Life-Styles of an Apocalyptic Commune
During the summer and autumn of every third year (Year C, 2019, 2022, etc.), users of the Revised Common Lectionary hear a lot of Gospel readings from the middle chapters of the Gospel According to Luke. This section of Luke is often called the “Travel” or “Journey” narrative, and it has been surprising, puzzling, and confusing to scholars for over a century. Three of the Lectionary readings in August 2019 were from Luke 12, near the center of this Travel narrative. As I meditated these readings this year, I had a kind of epiphany about this chapter. I share my conclusions in this little study.
Two Big-Picture Issues around Luke 12:
1. Luke’s “Travel Narrative”
2. The Apocalyptic Jesus
I begin with a discussion of the “Travel Narrative” as background to Luke 12. I will save the topic of the Apocalyptic Jesus to the end, to briefly relate my conclusions about Luke 12 to this 20th century issue concerning the “historical Jesus.”
Outline of this Essay
Luke’s Travel Narrative
The Extent of the Travel narrativeThe Content of the Travel narrative
Luke 12 – What’s in It?
1. Seven Sayings in Twelve Verses, 12:1-12
2. Parable of the Rich Fool, 12:13-21
3. The Do Not Worry Speech, -31
4. You Get the Kingdom, So Sell Everything, -34
5. Be Prepared for the Lord’s Coming, 12:35-40
6. Who Is the Prudent Manager…?, -48
7. I Came to Bring Fire…, -53
8. Signs of the Time…, 12:54-59
The Apocalyptic Jesus
What is the Apocalyptic Jesus?
From John the Baptist to the Church
Luke’s Travel Narrative.
In its broadest outline, most scholars would agree that the Gospel According to Luke is structured in six major parts:
- The birth stories of John the Baptist and Jesus, chapters 1-2.
- Jesus’ ministry in and around Galilee, roughly chapters 3-9.
- Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, roughly chapters 10-18 or 19 (see below).
- Jesus’ actions, controversies, and teachings in Jerusalem, chapters 20-21.
- The Passion narrative in Luke, chapters 22-23.
- The Risen Jesus, chapter 24.
(In addition, it should be remembered that “Luke” also wrote the sequel to this Gospel, the scroll called Acts of the Apostles. The two works share writing styles, continuity of story line, and overall religious perspective.)
The Extent of the Travel narrative.
The beginning of the Travel narrative is clear:
“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke , NRSV).
Where the Travel narrative ends is not so clear, and there is an array of scholarly opinions.
There is no itinerary followed in chapters 10 to 18. Jerusalem is mentioned a couple of times, but there is in fact no travel narrated. It is allegedly a long and varied journey, but one that does not in fact get anywhere – until maybe Luke 18:15. In the Galilean part of the Gospel (chapters 3-9), Luke mostly followed the outline of events given in Mark’s Gospel. In the Travel narrative no material is common to Luke and Mark until Luke 18:15. There Mark shows up again as a source followed by Luke. Thus some scholars end the Travel narrative there.
However, Jesus has definitely NOT arrived at Jerusalem yet in Luke 18. He spends some time in Jericho (the Zacchaeus story, 19:1-10) before finally arriving at the Mount of Olives on the east side of Jerusalem, which he does at 19:28. Here at last, many scholars think, the “journey” to Jerusalem is completed!
However, it is not commonly recognized that while Luke does have a “triumphal entry” story, it is NOT INTO JERUSALEM! Jesus arranges a big show, a grand parade, on the Mount of Olives (which is across a deep valley from the city), but the parade stays there:
As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully and with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (19:36-38.)
Then, after all that and a brief argument with the Pharisees,
“As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it…” and went on to lament Jerusalem’s coming destruction, “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” (-44).
ONLY THEN, after the show and lament on the Mount of Olives, do we hear, “Then he entered the temple…”
Understand that he entered from the east (the Mount of Olives), where a major gate went directly into the temple, so entering the temple is also entering the city. (See the geography presented in Psalm 118, the “Hosanna” psalm chanted by the people for Jesus’ triumphal entry in Mark and Matthew.)
Thus, if we follow Luke very strictly, the “Travel” to Jerusalem does not really end until Luke 19:44. Many recent commentators on Luke have recognized this and give the total extent of the “Travel narrative” as Luke .
The Content of the Travel narrative.
As mentioned above, the Travel narrative has no organization by geography, by chronology, or by topic. The geographical references are so careless that at (after 7 chapters of the “journey”) we hear, “On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” “…[T]he region between Samaria and Galilee”? Not only would this be at the very beginning of the journey, it’s equivalent to saying he was in no-man’s-land. There was no “region between Samaria and Galilee,” only a border. No other geographical references in the Travel narrative are much clearer. The “journey” is not about geography – nor is it about stages in an itinerary nor about a logical sequence of teaching topics.
