The Watchful Slaves Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 November 2021

Luke 12.35-40, Matthew 24.42-44.

This is another parable about Jesus’s second coming, sometimes called the parable of the watchful servants. Frequently it gets mixed up with Jesus’s Wise and Stupid Slaves Story in Matthew, or the Watchful Doorman Story (found in all the synoptic gospels, and actually comes next in Luke), because some of the ideas and verses overlap. Other times people chop off verses 39-40 because they’d rather make a separate story of them.

Unlike the other gospels, this one includes the idea—consistent with Jesus’s character, as demonstrated when he washed his students’ feet—that in God’s kingdom, the master serves the students.

Jesus tells his students this right after he tells ’em to save up treasure in heaven.

Luke 12.35-40 KWL
35 “Be people dressed for work, with your lanterns burning.
36 Like you’re people waiting for your master once he leaves the wedding feast,
so when he arrives and knocks, they can immediately open the door for him.
37 Those slaves are awesome: The master will find them staying up for him.
Amen, I promise you the master will dress himself for work,
and he’ll sit them down, and help serve them.
38 If he comes in the second or third watch [9PM-3AM]
and finds them up, they’re awesome.
39 Realize this: If the homeowner knew what hour the thief shows up,
he’d never be able to break into his house.
40 Be ready!
For the Son of Man comes at the hour you don’t expect.”

Returning from the wedding feast.

In this story, there’s a master. Jesus also calls him a οἰκοδεσπότης/ikodespótis, “homeowner” or “housemaster” (KJV “goodman of the house,” goodman being an old-timey way of saying owner). He has a house. He puts his slaves in charge of it. Christians who are understandably uncomfortable with slavery would rather translate δοῦλοι/dúli as “servants,” but these aren’t employees: They’re debtors, criminals, were on the losing side in a war, or their parents sold ’em, so they lost their freedom. The homeowner is also a slaveholder.

Under the Law of Moses slaves are to be freed after seven years Ex 21.2 or in jubilee years Lv 25.9 —unless they choose not to, Ex 21.5-6 or unless they’re gentiles. Lv 25.46 Slaves weren’t to be treated inhumanely; the master’s relationship with them was meant to be more like a good king and his subjects, rather than a rancher and his cattle. But just as there were many, many bad kings, so there were definitely bad masters. Jesus is most certainly a good king, but history’s frequent bad examples of slaveowners and despots will constantly distort any ideas we have of Jesus as a benevolent monarch and master.

Now, Christians have this really bad habit of treating Jesus’s metaphors as if they’re dots to connect. We think birds represent the devil in one parable, so therefore birds must represent the devil in some other parable—as well as every other instance where birds are used as a metaphor in the scriptures. The result? Christians miss Jesus’s fairly obvious points in favor of some weird gnostic rubbish which makes next to no sense. And don’t do as he tells us.

I bring this up because the master in this story is returning from a wedding feast. And of course Isaiah, Jeremiah, John the baptist, John the apostle, and Jesus himself have used wedding imagery in their parables about Jesus (or the LORD) in relationship with his church (or Israel). So much so, the connect-the-dots fans insist Jesus is actually not talking about his second coming. Because the wedding feast of the Lamb takes place at the end of time, after the millennium, Rv 21-22 so somehow this takes place at the end of time too.

It’s a ridiculous interpretation, because Jesus quite clearly says, with no metaphor whatsoever, to be prepared for when the Son of Man comes. Must I quote him again? Fine.

Luke 12.40 KWL
“Be ready!
For the Son of Man comes at the hour you don’t expect.”

Contrary to The Message’s “Be like house servants waiting for their master to come back from his honeymoon,” Lk 12.36 MSG this wedding feast isn’t the homeowner’s wedding feast! If it were his feast, he’d be the host; it’d be at his house. He wouldn’t go somewhere else for it. They didn’t do destination weddings in Jesus’s culture: The destination was the husband’s house, where the new couple was gonna live. The slaves wouldn’t be waiting for the homeowner to come home; they’d be serving guests.

Nope, this wedding feast isn’t Jesus’s wedding feast. It’s not any End Times event on the timeline. It has nothing to do with him. It is instead a plausible reason why somebody might be delayed with no foreseeable end in sight. Because some wedding feasts went on just that long. Customarily they’d last a week, but if we’re talking about a rich family who really wants to party, and has enough food and wine to keep going, they’re gonna party hard, and beg their guests to stick around an extra day. Or two. Or more!

