35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit, 36 like people waiting for their master’s return after a wedding feast; so that when he comes and knocks, they will open the door for him without delay. 37 Happy the slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes! Yes! I tell you he will put on his work clothes, seat them at the table, and come serve them himself! 38 Whether it is late at night or early in the morning, if this is how he finds them, those slaves are happy.39 “But notice this: no house-owner would let his house be broken into if he knew when the thief was coming. 40 You too, be ready! For the Son of Man will come when you are not expecting him.”
41 Kefa said, “Sir, are you telling this parable for our benefit only or for everyone’s?” 42 The Lord replied, “Now, who is the faithful and sensible manager whose master puts him in charge of the household staff to give them their share of food at the proper time? 43 It will go well with that servant if he is found doing his job when his master comes. 44 Yes, I tell you he will put him in charge of all he owns. 45 But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking his time coming,’ and starts bullying the men- and women-servants, and eating and drinking, getting drunk, 46 then his master will come on a day when the servant isn’t expecting him, at a time he doesn’t know in advance; his master will cut him in two and put him with the disloyal. 47 Now the servant who knew what his master wanted but didn’t prepare or act according to his will, will be whipped with many lashes; 48 however, the one who did what deserves a beating, but didn’t know, will receive few lashes. From him who has been given much, much will be demanded — from someone to whom people entrust much, they ask still more.
Contrary to all speculation on the topic, Jesus’ authentic teaching professes ignorance as to when he will return as Son of Man, the representative of God’s humane Rule; indeed his teaching is based on this ignorance. My guess is that the first believers may have expected his swift return, while later generations of believers conscious of the lapse of time, lengthened their view of the worldly future, while not abandoning hope in the return of Jesus. This change may very well have influenced the precise wording of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels.
A feature that may seem odd to modern readers is the frequency with which Jesus told stories about slaves. Slavery was taken for granted in the Roman Empire, and had been for many centuriesinstitutionalised in the ancient near east. Civilised society without slavery was not deemed practical as the free labour of slaves was needed to produce the surplus wealth that supported the lives of the “civilised” middle and upper classes. The Torah teaching limited the use of slavery in Israel and provided in its Jubilee legislation a command to free slaves every 50th year, but there is no evidence that Jewish society in Jesus’ time was any less dependent on slavery than the rest of the Empire. Nor is there any record at all of Jesus condemning it. Those who imagine Jesus had a son of God implant in his brain which freed him from the human errors of his time, would do well to ponder his many cheerful references to slaves, which are often concealed in English translations that render the Greek word doulos as ‘servant.’ In this translation above the ordinary slaves are called slaves, while the foreman is called a servant.
The first picture Jesus gives assumes the master is at a wedding feast (this may be a reference to the messianic banquet in heaven) and his slaves await his return. He may come back late but if his slaves are up and expecting his arrival, he will treat them like slaves no longer but put on his working clothes and serve them. This emphasises readiness as the chief virtue of the community of disciples. Others may live as they wish, but Jesus’ people expect his return. That kind of expectation seems to me to have vanished from all Christian communities except those regarded by the mainstream as loopy. It is therefore an issue that requires serious thought, and one to which I will return.
Jesus’ second picture is given in response to Peter’s question, in effect saying that his words are especially aimed at his disciples, that is, at the managers or foremen of his household slaves. Doubtless the scenario outlined by Jesus was common enough. The prolonged absence of the master might tempt an overseer into using his authority to bully others and satisfy his own desires. Jesus reminds his hearers what to expect from the outraged master if he catches someone abusing authority. The disciples are forcefully reminded that the special privilege of authority does not mean they are no longer slaves. It only means that they will be held to account and punished more severely than ordinary slaves. Abusive clergy should take note.
In between the two pictures is another, which does not rest on the institution of slavery. It reminds people that the Son of Man will come like a thief in the night, to ransack the householder’s property. In this case, as in other uses of this image, the householder is the Ruler of the World, the Enemy, whom Jesus comes back to destroy. If the Enemy can’t forestall that return, Jesus’ slaves will surely also be taken by surprise. Be on your toes, is the message.