In The Brothers Karamazov, the Russian novelist Feodor Dostoyevsky tells the tale of a guardian angel who wept before God because the woman in his charge had been so wicked that she was stuck in hell. When God asked if she had ever done anything good, the angel said she had once given an onion to a beggar.
God sent the angel to find the onion and to use it to pull her out of hell. The angel succeeded in finding it. The angel held the onion out to the woman, telling her to hold on for dear life. She was on her way when other sinners grabbed her legs to hitch a ride. Then the wicked woman shouted, “It’s my onion!”, and kicked them away. With that, the onion broke and she and her companions fell into oblivion.
For the second consecutive Sunday our Gospel text features Jesus’ instructions on how to be ready for the judgement that awaits us when we die. We are not to be like that selfish woman or the greedy man in last Sunday’s Gospel who planned to store his expected bumper harvest in bigger barns rather than share it. Instead, Jesus says, we are to share our wealth with those in need. If we do, he says (Luke 12:32-48) our treasure will be in heaven where – unlike material possessions or money – it will not wear out or be destroyed.
In today’s text Jesus identifies another major way in which to be ready for the coming judgement: it is to be watchful. To make the point he tells a parable about servants waiting for their master’s return from a wedding. In those weddings in the Middle East could last for several days. Just as the servants need to be alert and ready for their Master’s return, we also must be ready for the [second] coming of Jesus as the Son of Man.
This second coming of Jesus – in glory as opposed to his first coming in poverty – was expected by early Christians to happen soon after Christ’s resurrection. However, some 50 to 60 years later it still had not taken place. To make matters worse, armies had raged against Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in the year 70 A.D. A wave of persecution followed, in which many Christians lost their lives. So as time passed, expectation turned into disappointment and it led many Christians to lose faith and even leave the Church altogether.
It was for such people that St Luke recorded those original words of Jesus that called for vigilance and the need to be ready for his return. They needed to be “dressed for action”. A better translation of “dressed for action” is “have your belt buckled tight” – that is, make sure your legs and feet are free to move swiftly and are not impeded by loose clothing that holds you back when you may have to run. Women who have tried to run in a tight skirt or men running with their pants falling down will better understand the image used here by Jesus.
For many of us here, our running days are over and we identify more with the tortoise than the hare … we are now built for comfort rather than speed! So how might we go about having our ‘belts buckled tight’ so that when the time comes to die we are ready to leave this world at peace with ourselves and others, and meet Christ with some measure of confidence rather than dread?
Perhaps you recall the story of the monk sweeping the floor who was asked what he’d do if he was told he would die within an hour? He replied that he would go on sweeping … in other words, his life was in order and he was ready for whatever was to come.
If you were to stand at the end of your life with one hour left and look back at today, what would you regret? What would you wish you had done? What is it that you’d say then in that last hour that you wished you had done … written that letter, said that word, made that telephone call, made up with a family member? Of course there may be something in our past that cannot be change – the damage has been done: we selfishly or unthinkingly gave an onion when something more was required … but might there might be some way of making up for it? The most wonderful thing about today – this very rainy day – is that there’s still time to do something about it …
Holy Name, Jesmond
11 August 2019