So it’s gonna be a few extra days before the master gets home. And when he does finally get home, he may have to stop his horse every few miles so he can go decorate the roadside shrubbery with his poorly digested food and wine. (I won’t say how. Your imagination can fill in the blanks.) It’s gonna be a while before he gets home. He’s gonna be so glad to get home. He’s gonna want to get in the house immediately; he’s not gonna wanna wait while somebody wakes up the doorman, the grooms to take care of his horse, the valet to help him out of his clothes, and whichever other servants might help him get a bath ready, ’cause traveling on dirt roads means he really needs a wash before bed.

But in Jesus’s story, these slaves haven’t undressed for bed, no matter how late it is: They’re still dressed for work. I translated αἱ ὀσφύες περιεζωσμέναι/e osfýes periedzosméne, “the [ones with] waist belted” (KJV “loins girded about”) as “dressed [for work],” because that’s why ancients wore belts. Ancient Persians, Scythians, Celts, and Chinese wore trousers, but in the Roman Empire they considered them ridiculous barbarian garments. So their belts weren’t for holding up pants or hose: They were working, or traveling, or otherwise going where they’d need pockets, and a belt was either a cloth strap folded over so you could tuck things into it, or a leather strap from which you hung purses, swords, and tools. Some ancients wore both—and Roman nobles, showing off how they didn’t work, went without a belt and wore togas instead.

Jesus refers to the second and third watch of the night; in ancient timekeeping the second watch began halfway between sundown and midnight, and the third watch ended halfway between midnight and sunrise. So, the middle of the night. For those of us with electricity, we stay up that late all the time, but the ancients went to bed soon after sundown and rose before sunrise. So these slaves were up late. Super late. Way past their bedtime. Today’s equivalent idea would be, “If the homeowner shows up at midnight, or even 4 in the morning.” These guys willingly stayed up all night for him. Even though they didn’t know when he’d arrive—and even though it was dangerous to travel at night.

These slaves, Jesus says twice, are awesome. The KJV interprets μακάριοι/makárihi as “blessed,” but it means more than mere prosperity or favor; these are people who deserve prosperity and favor, even if they’re not yet blessed with it. The master is so thrilled with these slaves, Jesus says he’s gonna sit ’em down and he’s gonna serve them. Which is not something ancient slaveowners ever did… but Jesus is a very different kind of master. He doesn’t just appreciate the people who work for him; he goes out of his way to bless them.

Preparing for the housebreaker.

Jesus’s bit about knowing when the thief shows up, also appears in his Olivet Discourse in Matthew:

Matthew 24.42-44 KWL
42 “So stay awake!
For you don’t know which hour your Master comes.
43 Realize this: If the homeowner knew at which watch the thief comes,
he’ll be awake and not let him break into his house.
44 This is why you also must be ready.
For the Son of Man comes at the hour you don’t expect.”

“Hours” could refer to any time, but “watches” specifically meant nighttime hours. Not to say that Jesus’s second coming will take place at night… although it could. It’s already gonna be nighttime for half the earth when he returns, and what’s to say he’ll return at a time we find convenient? In fact that’s kinda the point of his statements like these. The sky might go black and the Lord appear when you’re just in the middle of shampooing your head. Or in the middle of a BM, in the middle of sex, in the middle of traffic, in the middle of a crime. Stay awake doesn’t mean we should never do these things (although do avoid crimes)… but Jesus’s return might not catch us at our best, and we’d better be able to recover quickly.

’Cause there are gonna be those who simply can’t. And those who absolutely can’t. They don’t want him to return right now—it doesn’t fit in how they imagine the End Times Timeline to work, or doesn’t suit their personal timeline which they devised for their lives. Or return in this way; they imagined it far different, and thought they were going to heaven instead of joining an invasion. Or never really wanted Jesus to return, never really wanted God’s kingdom to come to earth; they had other plans. These folks won’t be ready to join him. He might graciously include them regardless… but you realize the reason for his many warnings to his students is because he might not. Our unreadiness may mean we’re not included.

In Jesus’s day there were no police; there were Roman soldiers who would stab you or crucify you without trial, and there were security guards. No insurance companies either. If you had wealth, you had to guard it yourself, and a bold criminal might dig the stones right out of the walls of your house to get in and take your stuff. You had to defend yourself. If you knew the thief was coming, and when, you’d be prepared. Jesus wants us to be prepared like those guys. His kingdom is our inheritance… but if we’re not adequately prepared, we might lose out on all of it. So stay awake!

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