In his workingpreacher.org commentary, Ronald Allen notes that the dialogue throughout Luke 12 directs our attention to being prepared for the apocalypse. While the Lukan author is clear that the coming of the New Age is not happening as soon as the previous generation expected, that doesn’t mean it’s not coming, or that we can stop preparing.
In fact, Luke 12:2 has the verb form of “apocalypse.” “But nothing is being concealed which will not be revealed, and nothing hidden which will not be made known” (my translation). In the Lukan account, Jesus urges his disciples (as thousands listen in) that they should value authentic testimony more than personal safety in the days to come. That testimony is what will matter when they stand before the angels of God (verse 9).
The Lukan author goes on to imagine settings of persecution where that testimony will be required. Luke 12:11 is a foreshadowing of the situations in which the apostles will find themselves in the Book of Acts. They will be dragged into the presence of synagogues (here the assembly of people more than the building), rulers, and authorities. They need not worry about how they will defend themselves (the word used gives us the English word “apology”). In that hour of trial, the Holy Spirit will provide the words.
We don’t know in the Lukan account how the disciples responded to these words. We hear that at least one person in the crowd didn’t quite get the memo. “Teacher,” someone says to him from the crowd, “tell my brother to apportion with me the inheritance” (Luke 12:13, my translation). Some interpreters suggest that what we get next is a lovely meditation on faithful biblical stewardship. It is that, but the real meaning of the text is about apocalyptic urgency, not about wealth management.
The Rich Fool is oblivious to the possibility that this moment could be his last. He has accumulated an abundance of the Good Stuff. Now he can become unconscious. He has created a material buffer to protect him from the uncertainties of life and death. The Rich Fool is the picture of stupid privilege. Only rich people can afford to be so oblivious. But it does him no good. “You fool!” God says, “This very night your soul (as in life) is being demanded from you. But these things that you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20, my translation).
Again, we have a story about someone who is here today and gone tomorrow. An abundance of riches cannot change that fact. The chief characteristic of the Rich Fool is that well-funded stupidity. “This is the way for those who hoard treasure for themselves and yet are not rich in God” (Luke 12:21, my translation). Note that this assessment is about those who have wealth. This statement is not a general statement about human beings. The apocalyptic danger for the powerful, the privileged, the positioned, and the propertied is that their abundance will make them fatally dumb.
Jesus turns from addressing the crowd to teaching his disciples. As he turns, beginning in Luke 12:22, the discourse also turns. The poor (including the disciples) don’t have to worry about being stupidly oblivious in the face of existential threat. That’s not an option when one lives paycheck to paycheck or is uncertain about the source of the next meal. The disciples won’t be distracted from the apocalypse by stuff. They may, however, be consumed by anxiety.
Let me take a moment to remind us of this typical pattern in the Lukan account. The Lukan author takes a common theme, such as apocalyptic preparedness. The author expands on that theme in different ways for the different demographics in the congregation. In particular, those Lukan demographics are the privileged and the poor. While the concern is the same in general terms, the applications vary depending on the socioeconomic locations of the listeners. If that was the case for the Lukan audience, it is certainly the case for contemporary audiences – although our American Christian listeners tend toward the privileged end of the spectrum.
Jesus paints these beautiful word pictures with ravens and lilies. God provides for them, and they don’t worry about the future. Anxiety tends to shorten our lives, not to lengthen them. Strive for the Kin(g)dom and the rest will take care of itself. “For where your treasure is,” Jesus concludes in Luke 12:34, “there also will be your (plural) heart” (my translation). Unconscious privilege is deadly. Obsessive worry deprives us of real life. God will take care of us. Just be prepared for what comes next.
We’ll have the chance to address some of these texts in the summer and fall, but it’s important to have this context in mind as we come to Luke 13. Jesus urges his disciples to be dressed and ready for action, to have their lamps lit and their eyes wide open. They can’t and won’t know the hour when the Son of Man will return. Peter asks if this counsel is for the disciples alone or for all who are listening. Jesus turns the question on its head with a parable. The point of the parable is that those who are prepared will demonstrate their discipleship.
