Last week I heard a sermon on the parable of the watchful servants. (Luke 12:35-38). The story goes like this: the servants of a household stay up till 3 or 4 in the morning so as not to be caught ‘napping’ by the master of the household. The traditional interpretation is ‘Don’t get caught napping’ or, as this ‘T-shirt slogan’ puts it,
I’ve been mulling this story over and I really think the protestant/evangelical/traditional interpretation has got it all wrong. We have got far too fixated on the word ‘servants’ and far too obsessed with the importance of our own work. We read this little story as if the master is some mean bully who expects his hard-working servants to forego a reasonable night’s sleep just for the sake of opening the door for him. For goodness sake, it only takes one servant to open a door, why does the whole household have to stay up? And why can’t he take a key anyway?
We have missed the humour in this story and because we haven’t realised that we were supposed to laugh we have mislaid the key to understanding it.
The punch line is the part where the master arrives at three o’clock in the morning, in high spirits having been to a great party and suddenly turns the tables on his waiting servants, he puts on an apron and rustles up a fab midnight feast. (Never heard anyone labour that point in a sermon!)
Most times I’ve heard this story preached the emphasis has been on the servants staying up because there is SO much to do and they must be ‘busy, busy, busy’. Well, what were they doing all day, one wonders?
I asked myself ‘Why do they all they all stay up to three in the morning?’ That’s bonkers. So I asked myself another question: ‘Who would I stay up for? And then it hit me: I’d only stay up that late for someone I love, someone I can’t wait to see. Those crazy servants stayed up till the silly hours because they loved the guy! What’s more they know staying up would be worth it. He’d pull some daft stunt that they wouldn’t want to miss.
We read ‘it will be good for those servants whose master find them ready, even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night’ with a dreadfully straight-face and a solemn tone of voice. Like the handing out of brownie points at 3am is really worth staying up for? Nah, I don’t buy that. I don’t know how Eugene Peterson translates it but try changing ‘it will be good’ to ‘it will be a blast…‘ and you are getting closer to the idea I’m trying to express.
You stay up to see someone you love. Love is the key we have misplaced. Without it we do not understand the ridiculous behaviour of either servants or master.
The idea of the master of the household turning the tables and ‘waiting’ on his servants was so utterly ridiculous and nonsensical that surely Jesus intended us to laugh. This is an image of the generous jollity of God. The picture here is not of ‘servants’ and ‘master’ locked into a bitter, anxious, fearful relationship but instead is a picture of friends (‘I no longer call you servants’ John 15:15). The servants in this story stay up because they love this guy and they know it’s going to be fun.
So… who would you stay up for?