Therefore, most scholars recognize that the “travel/journey narrative” is a literary device for collecting a vast amount of very diverse and very interesting teachings of Jesus.
The journey is a depository of materials not found in Mark, though about half of the teaching in the Travel narrative is also found in Matthew. (This is the Q Sayings Source in critical scholarship, an early collection of mostly Jesus teachings known to both Matthew and Luke, though each used it quite differently.) The remaining material is found only in Luke, with no parallels in Matthew or Mark – materials scholars label “L.”
Many of Luke’s best parables are in this collection – Good Samaritan, the Rich Fool, Prodigal Son, Rich Man and Lazarus, Widow and the non-God-fearing judge, to mention a few. The greater part of Luke’s hard sayings about wealth are here (the prohibition against possessions, ; ; the dishonest manager, 16:1-8; the rich ruler and the eye of the needle, -25). Also teachings about prayer (including the Lord’s prayer), casting out demons by Beelzubul, woes on the Pharisees, no anxiety about food and clothing (consider the lilies), the sudden coming of the day of the son of man.
While teachings predominate, there are some events, such as the mission of the seventy-two disciples (chapter 10) and the Zacchaeus episode (19:1-10).
Many scholars have not resisted the challenge to find an order or pattern in these diverse materials, of course. Various theories of chiastic structures – envelope structures of A-B-C-D-C’-B’-A’ with many convolutions – have been proposed. One theory has it that Luke created a Christian scroll of Deuteronomy, in this section, with teachings corresponding to a sequence of topics found in the Old Testament book. None of these theories has gained any significant following among critical scholars, and they will not be discussed here.
Luke 12 – What’s In It?
Scholars have been reluctant to deal seriously with Luke 12 as a unit. They mostly view it as a series of sayings or collections of sayings – often with connecting links of common words or themes, but not a sustained discourse. In this they are basically right; it is not a sustained discourse. However, I will argue that the sequence of passages has a systematic coherence, the basic message of which is expressed in my title for this chapter.
There is not much controversy about the main parts of the chapter, though there are differences about exactly where to divide some parts.
- Verses 1-12, Seven Sayings in Twelve Verses (my title; see below).
- Verses 13-21, Parable of the Rich Fool.
- Verses 22-31, Do Not Worry speech. (Some include verse 32 here.)
- Verses 32-34, You get the kingdom, so sell everything. (Often merged with verses 22-31.)
- Verses 35-40, Be prepared for the Lord's coming ("Keep your lamps trimmed and burning").
- Verses 41-48, Who is the prudent manager…? (Sometimes merged with verses 35-40.)
- Verses 49-53, I came to bring fire (division), not peace.
- Verses 54-59, Signs of the times and coming to terms before judgment.
Many commentators continue chapter 12 to include 13:1-9, since there is no new heading at the beginning of chapter 13. I don't find this satisfactory. I think chapter 13 is a self-contained unit (a mini-gospel in its own right).
I will now examine each of the successive parts of the chapter.
1. Seven Sayings in Twelve Verses (12:1-12).
Most scholars recognize that this passage is made up of a group of originally independent sayings. This is not a single sustained discourse. Many, however, view the sayings as designed to support a particular theme, such as avoiding hypocrisy, faithfulness in persecution, encouragement to make public witness, or fearlessness in the face of martyrdom. In their commentaries they give this section titles expressing one or another of these themes.
All of these sayings are also found in Matthew. Here is the list:
Saying 1. Luke 12:1 is similar to Matthew 16:6.
Saying 2. Luke 12:2-3 is similar to Matthew 10:26-27.
Saying 3. Luke 12:4-5 is similar to Matthew 10:28.
Saying 4. Luke 12:6-7 is similar to Matthew 10:29-31.
Saying 5. Luke 12:8-9 is similar to Matthew 10:32-33 (also Mark ).
Saying 6. Luke is similar to Matthew (also Mark -29).
Saying 7. Luke 12:11-12 is similar to Matthew 10:19-20 (also Mark ).
Not one of these sayings is unique to Luke. We are dealing with a body of Jesus lore that circulated well before the composition of the current Gospels.
My title for this section is:
Preamble to Life in an Apocalyptic Commune.
"Be Thou My Vision," Mike Moyers, courtesy Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
What Luke 12:1-12 gives us is a set of basic principles that will govern the members of a sectarian community, defined by their unqualified allegiance to Jesus as God’s agent, the Son of Man.
Saying 1. Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy. (12:1b, NRSV.)
