March 31: Luke 12:39-40

Today’s note continues the Easter-season study of the Son of Man sayings in Luke, set during the journey to Jerusalem and thereafter. The saying under discussion is Luke 12:40, part of a larger section of teaching (vv. 35-46) with an eschatological emphasis—stressing the importance of watchfulness and faithfulness of disciples. Three sayings (or groups of sayings) have been brought together:

    • Verses 35-38, which appear to be unique to Luke (but cf. Matt 25:1-13)
    • Verses 39-40, which have a parallel version in Matthew 24:43-44
    • Verses 41-46, which are similarly parallel to Matthew 24:45-51, with vv. 41-42a providing the narrative link with vv. 35-40.

All three groups of sayings utilize the illustration of the master of a house and a visitor who arrives unexpectedly. The first and third (vv. 35-38, 42b-46) specifically paint the scenario of the master of a house who is temporarily away (v. 36); despite his absence, the servants of the house must remain faithful and conscientious in the performance of their duties, since they do not know when he might return. The first illustration is positive, describing the faithfulness of the servants (vv. 37-38); the third is primarily negative, contrasting the faithful (vv. 42-44) with the negligent/abusive servant (vv. 45-46). Later Christians have tended to read the basic setting of these illustrations—the return of the master who has gone away—with the return of Christ; however, it is unlikely that Jesus originally intended the illustrations to be understood this way. Instead, the motif appears to have a simpler purpose and meaning—to stress the end-time appearance of God coming to Judge humankind (the Old Testament “Day of YHWH”). The coming Judgment (the Kingdom of God, i.e. God as King) is near, and could commence at any time; thus Jesus’ followers (believers) must remain faithful, even if there seems to be a delay in the coming of the end. Jesus himself was extremely reluctant to discuss just when the end would come; in fact, according to at least one saying in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 13:32 par) only God the Father knows when the time will be.

Luke 12:39-40

This basic understanding of vv. 35-38, 42b-46 outlined above is important for an accurate interpretation of the saying in verse 40. Let us look at this saying in context:

    • Verses 35-38 (illustration 1)—believers (are exhorted to) remain faithful when the end-time Judgment comes.
    • Verses 39-40 (illustration 2)—the danger facing believers / the coming of the Son of Man
    • Verses 42b-46 (illustration 3)—exhortation in the face of danger: some are faithful, others are found negligent and/or wicked when the end-time Judgment comes.

The two illustrations of the Master’s return (the end-time Judgment) bracket the central illustration and so provide its semantic and interpretive context. The danger facing believers is described by the simple example of a thief who attempts to break into the Master’s house—like most thieves, he is likely to come at an unexpected moment, therefore the servants of the house must take measures to prevent it. This illustration informs Jesus’ exhortation that begins verse 40: “and (so) you (must) come to be ready/prepared…”—that is, prepared and equipped to face the danger. The “danger” is defined as attack/infiltration by the enemy, probably best understood as testing/temptation by the Devil. The lure and result of temptation, even so far as incitement to blatant wickedness, is depicted vividly in the third illustration which follows (esp. verses 45-46). Thematically, we may analyze the entire pericope as follows:

    • The impending Judgment by God (the Master’s unexpected return)
      • Faithfulness of servants/believers
        • The danger facing believers (the Master’s house)
          • The coming of the Son of Man
        • Temptation of believers toward sin and wickedness
      • Faithfulness of believers, in spite of temptation
    • The impending Judgment by God (the Master’s return)

The central event—the coming of the Son of Man—is parallel to the outer framework of the illustration, i.e. the Master’s return (the end-time Judgment by God). The core exhortation is tied to the central event, summed up by the structure of verse 40:

“And (so) you (must) come to be ready/prepared…
in that (i.e. because)
…you do not think/consider [i.e. are not aware] of which hour the Son of Man comes”

We have already looked at several sayings where the “Son of Man” functions as God’s representative: a divine/heavenly figure who would appear (with the Angels) at the end-time, and/or would oversee the Judgment (Lk 9:26f, 12:8-9). Some scholars question whether or not (originally) Jesus might have been referring to a separate figure, and not to himself. While conceivable on objective grounds, I find this to be highly unlikely. There are so many instances where, in the use of “Son of Man”, Jesus clearly refers to himself, that in eschatological passages (such as we find here) there is little reason to think that he is not identifying himself with this figure as well. In other words, Jesus is not so much the returning Master of the illustrations, but specifically the Son of Man—the personal representative of God Himself at the end-time. This identification will be discussed again in the next daily note (on Luke 17:20-37).

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