Yet, the greatest accountability falls on those who have heard the warning (Luke 12:48b). Trouble is coming – not just before synagogues and rulers and authorities, but in the very homes and families of those who follow Jesus. This may be a particularly poignant reference to the experience of the Lukan audience, many of whom may have experienced the family divisions that Jesus describes in Luke 12:52-53.
The discourse is certainly about knowing what time it is, as we see in Luke 12:54-56. And it is about focusing on what’s important in light of the coming apocalypse. Don’t get bogged down with petty concerns, as Jesus urges in Luke 12:57-59. Settle those matters quickly and get your mind back on the important stuff. Because the time of crisis is coming.
“At that moment, some people call Jesus’ attention to the Galileans whom Pilate had murdered (Luke 13:1),” Ronald Allen writes. “Their implied question is: Were those Galileans so much worse sinners than other Galileans that they were beyond the possibility of preparing for the Realm in the way Jesus had described in Luke 12:1-56? Jesus gives a straightforward answer: ‘No,’” Allen continues. “They were not killed because of their sin. They were brutally murdered by the Romans.”
That being said, this tragedy still serves as an apocalyptic wakeup call for Jesus’ listeners. Unless we repent, we likewise will be caught unawares and unprepared when the time of trial comes. “The purpose of the stories of the Galileans and those who died at Siloam is to stress the importance of repentance as a decisive step on the journey to the Realm,” Allen suggests. “That action is necessary prelude to the life described in Luke 12:1-59. Without repentance and faithful witness, punishment awaits.”
The Parable of the Fig Tree reminds us that the end is always closer than we might think. “The listeners in Luke’s community are in the position of the tree,” Allen argues. “The time has come for them to bear the fruit of repentance. God could already have ended the present age. However, God is giving them a little more time. While the second coming is delayed,” he concludes, “the apocalypse and the moment of judgment are still ahead.”
Well, friends, the apocalypse has been delayed far longer than the Lukan author might have suspected. Does that mean that we can and should ignore the urgency of this section and our text? No, I don’t think so. The end of the world as we know it can come to us in many ways. The call to be prepared is applicable to life in numerous ways.
I have officiated at hundreds of funerals over the last forty years. Yet I was ill-prepared to deal with the sudden and unexpected death of my first spouse. In one sense, no one can be prepared for a major loss. In another sense, however, I had not really considered the possibility. Relatively early death is a feature in my family tree more than hers. I was expecting to die relatively young and had made some plans accordingly. Intellectually I knew that she could die before me, but I was not prepared emotionally or spiritually for such a possibility.
I was completed disoriented by her death. Even though I was given a path to a wonderful new life, it took me some years to really get settled in to the new reality of my existence. Only in the last few years has that new orientation really become a bit more familiar and comfortable. The advantage of my experience was that I no longer had the luxury of acting as if death was a thing that happened to other people. Death ceased to be a theoretical construct and has instead become a relatively familiar companion.
For the most part, that familiarity with death doesn’t make me morbid. It has subdued my temperament to some degree. But the chief effect in my heart has been threefold. I have learned to live now and to act decisively. I have much more time behind me than in front of me. The proximity of death and the gift of age have made me more willing to do things now, since tomorrow may never come.
A second effect of being better prepared for death is that I feel far more grateful for life and love than I think I was two decades ago. I may not take as much joy in the ravens and the lilies as, for example, my spouse now does. But I know now how much of a gift this life is and how fleeting it can be. So, I am grateful to savor the joys as they come.
The third effect is that my life is more clearly set against the horizon of eternity. I won’t get it all done. I won’t set everything right. I won’t accomplish all I’ve planned. That’s fine. I seek to find my treasure where Jesus wants my heart to be. That’s the best way, in my experience, of living a life of grateful repentance.
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