The immediately preceding chapter had delivered a massive attack on the Pharisees and the lawyers (Luke -52). Included in that harangue was this: “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness” (). Clearly an indictment of them as hypocrites, though the terms hypocrites and hypocrisy are not used in chapter 11. Nevertheless, that chapter 11 passage may be in the background of the “hypocrisy” statement in 12:1.
However, in a much bigger picture, for a couple of centuries the Pharisees had believed and taught that people would be resurrected to judgment after death. (Resurrection belief in the second century
is seen in Daniel 12:2 and II Maccabees 7.)
Others did not believe in the resurrection – the Sadducees conspicuously
(Luke 20:27-38). That is to say, next to
Jesus and his disciples, the Pharisees were the only other game in town, when
it came to dealing with life after death.
(The Essenes, who had similar beliefs, are not mentioned in the New
Though the Jesus followers and the Pharisees were in the same business – showing ways to be saved in God’s judgment – Jesus warns the disciples to stay away from the way the Pharisees do it. They, Jesus says, do not live up to what they preach! (Not to mention they do not recognize who Jesus is.)
Saying 2. Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the rooftops. (12:2-3.)
Commentators commonly take this saying as an elaboration on the hypocrisy-of-the-Pharisees statement preceding, and it will certainly fit that reading. That is, this is a further warning to the disciples: don’t follow the hypocrisy of the Pharisees because it won’t work. Everything will sooner or later be exposed to the public, so don’t try to hide what you are saying.
However, this same saying in Matthew is not about hypocrisy; it’s about proclaiming the imminent arrival of the kingdom of heaven.
So have no fear [of those who persecute you]; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. (Matthew 10:26-27.)
Here the saying is about revelation: what is covered up will become uncovered. Note: the word “uncovered” in Greek is from the verb apokaluptō, as in apocalyptic!
In Luke this saying may be mainly about avoiding hypocrisy, but we are moving into the language of revelation and apocalyptic proclamation.
Saying 3. I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! (12:4-5, NRSV.)
This is a most important saying! What does this really say? Its actual meaning is: There is something worse than death! Just being killed is not the worst thing that can happen to you! Beyond death, you can be sent to hell. (“Hell” translates the Greek word gehenna, the traditional Judean term for the fiery pit where idolaters used to burn their children in the valley southwest of
Without this fundamental principle, all other talk about being delivered from God’s judgment after death is beside the point. The entire Jesus enterprise (and before him the entire John the Baptist enterprise) is irrelevant unless there is something beyond death. This is a sine qua non of the Jesus movement and the proclamation of the imminent arrival of the
which was its essential foundation. (The earliest recitations given to Muhammad in the Qur'an were also about the resurrection and the judgment following it.) kingdom of God
Saying 4. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you matter more than many sparrows. (12:6-7, NRSV, the last sentence modified.)
Commentators often take this as simply an elaboration of the previous saying. Fear the one who controls your destiny after death. And you can trust him (God), because he oversees every little incident in the life of the world, including the fate of a tiny hapless sparrow! He even knows the tiniest minutia of your body. You can trust your eternal destiny to him!
There is nothing intrinsic to the sparrows saying that ties it to the saying about God as ruler of your post-death destiny, but Matthew used the two sayings the same way Luke has (perhaps because they were thus combined in the Q collection), so the meaning here is certainly a reassurance that God will not overlook any detail that may affect your life beyond death.
Saying 5. And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the messengers of God; but whoever denies me before others will be denied before the messengers of God. (12:8-9, NRSV, reading “messengers” rather than “angels,” which is simply the Greek word for messengers.)
This is one of the notorious sayings about the Son of Man and the last judgment, which many critical scholars have long denied could have been said by the historical Jesus. Whatever was the case with the historical Jesus, this passage makes the confession of Jesus, as the Son of Man, the unqualified test case for who gets in and who is left out at the final judgment.
Whoever gets acknowledged by the Son of Man before the heavenly messengers is, of course, saved from God’s judgment. (The background here is Daniel 7:1-14, where the “one like a son of man” carries out the Ancient One’s judgment on “the peoples, nations, and languages” of the world. That world is now [in Daniel 7:9-14] being delivered from the overwhelming power of evil which had ruled it for Four Ages [the four Beasts]. The heavenly messengers [“angels”] are the assistants to the son of man in that judgment.)
This pronouncement is second only to Saying 3 in importance for the Jesus movement. First, judgment after death is the sine qua non for any talk about salvation, but secondly, confessing Jesus as the Son of Man in a fully public way is the only way to get exempted from condemnation at that final judgment. This is an unqualified requirement for membership in the apocalyptic commune dedicated to Jesus as the Messiah and Son of Man.
Saying 6. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. (, NRSV, which imports the Christian Trinity by capitalizing Holy Spirit.)
This saying has caused Christian theologians much labor over the centuries about blaspheming the Holy Spirit and unforgivable sins. In Luke’s context, however, it may not be very complicated.
