Sunday, July 31, 2022

The Coming of the Lord, or Maybe a Thief

Below is a rough translation and some initial comments on Luke 12: 32-40, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost in Year C. I hope this work seeds your own thoughts about this text and that you would feel free to share them as the week progresses. It is a joy to have you as a companion along this journey.

32 Μὴ φοβοῦ, τὸ μικρὸν ποίμνιον, ὅτι εὐδόκησεν ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν δοῦναι ὑμῖν τὴν 
Do not fear, the small little flock, because your father was pleased to give to you the kingdom.
φοβοῦ: PMImpv 2s,
εὐδόκησεν: AAI 3s, εὐδοκέω, 1) it seems good to one, is one's good pleasure 
δοῦναι: AAInf, δίδωμι, 1) to give  
1. “Small little flock”: The word for “flock” (ποίμνιον) is already a diminutive form of the word that is used elsewhere for flock (ποίμνη, Luke 2:8).   When Luke adds μικρὸν, I’m trying to reflect that double emphasis on smallness with “small little flock.” The goal now is to understand what it means.
2. The verb “pleased” is aorist, a simple past tense. Most translations make it present or something ongoing.
3. This comment about God having already been pleased to give the little flock the kingdom is curious, coming as it does on the heels of “strive for his kingdom” in the previous verse.

33 Πωλήσατε τὰ ὑπάρχοντα ὑμῶν καὶ δότε ἐλεημοσύνην: ποιήσατε ἑαυτοῖς βαλλάντια μὴ παλαιούμενα, θησαυρὸν ἀνέκλειπτον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς, ὅπου κλέπτης οὐκ ἐγγίζει οὐδὲ σὴς διαφθείρει
Sell your possessions and give an act of mercy; make for yourselves bags which do not become worn out, an unfailing treasure in the heavens, where a thief does not approach nor a moth corrupt;
Πωλήσατε: AAImpv 2p, πωλέω, 1) to barter, to sell  2) sellers 
ὑπάρχοντα: PAPart, apn, ὑπάρχω, 1) to begin below, to make a beginning  1a) to begin  2) to come forth, hence to be there, be ready, be at hand  3) to be
δότε: AAImpv 2p, δίδωμι, 1) to give
ποιήσατε: AAImpv 2p, ποιέω, 1) to make
παλαιούμενα: PPPart apn, παλαιόω, 1) to make ancient or old  1a) to become old, to be worn out  1b) of things worn out by time and use  2) to declare a thing to be old and so about to be abrogated 
ἐγγίζει: PAI 3s, ἐγγίζω, 1) to bring near, to join one thing to another  2) to draw or come near to, to approach 
διαφθείρει: PAI 3s, διαφθείρω, 1) to change for the worse, to corrupt 
1. “An act of mercy”: the verb ἐλεημοσύνην has as its root the word ἔλεος, often translated ‘mercy.’ It is singular here, but looks like a collective noun and the act of mercy is often merged with the means of mercy, hence in many translations ‘alms’. The German ‘Almosen’ and the English ‘alms’ are, according to one source, corrupted transliterations of this noun.
2. When Jesus tells a rich young man to sell all that he has, we can dismiss that as a specific instruction to a specific person who lacked one specific thing. This verse, however, is not specific, but plural. Since v.22, Jesus is addressing ‘his disciples.’

34 ὅπου γάρ ἐστιν ὁ θησαυρὸς ὑμῶν, ἐκεῖ καὶ ἡ καρδία ὑμῶν ἔσται.
For where your treasure is, there also your heart is.
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
ἔσται: FMI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
1. Not to get preachy, but don’t we typically assume that it is the other way around?

