PassageJesus ended the last passage by telling his listeners not to worry, God will look after them. This passage continues on from there, as part of the same conversation; although they are not to worry, Jesus now tells them that they should always be ready, like servants waiting for their master to come home from a wedding feast. He expands on this simile at length, saying that if the “master” comes home—at any time of the day or night—and finds his servants waiting and ready for him, then they will be blessed. However, the master could return at an unexpected time—like a thief in the night—and so the servants should therefore be prepared at all times.
Peter then asks Jesus to whom he’s relating the parable; to the disciples, or to everyone? In verses 42–48 (ESV), Jesus seems to be avoiding the question, in telling another parable, but he brings it back to Peter’s question before too long. The next parable goes like this (heavily paraphrased):
- Imagine that the master has put a manager in charge of the feeding of the household, and then leaves that manager to it and goes away
- When the master comes back, if the manager is faithfully executing those duties, then s/he will be blessed, and the master will put that manager in charge of all of his possessions
- On the other hand, if the manager presumes that the master isn’t coming back any time soon, and starts beating the other servants and eating and getting drunk—I assume this means that the manager is stealing food meant for the other servants; otherwise, it just means neglecting the duties—then the master will return at a day and hour when the manager is not expecting him, and “cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful.”
- If the servant knew his master’s will, but ignored it, then that servant will receive a severe beating
- If the servant did not know his master’s will, but did something that deserved the beating, then he’ll still get beat, but it will be a light beating
- He then leaves the metaphor and talks clearly: “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.”
After this, Jesus goes into what seems like a bit of a non-sequitor; he stops talking about the unexpectedness of his return to talk about the fact that he has come to bring division to the earth, not peace. He says that he came “to cast fire upon the earth,” and wishes that it were already kindled (verse 49 (ESV)), and then goes on to tell his listeners that not only is he going to bring division, but that division will even be down to the level of dividing particular households: fathers and sons divided against each other, and mothers and daughters, and mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. Christianity is not inherited; there are many families in which some members are Christians and others aren’t, and there has been much emotional turmoil and suffering because of this. There is a very real sense in which Jesus brings peace between humans and God—a very real peace—and he’s rightfully known as a peacemaker for that reason, but there is another very real sense in which even that peace will bring a different kind of division, between those who are saved and those who aren’t.
But after this aside, Jesus goes back to talking about dates and times. He calls his listeners hypocrites, because they know how to look at their surroundings and use that knowledge to predict the weather, and yet they are not able to interpret the present time—the long-awaited Messiah, the one who is being sent to save Israel (not to mention the gentiles), has arrived! They were supposed to be anticipating this day, yet they’re better at interpreting weather than Scripture.
And finally, he brings things back to where the conversation started, but with a different metaphor:
“And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.” (verses 57–59 (ESV))This passage started with Jesus advocating that his listeners think of themselves as servants, awaiting their master’s return: be prepared, because he could be back at any moment, so you shouldn’t be caught off guard. But let’s be clear: everyone has sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God, so this next metaphor gets even closer to the heart of the matter: if you have done wrong, try to settle up with the authorities before it’s too late—that is, if you have sinned, you need to settle up with God before it’s too late. The problem is that you can never “pay the last penny,” except for spending an eternity apart from God (that is: hell). The solution, however, is that Jesus can “pay the fine” on your behalf.
ThoughtsThere are a whole bunch of things to say about this passage, so I’m going to take the unusual step of putting sub-headings here.
Like a Thief in the NightThe parable/simile around servants waiting for their master gets a little confusing when Jesus starts talking about a thief in the night, because the focus of the parable changes: he starts out talking about how his listeners (and we) should regard ourselves as servants, whose master could return at any time, but then switches to talking about the master being prepared for a thief:
“Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, 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. 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. If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants! 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. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (verses 35–40 (ESV), emphasis added)However, the point being made is one and the same: we should be prepared, because Jesus could return at any moment. He could return like our master returning from a wedding feast, or he could return like a thief in the night—either way, whichever metaphor you prefer, he could come back at a time when we’re not expecting him, so we should be expecting him always.
