Commentary on Luke 12:32-40
The movie Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) is a puzzle of shifting espionage identities and double agents. What one sees is rarely what one gets. This week’s passage is full of shifting identities, as well. How else to explain a reading where a thief is described as both a threat (verse 33) and creation’s salvation (verses 39-40)?1 How else to account for metaphors that keep shapeshifting from verse to verse—particularly in relation to the Divine? One might call this week’s reading: Shepherd, Master, Servant, Thief.
It is not just the timing of God’s apocalyptic appearance that remains mysterious. It is the function and character of that appearance—and the identity of God’s very self. Is God’s arrival to be longed for or dreaded? Wakeful readiness is key in either scenario; that much is clear. What is unclear is the mood of that hair-trigger anticipation. What is at stake? And who is this divine Mystery—this shepherd who breaks into homes, this master who returns from weddings to serve food to bleary-eyed servants?2
Everything hinges, of course, on who readers imagine themselves to be. Our identities shift in the passage as well. We are frightened sheep, and we are heirs of a kingdom. We are keepers of treasure, and we are slaves. We are either owners of a house or accomplices to a great heist. One could read verses 39-40 as if we were trying to keep a Holy Thief from plundering our possessions. But the command to be “ready” makes us sound complicit in this divine caper—creating a disturbance in the kitchen perhaps or turning a lock when we hear a soft knock. It makes us sound like we have a part to play in the Son of Man’s stealing back of creation.
The passage plays out in two movements. The content of the first relates to verses 22-31 and deals with wealth and possessions. The content of the second is related to vocation and what it means to live awake—what it means to give oneself entirely to the purpose for which one has been created. It speaks of “being ready for action and having your lamps lit” (verse 35). One might think the lectionary has combined the two sections roughly if it were not for the prescience of their combined description in describing the dangers of contemporary consumption. In the recent Broadway musical, Hadestown (2016)3, Hades commands the shades of the underworld to build a wall. These dead souls “keep their heads low” and no longer remember their names or identities. In a call and response chorus, they repeat the catechism that Hades has taught them. They build the wall to keep out the enemy of poverty, to keep what they have from those who “have not.” It is a chilling description of the fear that Jesus works to dismantle in verses 32-34. But what is most chilling is the song’s final stanza. “What do we have that they should want?” Hades asks. And instead of pointing to possessions or pleasures, the shades point to the endless cycle of their work. “We have a wall to work upon. We have work and they have none.” The fear of poverty has driven a false vocational obsession; and the false vocational obsession has made Hades’s legions forget who they are.
Preachers and biblical commentators can approach these passages with an embarrassed sophistication, apologizing for the text’s economic idealism from the start. “Jesus certainly doesn’t mean to sell all one’s possessions; he doesn’t even say the word ‘all!’ A little wealth does no harm. Balance in all things!” I think these approaches miss the passage’s urgency and foreclose a powerful preaching opportunity. There is a thief who steals and destroys—and there is a Thief who saves. In the words of Alyce McKenzie, God’s Holy Thief is a “burglar…[who] returns to steal our false priorities and overturn our unjust structures.”4 When he breaks into our house, we will never be the same.
Jesus, with the wisdom of a patient shepherd, diagnoses the key factor in discerning one thief from the Other: fear (verse 32). More than this, he tells his little flock how fear can be overcome. “Sell your possessions” and “give alms” (verse 33). Don’t let your congregation off the hook with rationalizations here. Wake them up to themselves. Press the point. They have not sold all they have? Fine. When is the last time they have sold anything of genuine value and given it away? When is the last time they lived unafraid, slaves to a God who serves rather than an empire that destroys?
Hadestown is also about a thief. It is the story of the poet-musician Orpheus, who breaks into hell to free his love. The Greek myth ends in tragedy. But the Son of Man is on a similar rescue mission, a mission to wake the world and free the dead. His story has a different ending. Dress for action, and light your lamps. He’s coming.
- A “thief in the night” is a recurring New Testament image to describe the anticipated parousia (for example 1 Thessalonians 5:2; 2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 3:3; 16:15).
- Luke 22:23 echoes this theme of a master who serves.
- Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown: Live Original Cast Recording, London: Parlophone Records, 2017.
- Alyce McKenzie, “Mise en Place: Reflections on Luke 12:32-40,” Patheos, August 1, 2013.