom as a new nation, legend has it that the British band played “The World Turned Upside Down.” For many in Israel in Jesus’ day, and many more of all faiths or no faiths today, the core message of the Christ would indeed turn the world upside down.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 12: 49-53
TWENTIETH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
Jesus said to his disciples:
“I have come to set the earth on fire,
and how I wish it were already blazing!
There is a baptism with which I must be baptized,
and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!
Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division.
From now on a household of five will be divided,
three against two and two against three;
a father will be divided against his son
and a son against his father,
a mother against her daughter
and a daughter against her mother,
a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”
Next Sunday’s Gospel is a good example of why it is critical to read an entire Gospel—as in the case of St. Luke--cover-to-cover. I noticed on my recent trip that many hotels still stock the Gideon Bible in the bedside drawer. The Gideons, a lay society dedicated to putting the Bible in the hands of every person in the world, have distributed two billion such texts over the years. I am always taken with the addendum to the sacred text in the Gideon translation, recommendations for what texts to read when you are lonely, broke, depressed, tempted, etc. I have no doubt that such devotional use of the Scriptures in general is widespread and certainly to be encouraged.
That said, it is important to underscore again and again that the Gospels were written to deliver a specific message of salvation. Put another way, Luke and the other evangelists were devoted to a mission that transcended my particular existential stresses; like Mohammed, I must go to the mountain and not the other way around. This coming Sunday’s Gospel text, taken out of context, can evoke fear, confusion, or skepticism. It is probably not a suggested text in the Gideon Bible for those in stress, though if you are reading this from your room in a Hampton Inn, you could help us all by checking.
Joel Green, in our source commentary, points out that the dire future predictions of Jesus pitting family member versus family member seem totally at odds with the Infancy narratives earlier in the Lukan text, where the child born in Bethlehem is hailed as a prince of peace. How do we square this identification of the child Jesus with the preacher who seeks to become an agent of fire and division? Green points out that there are many clues in St. Luke, even in the bucolic Lukan Christmas stories, that suggest the divisiveness of Jesus. When Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the temple, the old prophet Simeon tells them that this child would be the cause of the rise and fall of many, and that “a sword of sorrow” would pierce Mary’s heart. Even at this early stage, the Gospel is taking on a cast more appropriate to “Braveheart” than “Mary Poppins.”
The passages of St. Luke most remembered to a casual reader are the heart-warming parables of extraordinary generosity and forgiveness. The Good Samaritan comes to mind, for example, but in examining this passage closely, Jesus is creating a major rift in contemporary Jewish life. The two wayfarers who pass by the injured man are very likely doing so for “religious” reasons. They are, respectively, a priest and a Levite (official caretaker of Temple worship); handling a bloodied man who may even have appeared dead to them would have rendered them temporarily unclean for Temple service.
So what would a hearer of that parable—particularly a Jewish official—take away from it? (1) The introduction of open-ended charity proclaimed by Jesus far exceeded the legal prescriptions of Jewish Law as it was interpreted at that time; (2) the demands of charity far outweigh the codes of liturgy; (3) the despised Samaritan is actually holier than the clergy, and (4) in the final analysis, what is the ultimate value of a religious system that has no room for the most basic works of mercy, providing first aid to a broken man? We do not need Luke to spell out the divisive nature of the preaching and deeds of Jesus.
In the Sunday text Jesus speaks of his baptism; although he speaks in the present and future tense, he is in all likelihood referring to his baptismal washing by John the Baptist. Jesus was a disciple of John originally, and for the rest of his life his preaching would echo the Baptist’s, who warned of a rapidly coming day of judgment. Jesus evidently understood his baptism as a commissioning to make this new kingdom of his Father present in the here and now. The opening words of Sunday’s text express Jesus’ zeal to ignite the world now, and his frustration that the world is not already blazing. [In the text that follows Sunday’s reading, Jesus chides his audience for its failure to “read the signs.”]
The description of divided families in this text carries multiple meanings. Green understands the primary meaning as an explanation of the personal transformation that occurs when embracing the life and message of Jesus. [Interestingly, St. Paul had written earlier in one of his letters that a converted Christian married to an unbeliever could separate from the marriage. In Canon Law today, this exception is known as the “Pauline Privilege.”] I agree with Green, but I would add the thought that the family fractures may also be references to religious breaks in Judaism as many Jews were baptized into the Christian community. By the time this Gospel was written (80-85 A.D.) the city of Jerusalem had been leveled by the Romans, and popular belief had it that the Roman destruction was God’s punishment for the majority of Jews refusing to recognize Jesus as savior.
In looking over the entirety of Luke’s Gospel, particularly its episodes of mercy and forgiveness, the thought strikes me that the “newness” of Jesus and the Kingdom resided in its new definition of the exercise of forgiveness and outreach to the poor. There was shock value in his forgiving a sinful woman who publicly anointed him at a banquet; those in attendance tut-tutted that were Jesus truly a prophet, he would know the nature of the woman and never allow her to touch him. In fact, he was and he did, and this was enough to drive a sword through a complacent status quo.