Severity of JudgementsIt’s tricky to talk about God holding some to a higher standard than others, in the context of Jesus’ parable, because Jesus is talking about the servants being punished for disobeying their master. The easy equivalency would be to make this a one-to-one comparison: we will all be punished for our sins, but those who know the will of God and sin anyway will be punished more harshly than those who don’t know the will of God and sin. Except… that’s not really true, is it? True Christians know the will of God better than anyone, and yet we’re not going to be punished at all for our sins—Jesus has already taken that punishment! So we can’t just take this parable and directly apply it to punishment in a like-for-like manner. However, it is true that the more you know about God’s will, the higher your level of accountability. A related point is made in the book of James:
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1 (ESV))James is talking to Christians here, so he can’t be telling them that they’re going to be punished for their sins—that would contradict the Bible’s teachings about Jesus having been punished on behalf of Christians—but he is telling them that teachers will be judged with greater strictness than non-teachers. Putting these two passages together, we see that there are different levels of “strictness of judgement” that will be applied to people, depending on circumstances: how well a person knows the will of God, and what type of a role (e.g. teacher) that person is playing in God’s Church.
To my knowledge, this type of “judgement” isn’t specifically explained in the Bible. I would say that it can’t refer to punishment for our sins, because of the work Jesus has already done on the cross. (Perhaps this could be part of the basis for Catholics’ teaching on purgatory; if we know that Jesus was punished for our sins—so a true Christian is definitely going to spend eternity with God, no matter what sins are committed—yet the Bible also talks about judgement for sins, then what could that mean? I don’t have enough knowledge of the history of Christianity to know if that’s really where the concept of purgatory comes from, but it seems related.) So there are a few thoughts I have on what this could be referring to:
- It could be referring to the severity of Jesus’ punishment on the cross, for the sins I commit. This doesn’t feel likely to me, but just following the logic of the question about what type of judgement is being talked about—and the context of this passage in Luke 12 where Jesus is talking about servants of the master being punished—it’s an option.
- This teaching could be the other side of the coin: not the severity of the punishment, but the amount of reward.
- This could be something much more nebulous, and hard to put your finger on. The “punishment” or “reward” could really just be a measure of how good our relationship is with God. All Christians have experienced times when their relationship with God felt very good, very solid, and other times when God seemed very remote; it’s possible this is what is being referred to.
- Matthew 5:46 (ESV) indicates that there will be no reward if you love those who love you—indicating that there is a reward if you do better
- Matthew 6:1–4 (ESV) talks about giving to the needy, and says that when you do so in secret the Father will reward you
- Matthew 6:19–24 (ESV) talks about laying up treasures in heaven, which sounds like rewards to me
- Matthew 10:40–42 (ESV) talks explicitly about rewards
- Mark 9:41 (ESV) talks about rewards for those who give a cup of water to Christians
- Luke 6:22–23 (ESV) says that our reward will be great in heaven when people hate and exclude and revile us on account of Jesus
- 1 Corinthians 3:14 (ESV) says that those who build up the Church will be rewarded (another huge paraphrase)
All that to say, when Jesus is talking about stricter judgements, it could mean less rewards.
Not Peace but DivisionVerse 49 (ESV) is interesting:
“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!”To what is Jesus referring, here? The easy answer is that he’s talking about His pending return, which we commonly call Judgement Day. The ESV Study Bible takes a different approach, saying that Jesus is probably referring to the “refining fire of division between believers and unbelievers,” but I find it hard to get behind them on this one. Based on the context (when Jesus has been talking about severe and light “beatings”—judgement and punishment), as well as the tortured grammar they had to go through to come up with that phrase, I’m kind of leaning toward the “easy” answer, and think that he’s probably referring to His return. It’s true that there’s a sense in which God wants to delay that day as long as possible, not wishing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9 (ESV)), but it’s also true that, after that day, there will be no more sin, and God’s children can therefore have a better, deeper relationship with Him.
Regardless of this, when Jesus goes on to talk about divisions even within families, it should be clear (based on the rest of the Scriptures) that Christians are not to be the ones who are causing problems. The very fact that some people become believers (especially in families of unbelievers) will cause strife, as the rest of the family wishes that the believers weren’t believers, but, as with anything else, there’s a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things. There is a way of coming to faith in Jesus, and living your life as a Christian, that will exacerbate the strife, and there is a way of doing so that will minimize it. Jesus is saying, “because some people are called to faith, and others aren’t, there will be divisions,” but he’s not saying, “I’ve called you to be believers, so go stir up trouble with the unbelievers!”