TEXT: Luke 12:32-40
“Blessed are those servants whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.” (Luke 12:37)
Perhaps I don’t often enough quote from the King James Version of the Bible; it has an eloquence like few other things ever written in English. But knowing my usual habit, you may ask yourselves, “So what’s with the King James English this time?”
Well, at least in part, it’s because I want to quote something else to you—and it’s from roughly the same era. It’s the opening passage from a poem called “Love,” which was written by George Herbert, who lived from 1593 to 1633—about the time of Shakespeare. Here goes:
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d anything.
Herbert actually wrote three poems with the same title of “Love,” but near his death, he left this poem, the one that begins, “Love bade me welcome,” as the last poem. It was his final word, so to speak, on the subject of faith.
The poet George Herbert was one of those on his way up in the world of King James* (the one who commissioned the translation of the Bible which bears his name). Herbert may have aspired at one time to an important government office under King James. But then he decided to let his life take a permanent and irreversible detour to an out-of-the-way parish in the southwest of England, where he served quietly as pastor for the last three years of his life of just 40 years.
He could have taken steps leading toward high political office, but he gave up his secular ambitions in order to preach and to write poetry. Herbert said, “his soul drew back” in the presence of Love. In this poem, Love is his word for God.
We understand, don’t we? We also draw back in the presence of a superior. Wherever you are in life, are there not people above you? And in their presence, are you quite the same as you are with your peers? In the presence of one with titles, or position, or power, do not all of us show some kind of deference—or even reverence?
Life is marked by roles and expectations. Social rules dictate that some are higher and some are lower on the scale. And even though democratic societies are founded on the notion that all are created equal, we still live and work in situations where this ideal is not practiced.
This is an “up-down” world. But if we think we live in a time marked by expectations about roles and about one’s place in society, it’s nothing compared to the world that Jesus knew. Jesus lived in a time where a few were privileged and most were deprived. We see the issue of class in all those parables Jesus told about a master and the servants—and in today’s gospel reading.
And of course, what caused Jesus all kinds of problems was that his opponents thought he didn’t understand the rules governing society and religion. They thought he was just an ignorant carpenter, and they said he ate and drank with sinners—as if he didn’t know any better.
The whole ministry of Jesus was marked by a curious kind of crossing as he moved from the segment of society ruled by the religious establishment to that of the ruled—the underclass, those without property, the outcasts. He said the first would be last, and the last would be first. What a revolutionary statement! It was a message to trouble the powerful and comfort the powerless.
Jesus told his disciples that they should think of themselves as servants. That may be harder for us to consider than it was for them. They called him “rabbi” or “teacher.” In the Greek New Testament, the word is kurios, which means “lord” or “master.” Applying that term to Jesus shows that they already looked upon him in a special way. They were ready to serve him and his cause. It is a role that Jesus even commends them for (see Luke 17:7-10; John 13:13). The loyalty of a servant to a master is commendable.
Duty makes sense. You do what you have to do, and when you do it well and thoughtfully, it feels right. To be sure, you don’t always get rewarded for doing your duty or for doing what is right; it is just what you do.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says servants should have their lamps lit. They should be ready for action. They should be waiting for their master to return. That’s what you would expect faithful servants to be doing. If the master comes in the middle of the night, he will be pleased to find the house well-lit. Once their master has returned, those servants will know they have done the right thing by being ready and watchful.
They would also still be servants. They would be ready to continue as servants. Like George Herbert, in the presence of their master, their souls would draw back, “guilty of dust and sin.” They would know their place in the system—a place ready to serve their lord and master—ready to serve his needs and not their own.
Then Jesus says something really astounding—something so shocking that this had to be one of those little parables that quickly made its way from house to house and town to town. This had to be one of those stories, for it contains something totally unexpected.
Jesus says of the master that he should fasten his belt. Now, you’ve got to understand, masters of a household don’t do this. In Jesus’ place and time, there were all kinds of rules regarding dress and decorum for both men and women. It’s a world where very little skin shows. For example, men who wear long traditional robes will hardly even make their feet visible. To “fasten his belt”—as a modern translation has it—or “he shall gird himself” as the King James Version translates it, means to hike up your robe.
The robe is lifted up and then tied around the waist, so it doesn’t drag on the ground. Once the robe is out of the way, a servant can move easily and quickly. Being a servant means getting a job done, even if it means sacrificing your dignity—even if it means letting others see your legs!
Never, though, never would a master gird his loins, except for a most extreme or unusual emergency. But Jesus says the master becomes the servant. And yes, Jesus said that of himself: “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, an act so memorable that John felt it was the keystone event of the last supper. And here in today’s gospel, Jesus says that the servants will sit at the table while the master waits on them. All of these were images and ideas that stunned his original audience. And when we grasp the full meaning of it, we, too, can stand in utter awe that God would love us that much.
Here, again, are the words of the poet George Herbert:
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat.
So I did sit and eat.
The dialogue between master and servant comes to an end as the servant accepts the offer.
How hard it is to accept such a reversal. How difficult it is to accept that our faults, our unworthiness, our inferiority, do not matter at all. Shame and guilt—that is the point at which we are met and accepted! The grace of this relationship with God is all about the gift that is given—not about a gift that is earned. It is about a place at a table that is there when we least expect it—because it is about the Lord who loves the undeserving ones. So when we are less, when we are least, and when we are lost, God stoops to welcome us. Love bids us welcome. To call Jesus “Lord” and “Master” does not mean that the gulf between us is so great that we must hang our heads in shame all the while we are on our knees. “I no longer call you servants,” he said, “but friends.” (John 15:15)
This change in relationship—where we are fed at the table—is not about us, but it is about Christ. It is about our accepting God’s grace, and it is about how God meets us in our lostness and in our leastness. That understanding permeates Herbert’s poem—and it explains why his poem is so enduring. “Quick-eyed love”—the “love that bore the blame”—does not ask us to prove ourselves or to climb up on some ladder of perfection. We are simply asked to be part of a community marked by acceptance and forgiveness.
Let us pray that the sense of community we have in the church may be marked by a willingness to be centred in such love. Let us pray that we, like the servants described by Jesus, might let him serve us at the point of our greatest need. Let us accept the welcome offered to us by the “Love that bore the blame.” Amen.
* When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, Scotland and England united under King James VI of Scotland who then became King James I of England, the first of the Stuart line. In 1604, at the Hampton Court Conference, James authorized theologians to start a new translation for all English-speaking parishes. Forty-seven scholars were convened, worked for seven years, and produced The King James Authorized Version of the Bible in 1611.