Commentary on Luke 12:32-40
We are well into the section of Luke known as the “travel narrative” where Jesus has set his sights on Jerusalem and spends about ten chapters getting there.
Jesus has a lot to say in these chapters, much of it unique to Luke’s Gospel. Some of Jesus’ best-known phrases, those pithy sayings that would certainly make it into a Jesus bestseller, Helpful Advice for Busy Christians, are found in the gospel reading for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost. The challenge, of course, is how to preach these verses as more than memorable words worthy of plaques to hang in our kitchens or offices. What might be the key to finding meaning in Jesus’ quotable quotes seemingly only applicable to church marquee signs?
Meaning in Context
We all know that a critical move for faithful biblical interpretation is to locate a passage into its multiple contexts. The context that is perhaps the most helpful for making sense of these verses is the literary context. While the pericope begins with “Do not fear, little flock,” these words of encouragement might be better heard as the conclusion to Jesus’ previous sayings. Jesus has just pointed out the lilies of the field that grow because of God’s care, the ravens for which God provides. In other words, “do not fear” is not an out-of-the-blue optimistic statement, pie-in-the-sky platitude, but one grounded in the claim that God’s faithfulness extends to the entirety of God’s creation.
As our regular Sermon Brainwave listeners know, back in January I led 31 students on a trip to the Holy Land. One of the most memorable experiences was at the Church of the Beatitudes, the place where “possibly” Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount. During the reading of the Sermon on the Mount, specifically 6:26, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” this gorgeous green, tropical-looking bird emerged from a hole in one of the trees.
Suddenly, this verse made sense. Jesus’ sermon was not hypothetical. He stood in a place such as where we were, thinking about what his disciples needed to hear. Not advice, not memory verses to be tested on later, not WWJD proverbs, but words that when heard again, when the disciples are sitting around wondering what to do, they might look up, see a bird such as the one we saw that day, and say to each other, “Remember when Jesus said…?” And the words they remember Jesus saying will not just be words from way back when Jesus was around, but words that continue to impress, inspire, uphold, and matter.
This passage from Luke falls into the same kind of category, but the theological ante has been raised a few notches. Luke’s portrait of Jesus and his presentation of the kingdom of God is rooted in the attention to and care of the entirety of what God has created and continues to create. The preacher might bring to bear the fact that Luke traces Jesus’ genealogy back to Adam, the first man. Luke’s birth narratives (John and Jesus) uphold the creative gift of giving birth, through unexpected means as Elizabeth and Mary. There is a remarkable thread that runs through this Gospel and its second volume, Acts: the ongoing creation and creative activity of God, for unexpected individuals, for communities, for a world beyond our imagining.
More Tips for Living
It would be easier to preach this passage if we just had one short and sweet mantra from Jesus. So, what does the preacher do with several such tips for Christian living? You could pick one and that would be a very good option. There are too many preachers and too many sermons that try to preach the entirety of a text, only to leave the listeners in a state of perpetual befuddlement as to what is important, what’s worth remembering beyond Sunday, what’s the one thing I can imagine for my life this week. So, choose one of Jesus’ phrases in this passage that could just be perceived as helpful advice and work it in its entirety: what Luke understands it to mean, what difference it makes for who Jesus is, how it has an impact on our lives as faithful disciples, what God is up to, and so on.
Another route is to consider the passage’s form or design: fear, treasure, and being prepared. How do you pull all of those seemingly disparate ideas together? Perhaps there is certain rationality in Jesus’ words, even in the lectionary’s chosen versification. Could there be a logic in Jesus’ ordering that indicates what a life of faith might actually look like? We are only three chapters into the travel narrative. It makes sense that Jesus consoles his followers not to fear and follows with the promise of God’s kingdom.
That is where it starts, right? The certainty of God’s favor, revealed, lived, died, raised, and ascended in Jesus. It is only after this promise that we can imagine any kind of concept of what our treasure might be. Given the choice of treasure first, we are likely to put our hope in achievements, acquisitions, and assets. Yet, when the lack of fear precedes our fear-driven desires for possessions, purchases, and procurements we might actually be able to imagine treasures beyond self-driven determination, self-assessed success, and self-obsessed security.
Being ready for Jesus’ second coming is less about any actual time and place and more about imagining Jesus’ activity in the world, when and where you least expect it or imagine seeing it. In other words, waiting around, waiting for instructions, is not going to cut it. Fear, treasure, and being prepared is the pattern for discipleship. Being without fear, knowing the source of your treasure — that is, your identity, your worth — makes it possible to be prepared for and an actual participant in God’s kingdom.