The Son of Man has come among people, many of whom not only misunderstand him but condemn him. Luke – it is clear from the early chapters of Acts – believed that those Judeans who had rejected, even arranged the death of, the Son of Man, could be forgiven (Acts 3:14-19; and compare 5:30-32). In Luke’s viewpoint, however, the whole following of Jesus was the work of the holy spirit. The Jesus movement was a charismatic movement. The divine spirit was constantly at work in it. The spirit was its fundamental assumption. No blaspheming against the charismatic endowment of the movement can be accepted. Son of Man yes; divine Spirit no!
Saying 7. When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say. (12:11-12, NRSV.)
This does not need much discussion. Having covered the fundamental principles of membership in the Jesus movement, the Preamble concludes with an assurance that those who confess Jesus as the Son of Man will be supported in the world by God’s Spirit – whether they die in their faithful witnessing or not.
Conclusion. What do these seven Sayings add up to, as a religious movement? Surely a totally committed community of followers, confessing a heavenly Lord who is expected to soon carry out the judgment of God and deliver to God’s blessing those who abandon all else and give themselves fully to his cause. These seven principles provide the foundation for an apocalyptic commune, made up of Jesus followers.
The rest of chapter 12 presents the life-styles of those who are members of this apocalyptic commune.
2. Parable of the Rich Fool, 12:13-21.
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
16Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.” (NRSV.)
The introduction, verses 13-15. There is a full break here. Luke represents it as an interruption from someone in the crowd. Someone wants an adjudication concerning an inheritance. The interruption shifts the focus of Jesus’ teaching onto a new topic: possessions, and the desire to increase them (known as “greed”). (Luke will later use an interruption by Peter to similarly shift the focus to a new topic, verse 41.)
The NRSV makes Jesus’ reply much more polite than does the Greek. Anthrope, “man,” is much more like, “Hey buddy, what do you mean setting me up as a judge… However, if you want my opinion on getting rich, I have a little story for you.” And Jesus tells them the moral of the story before he tells the parable: “Watch yourself! The life that matters is not about lots of possessions” (verse 15, paraphrased).
The parable, verses 16-21. The parable consists almost entirely of the internal monologues carried on by the rich-man-getting-richer. “What should I do…?” “I will do this…” “I will say to my soul, Soul, you are set for many years… eat, drink, be merry.” The hearer is carried along with the rich man’s planning and excited anticipation of how great things are going to be. Strong temptation to adopt that view of the goals of life! Like most good parables, there is a tight economy of words but with powerful feeling and effect.
However, the hedonistic life has its pitfalls! Just as you are ready to enjoy it all, you die.
“For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits his life?” (Luke 9:25, RSV, slightly modified.) See the same moral beautifully laid out by the wisdom teacher Jesus Ben Sira, in Sirach 11:14-19 (NRSV Apocrypha).
The ending of the parable takes us back to the question of life and death. How do you prepare for death? Piling up more and more goods will not do the trick. The real question is, How does one get “rich towards God” (verse 21).
The interruption and the parable have put the question of possessions front and center for the crowd as well as for the disciples. The life-style of Jesus’ followers is definitely not greed, amassing as much wealth as possible!
What is the alternative?
3. The Do Not Worry speech, 12:22-31.
22 He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.
24 “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. How much more do you matter than the birds! 25And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 26If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?
27 “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith!
29 “So do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30For the nations of the world strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” (NRSV, with small modifications.)
In case readers do not notice, this is a really superb little speech! It has lots of rhetorical virtues, accompanied by poetic touches. Its basic point is simple and never lost sight of. It uses repetition with variation, constantly driving home that basic point with fresh and catchy phrases. It uses concrete terms rather then generalities – “ravens,” “lilies,” “Solomon.” A little hyperbole helps – “the nations of the world…strive after all these things…” (A very similar version of this speech is also given in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, -33, both, presumably, derived from the Sayings Source Q.)
If the rich man’s monologues lured hearers toward his viewpoint, how much more does this effusion of the simple God-sustained life envelop the imagination?
Bottom line: alternative to the life of greed is the life of worry-free trust in the God who cares!
It is important, of course, to attend closely to the last instruction of the speech: “Strive for [God’s] kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.” It turns out that the worry-free life is available to those who make God’s kingdom their top priority. Join the kingdom (movement), contribute to its business, and all that you really need will be given to you!
This is, of course, the life of the committed followers of Jesus, who form an apocalyptic commune.
4. You Get the Kingdom, So Sell Everything, -34.
32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (NRSV.)
Some commentators make this a run-on from the Do-Not-Worry speech. However, there is actually a not-so-subtle shift at verse 32. The Do Not Worry speech ended with the instruction to strive for (traditionally “seek”) the kingdom and all the rest will come with it. Here, God is giving the kingdom, and an appropriate response by the “little flock” is ordered.
