Luke 12:35-40, 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
I have a theory that Filipino drivers are one of the most alert drivers in the world (with the Italians coming at a close second maybe). That’s because they never know what’s coming at them. The unpredictability sharpens their senses. When I was learning to drive, my father wisely advised me: never assume anything, never take anything for granted. Before we left for our regular family outings, the spare tire was always checked, the oil and brake fluid inspected. Philippine roads and Filipino drivers are unpredictable. Best to be prepared.
That’s very much in tune with the summons of the Gospel today. Be prepared. For you do not know the hour when the Son of Man will come. It does not help at all that his arrival is likened to the coming of a thief in the night. Some of us think it is about death and that God comes surreptitiously from behind to steal the life out of us, at a time we do not expect.
If there were anything worth stealing by God from us, would it be life? Even if he had the power to deal death, would the creator of life, the author of love come to steal the life out of us? Or would he not rather steal whatever it was that was possessing us, looting our lives, and disfiguring our faces? Would he not steal death from our hands? Would we not rather have fear, including the fear of death, or doubt or sadness or even pride stolen from us?
Be prepared, we are told. The thief will come. And all these things worth stealing will be taken from us. But not just yet.
And so the uncertainty unsettles us. The unpredictability of his coming and his presence can go both ways. We who so desire for this encounter to take place can choose to give up or we can decide to remain vigilant. We can choose to fret over the delay and give in to resignation. When our dreams are not met, when things are beyond our control, it can be disconcerting and depressing.
Or we can choose to keep watch through the night, hanging on to the promise of his coming as Abraham clung to an impossible dream that was promised him, “descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky and as countless as the sands on the seashore.” And as the author to the Hebrews in the second reading tells us, Abraham kept this vigil and longing all his life, and he did so while leaving the certitude of home, “not knowing where to go”, journeying on the instinct of faith, only believing “that the one who had made the promise was trustworthy.”
To remain vigilant over his coming is to learn to live with the essential openness of life, the fluidity of love, and the infinite ways we can be startled by grace. To the untrained eye, our stories may appear to move along predictable arcs as stars follow fixed trajectories in the sky. But to eyes that have gazed at the heavens long enough, even stars are not as static as they once were thought to be.
To keep vigil for his coming is to learn to confront the complacency, the deadening of the soul that comes with whatever saturates the senses. The saturation can enter stealthily into our lives, jamming the signal of God’s presence with noise that radiates from the trappings of comfort, the arrogance of power, an overload of grief or guilt, and even from a culture of senseless violence and death.
To keep watch over his coming is to immerse ourselves in wonder. It is to discover what lies beneath all the patterns we have discerned, beneath whatever we have learned to engineer and control. There is at the bottom only an abiding sense that all this is not necessary. All life is radically contingent. All this is gift. And real gifts are hardly deserved. Real gifts are hardly predictable. To the watchful soul who waits through the night, even heaven is a gift you pray for, hope for and long for. It is not a reward you are entitled to nor a trophy you can ever earn.
Christians are probably one of the most alert believers in the world. The Lord cautions them continually to be prepared. They never know what’s coming at them. They do not know the hour. They can be joyful and brave however long the Master may take in coming. But they are keenly aware that even the road to heaven can be unpredictable. Best to be prepared.