Every once in a while, I am tempted to add a verse or two at the beginning or end of the lectionary reading to fill out its literary context.
This is one of those days, though my rationale is less for context and more for humor. After reading this passage about giving all one has to the poor and about being on the watch for Christ's unexpected return, we may well want to echo Peter's question in verse 41: "Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?" Odds are, most of us are hoping it is addressed to a generic "everyone," not directly to us!
Attending to both the liturgical and narrative context of this reading may aid us in discovering a message we can, in fact, address profitably to our concrete situation. Let's start with the liturgical context. During the extended Pentecost season we work through many of Jesus' parables and teaching. While the lectionary's choices about which elements of Jesus' instruction to highlight may at times seem somewhat random, its overarching trajectory is not.
The first half of the lectionary year - from Advent to Ascension - is typically called the "Season of Christ" and attempts to answer the question, "Who is Jesus?" The second half of the year - from Pentecost to Christ the King Sunday - is named the "Season of the Church" and addresses the follow-up question, "And what does it mean to follow Jesus?" We are, therefore, in the heart of material relating, if not to the content of our salvation, then at least to the character of our Christian life. Over the last two weeks we focused, in turn, on the importance of prayer and the seductive power of wealth; this week we turn our gaze to the expectant trust that should characterize our lives.
The narrative context is equally important. According to Luke, Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem, teaching his disciples - and occasionally the crowds he attracts - along the way. After sharing the parable of the rich fool, Jesus urged his disciples to dwell on no earthly concerns: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear...Instead, strive for God's kingdom and these things will be given to you as well." (12:22-23, 31). In today's passage, and in light of such faith and trust, Jesus now invites them to give all they have away and, in the verses that follow, to look for Christ's imminent return. The edge in the last verses - reward for those who were ready and what feels like a thinly veiled threat to those who are not - only heightens the sense of expectancy for, and tension around, Jesus' instructions.
So how does one preach such a passage? Does Jesus really intend for his disciples - then or now - to give all they have away? What do we make of the urgency of his instructions to be alert two thousand years later? No wonder Peter asks whether Jesus says these things to his disciples or - hope against hope - to "everyone."
There is, however, one verse that is easy to gloss over that helps put these others in some theological and homiletical perspective: "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." "Do not be afraid" is the hallmark of good news through Scripture and occurs multiple times in Luke's story of Jesus as well. (It is also what God says to Abram in today's first reading.) Typically, "Do not be afraid," is the rhetorical prelude to the announcement of God's mighty and saving deeds. And it is the starting point and anchor for everything else in this passage. It is God's good pleasure - God's intention, plan, and delight - to give you the kingdom! If this is true, then disciples can, indeed, resist the seduction of wealth, not fall prey to constant anxiety about worldly needs, share what they have with others, and wait expectantly, even eagerly, for the coming of the Son of Man.
The point of almsgiving, I think, is not to elevate poverty - circumstantial or chosen - but rather to extol generosity as a mark of the Christian life. Similarly, the watchfulness Jesus commands is not an anxious anticipation of the end of the world but rather an eager expectation of God's consummation of history. What Jesus is commending is faith - faith that frees one to be generous; faith that enables one to leave anxiety behind; faith that creates in one confidence about a future secured not by human endeavor or achievement but by God alone.
But Jesus does not simply hold out faith as a model and goal, much less as a standard by which to judge us. Rather, Jesus creates faith by announcing a promise: Like a parent loves her children deeply and desperately and wants all good things for them, so also is it God's good pleasure to give God's children the kingdom. Promises create a shared expectation about the future and bind together the giver and receiver of the promise in that shared anticipation. Promises create relationship. Promises create hope. Promises create faith. All of our instruction about the Christian life - whether about prayer, money, watchfulness, care of neighbor, and more - are therefore anchored in the gospel promise that it is, indeed, God's good pleasure to give us the kingdom. Remembering - indeed, exalting in - this promise enables us not only to have faith, but to answer Peter's question: is Jesus saying this to us or to everyone? Yes!