This impressive message of Jesus to his “little flock” has an Assurance and a Therefore.
The Assurance: since you are my flock, God is pleased to include you in the kingdom. You may be confident, not only of God’s good graces, but of the care and support of a worry-free life – even if, sooner or later, you have to give up your current life for Jesus’ sake (see Luke , “…lose their life for my sake…”).
And the other clause, the therefore? Therefore, sell your possessions and give the proceeds to charity! That is how you will become “rich towards God”!
It may be important to notice that verse 32 and the beginning of verse 33 are found in Luke only, while the rest – “Make purses for yourselves…” – is similar to a passage in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:19-21). That is to say, it is Luke only who says directly, “Sell your possessions,” in order to lay up “treasure in heaven.”
Here we need to speculate, just a little. If those who become Jesus followers are giving the proceeds of their property to charity – what charity would that be?
Posing the question virtually answers it. They would give it to the community they are joining. As Luke will describe it later, they would sell their property and lay the proceeds “at the feet of the apostles.” Here is Luke’s description of the process when it was being fully carried out:
32Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…. 34There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned land or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32, 34-35, NRSV. See also Acts 2:43-45.)
This is followed by a brief narrative of how Barnabas, a Levite from Cyprus, followed this process with the sale of a field, laying the money at the feet of the apostles. (The notorious story of Ananias and Sapphira is an indication that the system was not without its problems, Acts 5:1-11.)
It does not take a genius to recognize that this could not go on permanently. But these were apocalyptic communities; the end was coming at an unknown time – but SOON. That expectation is in the background of many, many sayings in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.
Conclusion. It seems clear that Jesus’ speeches here assume that his followers make up a commune (or communes) that supports its members out of the charities given to God, charities that were laid at the feet of the apostles (or, as they will be called later in this chapter, “prudent managers”).
5. Be Prepared for the Lord’s Coming, 12:35-40.
Jesus has eliminated greed as the basis of life, told of a worry-free life trusting in God’s care, and called the followers to sell all and join the movement. Now we hear what is the work of that community. What are the people of this commune doing? The answer is watching.
35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will put on serving clothes, have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
39 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (NRSV, with small modifications.)
(When I was studying this passage, I listened to a delightful version of “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” on YouTube, recorded by the Shenandoah Christian Music Camp on
September 4, 2018.)
This passage does not need much comment. Those who “acknowledge the Son of Man before others” (12:8) are an apocalyptic community. They are waiting and watching for their Lord’s return. They keep their lights burning to watch for his imminent return from his heavenly banquet. And when he returns, he will bless them with a banquet of his own preparation!
Commentators often call this talk about the Lord who will bless his alert slaves a “parable,” or “parabolic discourse.” I find that unsatisfactory. This is clearly not a parable in the same way that the Rich Fool is a parable. This is more like an allegory – though I don’t think that’s a very satisfactory term either.
The language here might be called a “coded metaphor.” We know very well who the actors in this discussion are. The “Lord” off at a wedding banquet is the risen Jesus, temporarily with his Father, preparing to return for the final judgment. The “slaves” waiting to unlock the gate for him, at whatever hour he comes, are the members of the Jesus community. Their business is to be ready when the final hour comes – when they will be recognized and will receive their well-deserved reward. “Blessed are those slaves!”
The saying about the owner of the house not knowing when the thief is coming simply reinforces the unpredictability of the Lord’s return. Uncertainty about the time of the end is the counterpart to the certainty that the end is near. This waiting is the life-style of the believing and expectant apocalyptic commune of Jesus people!
At this point we have another interruption!
6. Who Is the Prudent Manager…?, -48.
41Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?”
42And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? 43Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. 44Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions.
45 “But if that slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming’, and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, 46the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign his lot to the unfaithful.
47 “That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a beating of many stripes. 48But one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a beating of few stripes. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (NRSV, with small modifications.)
Most of this speech, especially from verse 43 on, is also found in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ Apocalyptic Discourse (Matthew 24:45-51). Peter’s interrupting question, however, is only in Luke, and it needs a few comments.
Literally, Peter says, “Lord, are you saying this parable to us or also to all [Greek pantas]?” He calls the preceding speech a “parable” because in Luke’s viewpoint anything Jesus says about the future may be a parable. More important is who Peter refers to by “us” and “all.” Most interpreters have thought that “all” refers to the plurality referred to in the preceding speech, the faithful servants dressed, lighted, and ready to open the gate to the expected lord (verses 35-40). Who then is the “us”?