35  Ἔστωσαν ὑμῶν αἱ ὀσφύες περιεζωσμέναι καὶ οἱ λύχνοι καιόμενοι
See that your loins have been girded and your lamps are burning,  
Ἔστωσαν: PAImpv 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
περιεζωσμέναι: PerfPPart npf, περιζώννυμι, 1) to fasten garments with a girdle or belt
καιόμενοι: PPPart npm, καίω, 1) to set on fire, light, burning  2) to burn, consume with fire
1. “See that” is my way of trying to capture the imperative voice for the verb ‘to be.’ It is a command of how to be - loins girded and lamps burning.
2. The participle περιεζωσμέναι is perfect passive, ‘have been girded’. One place where the active imperative of this phrase is used repeatedly is in Job 38-41, when God answers Job out of the whirlwind and first tells him, “Gird up your loins and answer to me.” I like to interpret that, “Put on your big boy pants!” as an expression for being ready for what comes, more like putting on a crash helmet than a nice accessory. Here, the emphasis is more on preparing oneself to work well – almost like having a utility belt around the waist filled with tools for the job. The NRSV has “be dressed for action” and the NIV says “be dressed ready for service.” It is more functional than fashionable.  
3. Without commentary, let me just point out that “loins” is plural and feminine. Totally without commentary. I will not refer to the Betty White meme that’s been floating around Facebook for a couple of years. I won’t even think about it. You shouldn’t either.

36καὶ ὑμεῖς ὅμοιοι ἀνθρώποις προσδεχομένοις τὸν κύριον ἑαυτῶν πότε ἀναλύσῃ ἐκ τῶν γάμων, ἵνα ἐλθόντος καὶ κρούσαντος εὐθέως ἀνοίξωσιν αὐτῷ. 
and you likened to people who are awaiting the lord himself when he may return out of the wedding feasts, in order that having come and having knocked immediately they may open to him.
προσδεχομένοις: PMPart dpm, προσδέχομαι, 1) to receive to one's self, to admit, to give access to one's self, OR, to await.
ἀναλύσῃ: AASubj 3s, ἀναλύω, 1) to unloose, undo – but says ‘return’
ἐλθόντος: AAPart gsm, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
κρούσαντος: AAPart gsm, κρούω, 1) to knock: at the door 
ἀνοίξωσιν: AASubj 3p, ἀνοίγω, 1) to open 
1. This is still part of the sentence that begins with that imperative form of the verb ‘to be.’ The force of that verb echoes as ‘be ... like people who ...”
2. The singular and plural verbs help distinguish who is doing the returning, coming, and knocking (the lord) and who is doing the receiving and opening (the people).
3. This analogy focuses the point of being girded with lamps lit - for the sake of being able to respond immediately to the lord’s return.
4. I think it is wise to suspend our tendency to assume that any reference to “lord” – whether in the vocative address or as a character in parabolic discourse – indicates either God or Jesus. It was, and is in many place, a title of respect or a title of status. Sometimes “lords” are the last persons who seem to represent what God is like. Is it possible to say this text invites us to be ‘like people awaiting a lord’s return’ without also saying that it is about us awaiting Jesus’ return?

37μακάριοι οἱ δοῦλοι ἐκεῖνοι, οὓς ἐλθὼν ὁ κύριος εὑρήσει γρηγοροῦντας: ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι περιζώσεται καὶ ἀνακλινεῖ αὐτοὺς καὶ παρελθὼν διακονήσει αὐτοῖς. 
Blessed those slaves, whom the lord having come will find watching; truly I say to you that he will gird and will seat them and having come near will serve them.
ἐλθὼν: AAPart nsm, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come
εὑρήσει: FAI 3s, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with  1a) after searching, to find a thing sought  
γρηγοροῦντας: PAPart apm, γρηγορέω 1. watch 2. vigilant (be) 3. wake
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
περιζώσεται: FMI 3s, περιζώννυμι, 1) to fasten garments with a girdle or belt 
ἀνακλινεῖ: FAI 3s, ἀνακλίνω, 1) to lean against, lean upon  1a) to lay down 
παρελθὼν: AAPart nsm, παρέρχομαι, 1) to go past, pass by 
διακονήσει: FAI 3s, διακονέω, 1) to be a servant, attendant, domestic, to serve, wait upon
1. There is no verb in the first phrase, “blessed those slaves.” Some translations add “are,” but that might make it feel self-contained and leave it up to our imagination what it means to be ‘blessed.’ Without the verb, we have to let the full sentence show how, specifically, Jesus describes them as ‘blessed.’
2. The idea of the lord playing the role of the servant is a huge reversal in the flow of this discourse. Jesus himself will speak of how ridiculous this entire notion is in 17:7-10:  ‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’?”
3. Again, I want to keep this parable about the kind of waiting and receptivity that happens with slaves and lords without it necessarily referring to Jesus’ disciples and Jesus. That may indeed be what we ultimately interpret about the text, but it should not be the assumption that we bring to the text because of the word “lord.”

