Waiting for the master requires vigilance

Published: November 13, 2015

This is the 11th column in a 12-part series.

By Clifford M. Yeary
Associate Director, Little Rock Scripture Study

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“Gird your loins and light your lamps,” Jesus tells his followers in the parable of the vigilant servants awaiting the return of their master (Luke 12:35-40). Typical garments in Jesus’ day were long and bulky, making it easy to trip at any gait above a walk. Girding their loins meant servants who were prepared to act quickly would need to have their robes gathered up between their legs with the excess length tied around their waists. At night, their lamps had to be lit and ready to guide their way.

The master in this parable is returning from a wedding. This is not just any master, and it is not just any wedding. This is the wedding promised by the prophet Isaiah, the wedding that would finally, joyfully, join God as husband to his people Israel.

"No more shall you be called 'forsaken,' nor your land called 'desolate,' but you shall be called 'my delight is in her,' and your land 'espoused.' For the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be espoused. For as a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you" (Isaiah 62:4-5).

The parable begins with servants waiting for their master to return from this most significant wedding. It is his own wedding the master is returning from, which makes the servants’ need for preparedness all the more urgent. A master returning from his wedding is more than prepared to share his joy with his entire household, including his servants.

But if a master returns to his home (with his bride, one would assume) and the servants have done nothing in preparation, or worse, have gotten drunk and sent cruel blows down through the pecking order, the master will find it necessary to punish the servants. In many respects, the parable has a message similar to the parable concerning the wise and foolish virgins (see Matthew 25:1-13). But those told this parable would be surprised to hear that the servants found to be vigilant will be rewarded by way of a dramatic role reversal.

The master will have them recline at table to dine while he becomes their servant by waiting on them. That is no small surprise. In fact, Jesus himself seems to warn his followers against expecting to receive special rewards for faithful service in Luke 17:7-10:

"Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here immediately and take your place at table'? Would he not rather say to him, 'Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished'? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.'"

Looking back at the parable of the Vigilant Servants in Luke 12, however, there is yet another plot twist. Perhaps because the master of this parable has now become servant to the servants, Jesus gives an unusual explanation of the parable: the master of the house needs to be prepared at all times for the thief who will give no warning of when the house will be burgled. No longer is the master the one whose return is expected. The awaited one is now a thief who will come without warning.

These twists are signs that the parable and its interpretation were edited under inspiration to address any in the early Church who might have grown lax in their responsibilities. When Peter asks Jesus whether this parable is directed at the crowds or more specifically to his apostles (12:41), Jesus asks Peter to consider just who the servant is that the master has put in charge of his household. At the Last Supper, Christ tells Peter that his role among the apostles will be to strengthen them (Luke 22:32).

Through all the twists and turns of this parable, a message well suited for all of us during the season of Advent is evident: Be prepared for the coming of the Lord!

Study Questions

  • What is the significance in this parable of the master having been absent because of a wedding?
  • To whom has God asked you to be a servant? What would the characteristics of a faithful servant be in your situation?
  • How does waiting, or the need for patience, affect you in your daily duties?
  • Who are the faithful servants in your life?

This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic Nov. 14, 2015. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.