Jesus’ reply to Peter speaks of individual “slaves” rather than the group, and each individual has some responsibility for the care of the group (distributing food). Thus, the “faithful and prudent manager” (the Greek is oikonómos, a house-ruler) is a person appointed by “the lord” to provide food on schedule to the rest of the slaves. When that person performs properly he (it is masculine in Greek) will be rewarded by promotion to oversight of all the lord’s properties (verses 43-44). When that person thinks he has lots of time and begins to abuse the other slaves and to live a riotous life, the lord will come unexpectedly and wreck a terrible punishment on that unfaithful manager (verses 45-46).
Most scholars have thought this is Jesus anticipating conditions for his followers after his departure (while the “lord” is still away). Thus, the references are to future leadership responsibilities in the Jesus communities. Other interpreters resist reading this passage as addressed to the problem of the “delay of the parousia [Jesus’ return].” They attempt to read this reply to Peter as if it simply continued the talk of verses 35-40 about everybody needing to be on the alert for a sudden return of the Lord. Thus, Peter’s “us” and “all” are simply the same folks, seen in slightly different perspective. (Some recent commentators show this tendency. It is said, for example, that Jesus’ reply to Peter’s question, “us” or “all,” is “Yes!” [Joel Green, approved by John Carroll].)
(See Paul's discussion of this aspect of congregation-building in I Corinthians 3:10-15.)
(See Paul's discussion of this aspect of congregation-building in I Corinthians 3:10-15.)
Conclusion. Having talked in the previous speech (verses 35-40) about the work of the common members of the commune, the discourse now turns to matters of leadership of that commune.
As I read Jesus’ reply to Peter it goes something like this. “Now that you raise the question, Peter, I have some instructions that apply specifically to you leaders.” (Peter [not “Simon”] represents, of course, the “apostles,” at whose feet later charitable contributions are laid – Acts 4:35).
Jesus speaks here in the third person – the "prudent manager whom his master [Jesus] will put in charge of his slaves [members of the Jesus communes] to give them their allowance of food at the proper time…” thus maintaining the speech style of the “parabolic discourse.” From the narrative’s viewpoint, it is still all future stuff, but the hearer has no difficulty recognizing that Jesus is talking about administration of their common life as they wait faithfully for the Lord’s return. It IS an apocalyptic community.
7. I Came to Bring Fire…, -53.
49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Review. We have gradually escalated the life of the commune from the rejection of acquisitiveness (greed), to worry-free trust in God to provide, with the accompanying call to sell one’s possessions in order to enter the kingdom, to descriptions of the commune’s charge to watch and of its leaders to manage their resources responsibly. Now, quite suddenly, we hear in a very different tone the voice of that Lord who brought the message of the kingdom in the first place.
Jesus’ Task. The community exists because of Jesus its Lord. Jesus now confides to his disciples his own agony before the grand climax. That climax is his own baptism by fire, his own death that is necessary in order for the kingdom to come. In a world that has been dominated by increasingly evil and destructive forces (Daniel 7:2-8), the costs of transformation to a divine reign of peace are extreme. A suffering servant must lay down his life on the way to an ultimate victory (Isaiah 52:13-53:12).
The Commune Divides. And not only will Jesus suffer, those who become his committed followers will also suffer. Because of their public confession of Jesus as the Son of Man (verse 8 above) they will be thrown into conflict with others, and most tragically with their own relatives.
The verses that describe the family members divided against each other (52-53) are based on the prophet Micah’s description of the social chaos that precedes the ultimate intervention of God (Micah 7:1-7, followed by 7:8-17). “Son against father, daughter against mother,” etc.; a really fundamental conflict within the social body is caused by the commitments to join the new community, the apocalyptic commune. The apocalyptic commune breaks up families. This is not an idle or easily made commitment. It is a life-or-death decision. It is truly apocalyptic – about the end of the world as we have known it.
It is the life-style of the apocalyptic commune that the commune takes the place of family and other social ties. “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the
who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come
eternal life.” (Luke 18:29-30, NRSV.
This saying, with some variations, is also given in Mark 10:29-30 and
Matthew 19:29.) kingdom of God
As the decades (and centuries) were to pass, commitment to the ecclesia of Jesus the Lord was to re-make Roman society in a new image (though not always that of the Jesus seen in Luke’s Gospel).
8. Signs of the Times…, 12:54-59.
54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
57 “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right [smart, prudent]? 58Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. 59I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.” (NRSV.)
Outsiders. Having covered the major points the members of the commune should hear, Jesus returns to speaking to “the crowds” (verse 54). We now hear two arguments addressed to outsiders. The arguments are, of course, reasons why those folks should hear Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom and join the kingdom movement.
It is the special business of apocalyptic folks to “read the signs of the times.” Jesus says to the people at large, You are good at reading the signs of the weather in heaven and earth; why can’t you read the signs of the present time? (A similar challenge, but with different wording, is given in Matthew 16:2-3.)