NEXT SUNDAY’S READING: NINETEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
LUKE 12: 32-48
USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock,
for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.
Sell your belongings and give alms.
Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out,
an inexhaustible treasure in heaven
that no thief can reach nor moth destroy.
For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.
“Gird your loins and light your lamps
and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding,
ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.
Blessed are those servants
whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival.
Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself,
have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them.
And should he come in the second or third watch
and find them prepared in this way,
blessed are those servants.
Be sure of this:
if the master of the house had known the hour
when the thief was coming,
he would not have let his house be broken into.
You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect,
the Son of Man will come.”
Then Peter said,
“Lord, is this parable meant for us or for everyone?”
And the Lord replied,
“Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward
whom the master will put in charge of his servants
to distribute the food allowance at the proper time?
Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing so.
Truly, I say to you, the master will put the servant
in charge of all his property.
But if that servant says to himself,
‘My master is delayed in coming,’
and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants,
to eat and drink and get drunk,
then that servant’s master will come
on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour
and will punish the servant severely
and assign him a place with the unfaithful.
That servant who knew his master’s will
but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will
shall be beaten severely;
and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will
but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating
shall be beaten only lightly.
Much will be required of the person entrusted with much,
and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”
In my first reading of the Sunday text for today’s post, I was a bit taken back by how truly different Luke’s Gospel is from those before and after. There are a number of episodes in the Lukan narrative that appear only in this Gospel. These stand in stark contrast to such events as Jesus’ baptism, the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the ministry of John the Baptist, and of course the Last Supper and Crucifixion. There are no parallels, however, to the stories of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, or the texts we have this weekend, which are found exclusively in St. Luke and in some way or other take their form from the inspiration of this unique evangelist.
What is the source material for the Gospels, period? The easy answer—and one that would be correct—is the historical life of Jesus of Nazareth. The earliest accounts of Jesus are not available to us in historical format. Jesus’ life and deeds were most likely passed down orally at the Eucharistic breaking of bread and the earliest preaching of Christian witnesses. There is strong sentiment among scholars that a trace of this pre-Gospel, oral tradition was the inspiration for Peter’s famous speech on Pentecost, an account written in the 80’s AD.
Thus, the earliest Gospel template might have looked something like this in its earliest oral form:
[Acts Chapter 2] 22 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him…...33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear… 36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
With this sort of template, coupled with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, St. Mark crafted the first written Gospel probably before 70 A.D., and his basic outline served as the model for the three that would follow. Scholars in the last few centuries have noticed that St. Matthew and St. Luke have material in common that is not found in St. Mark, and this has led to a hypothesis about another independent “Q” source; “Q” coming from the German word for source. That said, there are Gospel texts unique to each evangelist—Matthew and Luke describe the Infancy events quite differently, for example. And many of the texts we have been reading in this summer’s series from the Lukan narrative are unique unto themselves. What can we say about Luke’s approach to writing his Gospel the way he did?
The best estimates place the time of the Gospel’s composition as around 80-85 A.D. and its place of composition the city of Antioch in Syria. Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire and certainly one of its most affluent. Given that the Church had some years under its belt by the time of Luke’s writing, the Syrian congregation took note of the fact that God had turned his favor from the Chosen People of Israel to the new children of the Kingdom. But they were astute enough to ask: if God turned his favor from Israel to Christianity, could He not do the same thing in some future time to them?
The Sunday Gospel reading is actually divided into two themes. The first paragraph is one of reassurance. Luke tells the Antiochene Church that it has “pleased the father” to give them the kingdom, and that they can trust the Father not to leave them in the lurch. The next paragraph emphasizes watchfulness, but in a remarkable demonstration of the Lord’s goodness, the parable narrates how the master, upon his return, with serve the servants, so to speak. This paragraph reinforces the first, that the master—the Father—is pleased to amaze and pleasure his subjects by a level of generosity that few, if any, could have imagined.
The final segment gives us a clue as to why the Antioch Syrians might be skittish about their commitment. It is well established in the text by now that the Master is good, but what about the stewards left in charge while the Master is away? In our tale here, they are bullies who beat the men and women servants and gorge themselves on meat and drink. When the Master does return, these abusive stewards will be severely chastised. What is the message here, and who are the wicked stewards? The Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990) makes the case that these stewards are erstwhile churchmen whose conduct has made life hard for the faithful awaiting the Master. There is certainly precedent for this interpretation in St. Paul’s earlier letters, notably 1 Corinthians. In this letter Paul chastises the Christians there for the shameful conduct of their Eucharistic meals. Wouldn’t it make sense that Paul’s corrective words would be most immediately directed to the unnamed leaders of the local church and presiders over the Eucharist?
Luke’s unique depiction of Jesus’ words and teaching combine the reassurance of God’s eternal blessings while interweaving a warning message about the need for the Church’s leaders, most of all, to live in worthiness for a place of honor in the banquet of the everlasting kingdom.