Luke 12 starts with Jesus addressing his disciples while a crowd listens in. He warns them to avoid hypocrisy, to fear God rather than men however powerful, and to guard against the temptation to deny him when they get into trouble with the authorities. He tells them a parable about a rich fool who thinks only of his own comfort and ease and tells them that what is truly valuable is not what you have in your bank account but what you do that aligns with the economy of heaven. Then he tells them to be always watchful for his return.
But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.Luke 12:39-40
At this point Peter interrupts with a straightforward and reasonable question. “Lord, are you telling this parable to us, or to everyone?”
But Jesus does not reply with a straightforward and reasonable response. Instead he goes on to tell yet another parable about how leaders and those in positions of influence and authority will be held to higher standards than everyone else. If a manager abuses his position of authority, his boss will come back unexpectedly and “will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.”1No one should assume from this that abusive leaders are going to hell. Jesus is not discussing their eternal fate here but warning against thinking that a position of responsibility in the kingdom of God entitles you to the sort of privileges you might expect in the world.
Before getting at what Jesus meant by this, I’d like to think about why Peter asked what he asked. Peter was already drawing a distinction between the disciples and everyone else. Indeed, Luke makes the same distinction, and in fact, such distinctions are inevitable. Of course, we must recognize those who have more experience or understanding or wisdom. Yet wherever there is distinction there is a temptation to introduce hierarchy.
Peter had just learned that the Son of Man—a messianic title Jesus often used to refer obliquely to himself—would come unexpectedly. Peter wanted to know whether it would be a surprise for everyone, or would the disciples have inside knowledge of it. Most of the disciples thought of themselves as earning positions of prominence in the coming messianic kingdom through their devotion to Jesus. Surely he would not surprise his friends, would he?
In response, Jesus makes it clear that no one will have special knowledge of his return. Instead, anyone who thinks that their authority entitles them in any way to special privileges will find out to their chagrin that they have completely misunderstood the message of the kingdom. The master will come, strip him of his rank, and assign him a place with unbelievers because in fact he has not believed the message Jesus brought about how the kingdom of heaven operates. Instead of talking about privileges and rewards for the chosen few, Jesus talks about how those who have abused others will be beaten with many or few blows depending on how much teaching they have had about how the kingdom operates. The more you know, the more you are answerable for. So, Peter, being in the inner circle does not entitle you to greater privileges but burdens you with greater responsibilities.
Is there, then, no benefit to knowing more of God’s kingdom or drawing closer to Jesus. Yes, of course. But the benefits are not the ones we typically think of: more power, more control, more deference from others, more money. Instead, the benefits in this life are more opportunities to serve, more intimacy with God, greater discernment of the truth. And in heaven a reward being stored up where there are no worries about theft or corruption.
- 1No one should assume from this that abusive leaders are going to hell. Jesus is not discussing their eternal fate here but warning against thinking that a position of responsibility in the kingdom of God entitles you to the sort of privileges you might expect in the world.