If they read those signs, they would (1) realize that God’s judgment is imminent – as John the Baptist had taught all Judea, (2) understand that there is something worse than death – as the Pharisees also have been teaching, and (3) recognize that God has sent an alternative to condemnation – not just baptism but a totally new life for those who will be acknowledged by the Son of Man before the heavenly messengers at that great final assize (verses 8-9 above).
Before It’s Too Late. Jesus’ second speech to the crowds (verses 57-59) presses the urgency of responding to Jesus’ warning. You better not wait until you get into (that final) court. It will then be too late; you will be indicted, found guilty, and turned over to the jailer (those heavenly messengers) and you will never get out. (A similar message is given in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:25-26.)
But you do have a last chance! Come to terms with the one leading you to judgment. His terms have to be better than waiting too long! Come to terms with Jesus – and join the blessed community that is faithfully waiting for his final return to complete that final judgment.
Conclusion on Luke 12.
The seven sayings of the Preamble (12:1-12) state the fundamental beliefs of the Jesus Movement: (1) that there is more to life than dying, that personal identity beyond death is what proper living is really about; (2) that there is a judgment that will determine for each person whether that further life will be a blessing or a fiery torture; (3) that how one comes out of that judgment depends on whether one acknowledges Jesus as the Son of Man, who will preside over that judgment; (4) that that judgment is close at hand, making one’s decision urgent; and (5) that God’s spirit is the overseeing power that guides the lives of those who confess Jesus and wait through persecution for the great saving outcome. These beliefs, and actions, are the foundation of a radically committed community life, an apocalyptic commune.
What is life like in such a community? What is the life-style of an apocalyptic commune?
The rest of the chapter answers this question – in sequence:
- One does not accumulate possessions.
- One trusts God to provide one’s basic daily needs.
- One sells ones goods and gives the proceeds to God (i.e., to the commune).
- One’s occupation is watching for the imminent return of the Son of Man.
- Some are assigned (by the “lord”) to management responsibilities for the commune.
- The commune will be one’s family and will replace one’s former goods.
- Acknowledging the Son of Man will include knowing of his suffering and death.
- One will be prepared for persecution, even death, because of Jesus’ name.
- One will be attuned to the signs of the times and will be ready for the judgment.
Chapter 12 of Luke’s Gospel, understood in these terms, is an astonishing presentation of the kind of religious movement that eventually won over vast populations within the
empire. The Jesus Movement declared the reality of life after death, and offered a way that life could be a blessing rather than hell!
The Apocalyptic Jesus
The apocalyptic orientation of Luke 12 is not Luke only! Such apocalyptic sayings are attributed to Jesus throughout the Synoptic Gospels. (The Gospel of John is quite another matter.) For well over a hundred years, that has raised for historians the question of the apocalyptic Jesus.
What is the Apocalyptic Jesus?
The apocalyptic Jesus is the Jesus who said, “The
is at hand” – and meant it! It is
the Jesus who expected God’s great intervention would take place within his own
generation. “There are some standing
here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with
power” (Mark 9:1). kingdom of God
The “historical Jesus.” For seventeen hundred years no one read the Gospels except churchmen and devoted Christians, so no one understood those “coming soon” sayings as applying to Jesus' own time. When European scholars, with humanist training, began to distinguish between the Jesus of the church and the actual human Jesus of the first century, a gap opened up between what Jesus said and did and what later believers thought about Jesus.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the later-famous scholar and humanitarian, Albert Schweitzer, traced a hundred and fifty years of the many reconstructions of what the “real,” the “historical,” Jesus had been like. This history showed, of course, that scholars tended to find a Jesus who had much their own interests and values. (Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical
trans. 1910; German original 1906.) Jesus, Eng.
Schweitzer concluded his book with his own reconstruction, following the original work of the German scholar Johannes Weiss, Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, tr. R. H. Hiers and D. L, Holland, Fortress Press, 1971 (original German, 1st ed., 1892). These two works became the great banners for historians who acknowledged the reality of the apocalyptic Jesus throughout the twentieth century. (See the detailed account of work related to the historical Jesus until 1960 in Norman Perrin, The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus, SCM Press, 1963.)
The Apocalyptic Jesus is the historians’ Jesus. Weiss’ and Schweitzer’s arguments carried the day – at least with people who didn’t have religious or personal reasons for rejecting them.
Schweitzer’s “basic emphases – that Jesus is to be situated in the context of first-century Palestinian Judaism and that he was himself an apocalypticist – have carried the day for much of the twentieth century, at least among critical scholars devoted to examining the evidence.” (Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Oxford, 1999, p. 127.) The list of highly esteemed historians who work on the assumption that Jesus expected a near end of the world (as people then knew it) is long and impressive. But, as Ehrman emphasizes, it’s amazing how few people outside the academic world know that this is the dominant view of serious historians.
