When Jesus told parables, he loved nothing more than to take a common example from daily life, start to tell the story, and then add a twist at the end. It was his signature story-telling technique. He loved to surprise, even to shock his listeners, with an ending they were not expecting.
The parable of the watchful slaves (Luke 12: 35–38) is a very good example of this. Jesus describes a master returning home to his household at an unexpected hour, finding the watchful slaves hard at work, and getting them to sit down, so that he might serve them! This was unimaginable in the ancient world. The master did not serve the slave. It was unheard of. Perhaps in the quiet moments in the kitchen, as they prepared the food, when they were absolutely sure the master, or anyone else in the family, was not listening, the kitchen slaves might joke about the master serving them; yet for a respected teacher like Jesus to say it publicly? It would have been truly shocking for his listeners.
When Jesus used this technique, he always had a message, a point, that he was trying to drive home to his listeners. Story telling in ancient Israel, along with many other parts of the world, was an art-form. A good storyteller could pass on the teachings of their tradition. Jesus wanted to do this; he wanted to pass on his Jewish traditions, but he also loved nothing more than shocking his listeners and forcing them to think. He loved shocking them into thinking about life in a new way.
The message in this parable is a very simple one – be alert!
Let’s unpack what that actually means. What is Jesus talking about, when he’s saying, “Be alert?” I think that part of the meaning lies in the challenge to be kind to one another.
In this part of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells a series of parables about our priorities in life. It is really a series of parables challenging us to think about our choices in life. The choices we make, each day, define our character. When you think about it, life is a series of little choices. Certainly there are big choices that we all have to make from time to time. For our students it might be, “Will I continue on to university after school?” Then, down the track, “Where will I live, will I get married?” and so on.
However, day-to-day, it’s the little choices which define us and it’s the little choices which shape our character. The key choices are, “How will I relate to God? How will I love God?” and, “How will I relate to my neighbour? How will I love my neighbour?” I think a great way to think of loving one’s neighbour is, “How can I show kindness to this person?”
My wife, Mrs McCall, is much more of a natural at this than I am. I have to think it through, whereas Mrs McCall just does it! It’s a gift.
At the end of our recent mid-year holidays interstate, we arrived at the airport to fly home to Adelaide. There was a bit of a line-up at the check-in counter and a bit of a delay, because the counter wasn’t open for our flight yet. Finally the counters opened and it was our turn to check in our bags. The attendant behind the counter looked exhausted; it was only about 9.30 in the morning. I just smiled, but Mrs McCall said, in her kind and friendly way, “You look like you’re ready for a break.” It all depends how you say something like that that, of course, and gender comes into it as well: a woman saying it to another woman is different from the scenario that would have unfolded, if I had said it! However, you can think it, though; you can think, “This person looks tired,” especially if it means you treat the other person with just a little more kindness.
The attendant then told us that her young daughter had been up half-the night with her asthma playing up and that she and her husband had been weighing up whether to call an ambulance to take her off to hospital. We just listened and tried to be empathetic.
It was a moment of connection between people. It’s very easy to forget, sometimes, that the attendant who is serving you, or the customer you are serving, is not just an attendant or a customer – they are, primarily, a person. This interaction reminded me, that you very rarely know what is going on in other people’s lives.
The choices we make, each day, define our character. In this parable, Jesus is saying, “Be alert!” “Wake up to what is happening around you!” It is so easy to get caught up in our own lives, our own triumphs, our own problems – all of that – that we forget to notice other people. “Be alert”, because if you are, you will notice a beautiful world out there … and it’s worth noticing.
The Reverend Dr Theo McCall