38 κἂν ἐν τῇ δευτέρᾳ κἂν ἐν τῇ τρίτῃ φυλακῇ ἔλθῃ καὶ εὕρῃ οὕτως, μακάριοί εἰσιν ἐκεῖνοι. 
And if in the second and if in the third watch he should come and should find such, blessed are they.
ἔλθῃ: AASubj 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
εὕρῃ: AASubj 3s, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with  1a) after searching, to find a thing sought
εἰσιν: PAI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. This verse just seems to intensify the previous one, that workers being ready for immediate action are even more impressive as time goes on.
2. If, in the end, we interpret this as an eschatological teaching about Jesus’ return and Jesus’ followers, it contains something that is often missing from “Look out! You don’t know the day or hour so be constantly ready!” emphases. The lord recognizes and appreciates the burden of constant vigilance, especially as time wanes on and on. It is not that the waiting is a ‘test’ to see if the slaves are good slaves or not. The waiting happens because there are wedding feasts that the lord is rightly attending. When they are done, however, those who are waiting and on call will be appreciated and blessed by the lord’s own service.
3. This time, the phrase “blessed are they” does have a verb.

39τοῦτο δὲ γινώσκετε ὅτι εἰ ᾔδει ὁ οἰκοδεσπότης ποίᾳ ὥρᾳ ὁ κλέπτης ἔρχεται, οὐκ ἂν 
ἀφῆκεν διορυχθῆναι τὸν οἶκον αὐτοῦ. 
But know this that if the house despot had known what hour the thief comes, then he did not allow his house to be broken into.  
γινώσκετε: PAImpv 2p, γινώσκω, 1) to learn to know, come to know, 
ᾔδει: PluperfectAI 3s, εἴδω, to see, to perceive 
ἔρχεται: PMI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  
ἀφῆκεν: AAI 3s, ἀφίημι, 1) to send away, permit, forgive, and a number of other uses.  
διορυχθῆναι: APInf, διορύσσω, 1) to dig through: a house 
1. I like to use ‘house despot’ because that is a transliteration of οἰκο/δεσπότης. I do admit, however, that the Greek term does not necessarily carry the negative connotation that the word ‘despot’ evokes. Sometimes it does! And that is important, because when this word is translated “owner,” we often assume that it is a God figure. We’re still exercising caution and patience on that one.
2. I’m reading the ‘house despot’ as like the household manager, different from the lord, but responsible for the security of the house. (Carson, for you Downton Abbey fans.)
3. In English, the pluperfect and the present tense sound odd together the second phrase (‘if the house despot had known what hour the thief comes’). Likewise, the aorist indicative in the last phrase seems like it ought to be a perfect subjunctive (‘he would not have allowed’ instead of the given ‘he did not allow’). Most translation refine my awkward rough translation, but I am trying to be as literal as possible.
4. There is a radical shift in the analogy here from the return of the lord after wedding feasts to the coming of a thief. In the first analogy, they knew the lord would return and the point was to be on constant readiness for it because the precise time was not known. In the second analogy, the thief is the one who comes when the homeowner is not expecting it. The entry of a thief is a truly random unwanted event, whereas the return of the lord is an imprecise expected event. What do these two disparate figures mean when used side-by-side here?