Traditional Christians, of course, must reject this view. If Jesus thought the great judgment of God would come in his generation, then he was wrong. As Dale C. Allison says, “Most Christians cannot abide an errant Jesus” (The Historic Christ and the Theological Jesus, Eerdmans, 2009, p. 96.) Only the destruction of
as he had indeed predicted – and the continued expansion and institutionalizing
of the church were the later developments of his movement. Christian tradition has, therefore, concluded
that that was in fact why Jesus came – to found the Christian Church. Jerusalem
The corollary to Jesus’ coming to found the church is that all the sayings about the coming judgment were transferred to the “second coming,” For later believers, this became a really grand finale, with many scenes and diverse settings, to accommodate the wide range of predictions (in both the Old and New Testaments) about the final judgment. That Second Coming was projected into a longer and longer future -- and the faithful are, of course, still waiting, a couple of millennia later.
From John the Baptist to the Church.
A few years ago, in a Special Note in the Biblical Words Lectionary Studies, I sketched briefly the sequence of “movements” in the beginnings of Christianity, as historians have come to see them. This is my sketch of about six years ago, slightly updated. [I follow New Testament terminology by using “Judean” instead of “Jew” or “Jewish.”]
As historians see the relation of Jesus to John the Baptist and the subsequent development of the early and later stages of the church, there is a sequence of Movements.
(1-A) John the Baptist headed a Judgment Movement to restore
to God’s requirements. The historical
John may have understood himself in terms of the prophecies of the post-exilic
prophet Malachi. Israel
3:1 “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap…
4:5 Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. (Malachi 3:1-2; 4:5, NRSV.)
The historical John would have understood the “coming” one to be God, or God’s heavenly Messenger (Angel). Later Jesus followers, of course, understood it differently.
(1-B) Jesus, beginning as a disciple of John, and thus sharing his apocalyptic orientation, came to recognize, through his (Jesus’) healing powers and other signs, that the Kingdom was in fact beginning to appear in his work among John’s followers. His later opponents may have attributed his power over demons to his being in league with Satan, but he himself said, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Luke 11:20 = Matthew 12:28).
Jesus thus launched a Kingdom Movement in which, not baptism, but believing in and experiencing the secret reality of God’s Reign was the center piece. (See the Beatitudes and the answer to John in Luke 7:22-30 = Matthew 11:2-15.)
Crucifixion of the leader did not destroy this Movement, but transformed it into an even wider one in the next generation.
(2) After their experiences of the Risen Jesus (I Corinthians 15:3-8, not the empty tomb stories), the first generation of disciples/apostles led a Jesus Movement. They proclaimed, as the fulfillment of the Kingdom movement, the special status of Jesus as the Messiah, Son of God, and (for some, at least) heavenly Son of Man. This proclamation was the inside secret about the Jesus of Nazareth who got crucified by the Romans.
The Jesus Movement, in its early stages, was a Judean movement, not yet involving significant numbers of non-Judeans. In time, the Jesus movement would expand beyond Judean circles, where Paul’s activities led to many non-Judean assemblies. (Luke narrates this work of Paul but, in Acts 10, he attributes the first conversion of non-Judeans to God’s direct command to Peter to preach to – and baptize – the household of the Roman army officer, Cornelius.) However, there was no “Christianity,” separate from Judaism, until late in the second generation after Jesus’ death.
(3) Finally, after the Son of Man did not come in glory during or following the Roman-Judean war of 66-74 CE, the second generation of disciples/apostles increasingly recognized that the Jesus-Movement-become-Church was here for the long haul, and in a fairly short time (between 70 and 100 CE) they wrote down the Gospels from the most authoritative reciters in their various metropolitan centers. They also adopted leadership structures not subject to the near-anarchy of uninhibited charismatic movements, including methods for disciplining members, even to the point of exclusion from the group (as in Matthew 18:15-18).
Luke 12, particularly when complemented by other passages of Luke’s writings (like Luke 14:25-33; 18:18-30; and Acts 2-5), clearly reflects a stage of the Jesus Movement when following Jesus meant a radical break with life as usual. It meant life in a separated community that had given its possessions to the community, trusted God to provide, and devoted its whole social and personal life to watching for Jesus and living the life of the “Meantime” as they waited. In that “meantime,” they lived by the radical demands of common life that Jesus had taught. As their numbers grew, and particularly as their children grew up, that common life became well established – and in time it became the ethos and ethics of the Christian churches.
Thank you, Luke, for this amazing presentation of the life-styles of Jesus’ apocalyptic communes!