19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

My Dear People,

Jesus mentions the parable about the servant waiting in order to instruct his disciples to be alert for his coming. He makes his point with short parables about servants awaiting the arrival of the master (vv 35-38), a household owner not knowing when the thief is coming, and a steward in charge of his absent master’s servant (vv. 42-48).

The phrase gird your loins expresses the stance of readiness disciples should have. It means to gather up one’s ankle-length robe and tuck it in at the waist with a belt, so as to be dressed for service (17:8) or travel (1Kings 18:46). The wording here more specifically alludes to the command given to Israel regarding the Passover meal before the exodus: “This is how you are to eat it: with your loin girt” (Exodus 12:11). Jesus’ accompanying command to light your lamps.  (see Luke 8:16; 11:33-36) also fits this connection, since the Passover meal and ensuing flight in the exodus took place that night. That night “was a night of vigil for the Lord, when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, so on this night all Israelites must keep a vigil for the Lord throughout their generations” (Exodus 12:42).  So too Jesus’ disciples must now be vigilant even in the second or third watch—in other words, the middle or latter part of the night. The Passover imagery used to describe waiting for the master’s return is consistent with Jewish expectation that the messiah would come during the meal on Passover night.

Thus, not surprisingly, when the master comes there is a meal, and the watchful servants recline at table. This refers to the messianic banquet, when people “will recline at table in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13;29). The context of a wedding may also suggest the messianic banquet (see comment on 5:33-35). What is surprising, however, is the role reversal, as the master comes not to be served but to serve (see Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45)—that is, to wait on—these doubly blessed servants. At the Last Supper, these words will have an initial fulfillment as Jesus sits “to eat this Passover” meal with his apostles (Luke 22:15), telling them: “I am among you as the one who serves” The Eucharist which Jesus establishes at that meal after his coming to Jerusalem, thus becomes the foretaste and anticipation of the messianic banquet in the kingdom (22:30) at his second coming.

The Son of Man will come, however at an unknown hour (Acts 1:7), so disciples must be prepared. The mention here of the “Son of Man” as an explanation of the preceding sayings identifies Jesus with the “master” whose arrival the servants are awaiting (Luke 12:36-38). In other role reversal, the passage also describes the Son of Man as the thief (see Rev. 3:3; 16:15), the hour of whose coming is not known by the “owner of the house.”

Peter interrupts Jesus with a question: is this parable meant for us (i.e. The Twelve) or for everyone?  The Lord answers with a question of his own: Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge? This is an indirect way of saying that he is especially addressing Peter and the twelve, whom he has chosen for leadership positions in the restored Israel (6:13): 22:29-30). They and those who come after them must serve as “trustworthy” stewards (1 Cor 4:1-2). Like the vigilant servant such a responsible servant leader is blessed, and his master on arrival puts him in charge of all his property. In the Old Testament, Joseph is an example of such a wise servant who was put “in charge” (Gen 39:4-5; 41;33, 41; Acts 7:10). Joseph stored up grain beyond measure and distributed rations in time of famine. Similarly, the wise steward’s task is to distribute the food allowance (measure of grain) at the proper time,  unlike the rich fool who kept the grain for himself, (Luke 1242) this steward is the servant who begins to bat the other servants, to eat and drink like the rich fool and even get drunk. The master who arrives unexpectedly will punish him severely—and will then put him with the unfaithful. This two-step punishment ultimately refers to the judgment of the wicked at Jesus’ second coming, which seems delayed but will come. However, it also can refer to the judgment at the end of a person’s life, involving the death of the body and the casting of the soul into Gehenna (12:5). In the context of Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem with his frequent words of judgment, the warning of punishment here applies more directly to the failed leadership of Israel, who will be at the apostles (11:49; Acts5:40; 23:2) before Jerusalem itself is destroyed by the Romans. These words also serve as a warning to church leaders in every generation who must not abuse the flock (Luke 12:32); see Pet. 5:2) in their charge.

The servant who is derelict in responsibility is punished in proportion to the culpability. The one who knowingly fails to do the master’s will is beaten severely, while the ignorant one who is negligent is beaten only lightly. Hence, to whom more is entrusted, more is demanded.

Those in position of leadership have therefore even more reason to fear God. As St. Augustine says: “I’m terrified by what I am for you, [but] I am given comfort by what I am with you; for you I am a bishop, with you…I am a Christian. The first is the name of an office undertaken, the second a name of grace; that one means danger, this one salvation.” And commenting on this passage in Luke, St. Ambrose writes: “It seems to be set before priests, where they know that they will suffer severe punishment in the future, if intent on worldly pleasure, they have neglected to govern the Lord’s household and the people entrusted to them.”

Yours in Christ,

 Fr. Vincent Clemente


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