40καὶ ὑμεῖς γίνεσθε ἕτοιμοι, ὅτι ἧ ὥρᾳ οὐ δοκεῖτε ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἔρχεται.
And you become ready, because in the hour you do not think the son of man comes.
γίνεσθε: PMImpv 2p, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence,
δοκεῖτε: PAI 2p, δοκέω, 1) to be of opinion, think, suppose 
ἔρχεται: PMI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
1. Okay, NOW we have permission to consider the previous references as the coming of the Son of Man. However, there are challenges.
2. The verb δοκέω is more of a supposition than something one knows via experience.
3. I guess one legitimate question is whether the coming of the son of man is a) like the joyous return of the lord of the house or b) like the regretful coming of a thief in the night. A) The lord comes, finds people ready and is so thankful for their service that he becomes a servant to them. B) The thief comes and, if people are ready, will get his neck broken. If they are not ready, he’ll rob them blind.
Which of these seems more like what we should anticipate with the coming of the son of man? Or, how do we hold both in tension? The pericope that follows (vv.41-48) suggests that outcome A might await those who are ready and outcome B might await those who use the biding time being vicious toward others.

The question still lingers: Why does Jesus begin these words telling the “small little flock” not to fear? Perhaps there are a few for whom the return of the lord (if the “lord” in the parable is a figure of Jesus) will be a rewarding experience because they were ready and waiting. And perhaps the majority will experience that coming differently, like an unwanted, unexpected thief in the night, who leaves behind a trail of sorrows.

It seems like a next important step is to embed this pericope within the context surrounding it, to see what, exactly, the small little flock might be fearing and to see if the ‘lord’ or ‘thief’ metaphors, or both, are what one should expect when the son of man comes. 


  1. Any chance we can dialog on debts/trespasses and the significance of that in the Lord's Prayer??

    Love your exegesis. Very helpful.

    1. Hi Rosemary, I'd love to have that conversation with you and any others who might join in. Why don't you kick it off, so we can make sure we go in the direction of your interest?

    2. I'd like to follow that conversation too - I think that's an interesting point.

    3. Thanks, Mark, In my mind, a trespass is crossing another's boundary. Debt is something one owes. So why are these words used in the Lord's Prayer vs. the word sin. Is it based in the OT tradition of Shemitah (sp?) where every 7 years everyone is forgiven of their debts, meaning that when we forgive or are forgiven, we are truly forgiven and washed clean. In other words, forget it and do not keep rehashing our sins. We are clean, forgiven... a clean slate. What is the Greek definition for the word? Thank you!

    4. Rosemary, Matthew 6:12 reads, καὶ ἄφες ἡμῖν τὰ ὀφειλήματα ἡμῶν, ὡς καὶ ἡμεῖς ἀφήκαμεν τοῖς ὀφειλέταις ἡμῶν:
      The word ὀφειλήματα is often translated as 1) that which is owed 1a) that which is justly or legally due, a debt.
      6:14 reads, Ἐὰν γὰρ ἀφῆτε τοῖς ἀνθρώποις τὰ παραπτώματα αὐτῶν, ἀφήσει καὶ ὑμῖν ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ οὐράνιος:
      The word παραπτώματα is often translated as "trespasses," and can mean: "a failing when one should have stood upright, a misfall, mishap; hence, a falling aside from right, truth, or duty, the particular and special act of sin from ignorance, inadvertence, or negligence."
      It doesn't appear that there is a one-to-one perfect correspondence between these words and the words that we often use when we say the Lord's Prayer in English, but the term in v.12 certainly seems to be an economic term that is used metaphorically to signify many kinds of obligations and indebtedness.

  2. Thanks Mark,

    I check in here regularly and always find fresh insight into the passage. Tonight it is experiencing the coming thief/lord differently depending our preparation. Thanks for the playfulness as well. Now I have something completely new to consider when girding loins come up.

