Matthew and Luke faced a similar problem. Writing some 80 to 90 years after the birth of Christ, both needed to respond to the apparent delay of the Lord’s return. To the disciples of Jewish background who made up much of the early church, the delay was especially perplexing. Gentile armies had raged against Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in the year 70 C.E. A wave of persecution followed, in which many followers of Christ lost their lives. The survivors expected Jesus to come soon after these events, but as time passed, expectation turned into disappointment.
‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.’ (Lk 12:34)
What is the treasure your heart seeks?
How will the coming of Christ transform what you desire?
How does your labor build up treasure in heaven?
Matthew’s Gospel traces the way these Jewish disciples adjusted their understanding and came to regard Jesus’ teachings as a guideline for moral living rather than as preparation for the end times. Luke addressed the problem of Christ’s delayed return in a different way. He found in end-times expectations a spiritual wisdom that inspired disciples to material detachment and humble service.
This spoke to many of the Christians who entered the church after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. These newer members came from gentile backgrounds and had little interest in ancient Israelite prophecies about God’s coming kingdom. Gentile converts, coming from backgrounds influenced by Greek philosophy, wanted instruction in a lifestyle of material detachment and personal self-control. Such teachings were in fact an important part of the early Gospel message, which encouraged disciples to avoid attachments in order to be able to recognize the arrival of God’s kingdom; signs of it were easy to miss amid the distractions of wealth, power or social status. Luke thus synthesizes Jewish expectations with gentile aspirations, encouraging his audience to use end-times prophecies to develop the kind of wise living that gentiles sought.
Essential to that synthesis is the realization that everything is temporary. Christ’s return, however delayed, is still a reality, and it will transform everything. Material goods, social realities and even human relationships are thus entirely provisional. After Christ’s return, prosperity will no longer consist in wealth, power and pleasure but rather in love, service and joy. Live now, Jesus commands, so as to be rich then.
Service to others is the labor that builds up this treasure, as the parables in this Sunday’s reading illustrate. Vigilant attention to duty will result in a surprising reversal, in which the servants become the guests. With this insight, Luke makes Jesus’ feeding of the multitude (9:12-17) a foreshadowing of the kingdom to come. By contrast, a disciple whose attention grows slack may lose everything at the arrival of Christ. Even worse is the highly placed disciple who loses faith. As a commitment to diligent service gives way to ego, gluttony and violence, the disciple earns only future condemnation. For this servant, the arrival of Christ will result not in a feast but in punishment.
Luke’s synthesis reminds us that everything we have is temporary and that we will have to account for ourselves when we meet Christ. A disciple’s path, then, is to take what God has given and use it for humble service. The servant who thus lives a life of material detachment and care for others will flourish at the Lord’s return.