Rev. Matthias Peterson-Brandt
August 11th, 2019
In college I studied English, but I particularly loved poetry (and still do). I can remember my poetry professor talking about the need for a consistent and lucid metaphor in poetry. Pick an image and stick with it. If you start out with one metaphor and then change it up, you just create confusion and what you are hoping to convey with your poem gets garbled. There are poets who manage to finesse their way between metaphors within the same poem, but it is a hard feat to pull off. To this day frustrates me to come across a mixed metaphor. It just strikes me as sloppy.
In today’s passage, Jesus is tying his metaphors and images into a big, unruly knot. He isn’t speaking in poetry, to be fair, but all the same, the result is a confusing mess. In the first part, Jesus tells us that we should sell all our possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Where your treasure is there your heart will be also. Don’t heap up stuff that can be stolen by thieves or eaten by moths. Instead, we should store up treasure in the kingdom of God.
Now in the second part, Jesus explains that we should always be on the ready, lamps trimmed and our clothes girded for action, as slaves might await the master’s return from a wedding banquet late into the night. We are to be awake, aware, and ready for the arrival. Jesus likely alludes to himself in speaking about the master coming at an unknown hour and rewarding his faithful servants for their attentiveness.
The third part is where things get sticky. Here, Jesus says that if the home owner knows when a thief will break in, she or he will be ready and not let the thief break in in the first place. In this instance, it seems that Jesus is comparing himself to a thief in the night. He uses the phrase “Son of Man,” which the wide majority of scholars agree is a way for Jesus to refer to himself. So here, Jesus comes as unexpectedly as a thief in the night. Now confusion is in full tilt.
Jesus is a thief in the night, but in the first section he warned that we ought to store up treasure where thieves cannot get it. But if Jesus is the thief, what does that mean? On top of that, Jesus is compared to a master coming home from a wedding feast, likely in a jovial mood and ready to reward the faithfully alert servants, but on the other hand, Jesus comes like a thief in the night. Well, one of these images has good connotations and one has frightening connotations, so which is it? And why would he use the analogy of someone alert and protecting their home and possessions from a thief if in the first instance, he says to sell all our stuff and invest in God instead?
As you can imagine, this exasperates me like no other because within six verses, Jesus has so confounded the thing as to make his instructions nearly too muddled to make any sense at all. It’s like three animals tangled together by their tails, so they are connected somehow, but each pulling in a different direction. I find myself wanting to say to Jesus, I love you, but you’d make a lousy poet.
So in trying to figure out how to untangle this messy passage, I wondered what would happen if we pick out key themes as a starting point and unravel the meaning from there. One clear theme seems to be about possessions. Perhaps the clearest thing Jesus says in all this passage is: “Sell your belongings and give to the poor.” Instead we are to place our value in God, where nothing earthly can take it away. None of us, I wager, is going to leave this service and sell all our possessions, but that is the type of detachment Jesus asks us for.
The other theme that seems to stand out is the call to be ready, to be alert and prepared. Though the two metaphors clash a bit—master of the house vs. thief in the night—in each instance, Jesus admonishes us: be ready, be awake, and alert. Stay woke, as it were.
If we are too attached to our possessions, it inhibits our ability to be ready for those sacred moments where Jesus shows up in our lives. That is where these two themes intersect. It is not a question of having our belongings ready to evacuate at the drop of a hat. The preparation Jesus is calling for is a readiness of heart. Where is your heart really? What do you value really? Is it money, what we guard in our homes with deadbolts or alarm systems? Or is it the less tangible things?
A friend of my mom’s once left town on vacation. While he was away, his apartment building caught on fire and burned down completely. Though he was safe, it felt like a huge blow. As he sorted through the process of putting his life back together, renters insurance kicked in, and there were some funds from the property company for replacement of his possessions. After his initial what the heck?!, he said it was great. His apartment had been a hodge podge of hand-me-down furniture from former room mates or family members, stuff accumulated along the way of his life, some stuff from his grandmother’s inheritance. There was stuff he hadn’t looked at in forever, stuff he couldn’t even remember if he still had or not when he was inventorying all his losses for the insurance company. So for the first time in his life, he had this freedom. He could decide what would go into his new home, and he did so with care and intention asking himself what he liked, asking himself: do I love this item, is it useful?
Christ exhorts us to an alignment of values and readiness. If we are not prepared, though our hearts might be bursting with compassion, then our actions come our sloppy or for lack of preparation, we do nothing at all, or we act too late.
On the other hand, if we are attentive and ready, but our values rest squarely on the shoulders of the material, we create an unstable, and likely dangerous situation. This is not too unlike armed vigilante groups which patrol the U.S. Mexican border. Our preparedness when rooted in a sense of entitlement to our things, “our” land, our stuff, leads us in a direction antithetical to the kingdom proclaimed by Christ.
Instead of a paradigm wherein we try to appropriate as many belongings as we can, Jesus message about where our worth lies invites us to see ourselves as belonging to God. Where we belong and to whom is far more important than what belongs to us. That we belong to God, not as possessions of a cosmic tyrant, but as family belongs to one another, as beloved to beloved, as we each belong to one another as members of the human family. That is the belonging Christ calls us to be alert to.
In one another we glimpse Christ, and in that recognize our belonging to God, that in that broad embrace of belonging is what is important. As people of faith we affirm that there is so much more treasure in this world than money and stuff, that real value lies in relationships we nurture with God and with one another. We are called to be awake to that reality, open to it, to have our lights on in the night, so to speak, to keep watch for those moments when Christ’s presence is made real to us. Amen.