    1. Thanks Thomas,
      After my text study group on Tuesday, I think I was more confused than ever over the relationship between (1) the coming of the master (slaves ready, master pleased, slaves rewarded by master's service); (2) the coming of the thief (house manager not ready; surprise); and (3)the coming of the son of man (at the unexpected time). Are they all describing the same event? Do 1 and 2 describe 3? Does 1 or 2 describe 3 from 2 different perspectives? Is 1 addressing regular folk and 2 addressing leadership (which might be what prompts Peter's question that follows)? Are these run-on images, rather sloppily joined together?
      When I get this confused I start to remember that it's not my job to master the text, but to let it overtake me. This Bible study stuff is rather humbling!

  3. Thanks Mark,

    I check in here regularly and always find fresh insight into the passage. Tonight it is experiencing the coming thief/lord differently depending our preparation. Thanks for the playfulness as well. Now I have something completely new to consider when girding loins come up.

  4. Thinking about the link you made between God having been pleased to give the kingdom and the verses before in which the flock is exhorted to strive for the kingdom: perhaps God's loving intention is to give the kingdom freely, but there is something in the striving that is beneficial to our (the flock's) growth in faith? There is tension there that mirrors the tension between faith and works, I think.

    1. I like that, @revscarter! It bothered me for a long time (decades!) that God was always asking for praise and thanksgiving. It reminded me of an executive hiring a lot of "yes-men," to agree with everything he says and buck up his ego. I really don't think God has an ego that needs bucking up! But then I saw some studies (I don't have any links right now, but could probably come up with some) showing that people who pray and praise God are emotionally, and sometimes physicaly, healthier than people who don't! We're supposed to do it, not for God's sake, but for our own. I think it's all part of the striving you mention, and it's good for us.

    2. My mentor often said, "God wants from us what is good for us."

  5. BTW, this is my favorite first look at the scriptures each week now. Thanks for all of your work!

  6. Rev,
    I'm always a little wary of imposing the terms of our post-biblical debates onto the Scriptures themselves, but I agree that the faith/works tension seems inescapable when reading this chapter. As usual, there is probably a higher wisdom that is both/and whenever we have calcified the debate into an either/or.
    Thanks for your nice comment about the blog. I'm honored.

  7. I hadn't noticed until now that we could possible link verse 33 (unfailing treasure where no thief comes near) and the imagery of the thief in the parable. Until now, I presumed verse 34 to be the completion of the conversation about the rich fool...but perhaps the discourse really does connect. Treasure stored in silos will ultimately be vulnerable to moth, rust, thievery, and rot. And though one is prepared for their immediate future needs, one's heart is stored up in the silos with the treasure. Still fleshing it all out, but I thought the 'thief' connection intriguing.

    1. Excellent, excellent connection and suggestion, Tobi. Thanks from many of us.

  8. Appreciate your work. I think for this passage, taking all of chapter 12 is the key. To me, it is about hypocrisy and how Jesus will divide hypocrites from the faithful.

    At the beginning, he is separating the two: Hypocrites fear those who kill the body, non-hypocrites fear the one who can send them to hell. Hypocrites deny Jesus before man, non-hypocrites confess Jesus before men. Hypocrites lay up treasure for themselves they can't keep, non-hypocrites seek the kingdom of God. All in all, we can see that hypocrites are motivated by fear. (fear of bodily death, fear of man, fear of lack). Then Jesus says, "Fear not."

    And he describes the 2 types. The faithful servants (non-hypocrites) who are doing the right things (not extraordinary things, but the things servants do) while not being watched and they are rewarded for it. Then, the hypocrites, who having the title of high-servant, in the absence of the master's eyes do not do what they should, instead playing the master themselves. In the end, both servants get different results.

    Once we get to verse 49 when Jesus talks about fire (something that refines items, separating gold from dross) we see confirmation of the idea of Jesus, not sowing discord, but dividing between those who are faithful followers, and those who claimed to be but were not (hypocrites).

  9. Or perhaps we are all both hypocrite and non-hypocrites at differnt times and situations - a refining fire cleanses our own dross. Divides the marrow and the bone!

  10. Jonathan and Bruce: Thanks for your comments. I am not entirely sure what to do with some of the language in this chapter, so your comments are helpful. Thanks again, MD


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