Initial thoughts on the text for “He Will Come and Serve”
A sermon on Luke 12:35-40 (ESV)
New Year’s Eve, 31 December 2017
Most of our popular English translations use the same word “master” in verses 36, 37 and 39. The ESV, NIV, NKJV and NASB all translate in these three verses with “master.” Verse 36 shows men who are waiting for “their master,” a possessive. Verse 37 speaks of “the master” who finds the servants awake when he comes back from his journey. Verse 39 issues a word of caution that if the “master of the house” knew when the thief was coming, he would defend his house and not allow such a thief entry. At a casual glance, there is continuity here. Our English translations seem to understand the “master of the house” in verse 39 as the same “master” in 36-37. And perhaps he is. It can be understood that way, especially in our English versions. But perhaps we ought not…
Actually, Luke uses two different Greek words here. The first two times (36 & 37), the text says “κύριος” from which we get the latinized English word “Kyrie.” Those familiar with the liturgy might recognize this ancient canticle we so often sing: “Lord” have mercy. “Lord” in Greek often translates the divine, personal Hebrew name of God. It can also be used as a common noble or ruler, which normally we would not capitalize in the middle of a sentence: “lord.” Both verses 36 and 37 have this “κύριος” word. It could be rendered “master,” but Jesus might be using a bit of a play on words or an interpretive allusion to the Lord God personally.
Then verse 39 uses a different term: “οἰκοδεσπότης,” translated with four English words “master of the house.” That’s a good and literal way to express the compound Greek word “housemaster” (oikos + despotes) in English. Here in 39 the “master of the house ” doesn’t know when the thief is coming, therefore “the master of the house” is unable to stop the thief. At the very least, there has been a sharp, hair-pin turn in Jesus’ language and thought here. Understanding the “master of the house” as the Lord God who doesn’t keep watch nor prevent the thief’s entrance presents problems, not just theologically–but textually because of the change in vocabulary. All the more so as Jesus seems to identify the suddenness of the Son of Man’s (that is, Jesus’ own) return as rather thief-like in verse 40. One of these “masters” is not like the others.
Jesus lays out a double-edged, Law-Gospel contrast for his disciples. The first reason for the disciples to keep watch is eager anticipation of their lord’s return and that blessed, surprising service He offers to His servants! But Jesus changed direction here as He teaches His disciples, adding a second reason to stay alert and keep watch–namely the secrecy and suddenness of His return. His undetected arrival will have a stark downside for those who are found derelict in their sacred duty to keep watch.
We’re not the only ones to struggle with this sudden change of direction and terms from the “lord” to the “master of the house.” Peter pipes up at once and asks in verse 41:
So Jesus clarifies things for them with a further illustration (see Luke 12:42-48) of the advantages for dutiful servants and disadvantages for derelict servants. Still, for this coming Sunday, our attention will be focused more narrowly on 35-40. There, those who are watchful and ready find a positive and exciting surprise when their master returns. He himself puts the servants into a master’s role and place, making them recline at table and personally proceeds to serve them! Twice Jesus repeats His pronouncement: “Blessed are those servants!” (v.37-38)
The good news for us rests in that Jesus who returns to serve His watchful servants. He bids them lounge and take their ease while He tends to them as the Servant. There’s no demand that they get to work now that the master is home, but rather they must cease all their works and in stead simply receive His work and service performed now for them. So it goes with Jesus, who announces a great reversal of fortunes and most fortunate blessing for His faithful. All the waiters’ waiting is done! Jesus takes all the weight off their shoulders–and feet–bidding them rest and receive their food and drink by His own hand.
This passage brings to mind that upper room in John 13, where the Lord first served His supper to His disciples. He begins the evening taking off His outer garment and putting on the servant’s role. He washes their feet, cleansing them by the work of His own hands. Their objections are gently met with His insistence, ‘Just let Me do this for you.’ The Lord tells Peter there, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” (John 13:8) That’s ever our Lord’s way, serving His own servants in love.
In the meantime, as we keep watch, Christ bids his servants to “do this often.” They are instructed while they wait “to give them their portion of food at the proper time.” (Luke 12:42) So take and eat and drink from His hand, at His command and glad invitation in this New Year, while we keep watch together. In Christ,
Luke 12:35-40 (ESV)
35 “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, 36 and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants! 39 But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”