Proper 14: Genesis 15.1-6; Psalm 33.12–end; Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16; Luke 12.32-40
O God, you declare your almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity: mercifully grant to us such a measure of your grace, that we, running the way of your commandments, may receive your gracious promises, and be made partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
THOMAS CRANMER faithfully translated the collect for the 11th Sunday after Trinity from the Sarum Missal: “God, which declares thy almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Give unto us abundantly thy grace, that we, running to thy promises, may be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure.”
The revision of the BCP in 1661-62 altered the prayer enough to create a different relationship. No longer was it through active faith in the promises of God that human beings came to know the blessings of God’s Kingdom. Instead, they were to obey God’s commandments first, as the condition of entering into promises made to those who faithfully obeyed.
Matthew Wren, Bishop of Ely from 1638 to 1667, is possibly responsible. One authority described Wren’s approach as “thoroughly prosaical” (F. E. Brightman, The English Rite, vol. 1, 1915).
Even the prosaic has its uses. The shift from “promises” to “commandments” opens up the question what lies at the roots of faith. Why did Abram believe without any tangible proof (Genesis 15.4-5)? Why did Jesus’s audience have no need to fear in dangerous times (Luke 12.32)?
The answer is that they understood God to be a God who keeps promises. God’s promises were serious and binding agreements. To enter into them, as Abram does, or to inherit them as descendants of Abram, was to be part of a reciprocal commitment.
Norman Whybray calls the verse that sums this up one of the most significant statements in scripture: “And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15.6 in The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, 2001).
New Testament writers took this up, both to urge belief in the gospel rather than doing the works of the law (Galatians 3.1-9), and to argue that righteousness required works as well as faith (James 2.23). For the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 11.8-10), Abram’s belief is a shining example of the faith lyrically defined as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11.1).
Abram and the other great exemplars of faith were content to die without seeing promises fulfilled; for they had already seen the full flowering of their hope, in the place where their true home lay, beyond this world (Hebrews 11.13-14).
The idea that the Christian’s true home was in heaven, and that earthly life was a pale shadow of an eternal reality, was to become a popular theme in the spiritual tradition. To attribute this view to Jesus himself, however, would be to misrepresent his teaching.
In warning his followers of future trials, and reminding them of the final judgement of the glorified Son of Man, he is preparing them for hardship. These things will be part of what it means to be faithful, but they are not reasons to reject the world. Rather, they call for an adjustment of values (Luke 12.13-31).
Jesus’s address to the “little flock” (Luke 12.32) gives his followers confidence to give up surplus earthly trappings, and form their deepest attachments to something more enduring. They can be certain that such investment will deliver rewards, because the God who already provides all that they need wants to give them so much more. All they must do is to put themselves in a position to receive it (Luke 12.32).
There is a ring of folk wisdom about having one’s treasure and one’s heart in the same place (Luke 12.34), as if Jesus knew that audiences usually understand concrete examples better than abstractions.
Then comes an abrupt change of subject, from encouragement to warning. Some of the elements of the first story occur elsewhere (Matthew 24.42-51, 25.1-13; Mark 13.32-37), but Luke synthesises to provide a new insight. This account concentrates exclusively on those who stay awake. The master demonstrates his approval not only verbally, but by becoming their servant, and waiting on them (Luke 12.37).
The lesson will be reinforced, when the disciples forget the Kingdom in their later squabbles over status (Luke 22.24-47).
The second warning might seem a rather sinister way of presenting the Second Coming, although not inconsistent with the emphasis on possessions that has been part of this episode (Luke 12.39-40). It may even have been a standard metaphor (1 Thessalonians 5.2; 2 Peter 3.10; Revelation 16.15).
Jesus speaks plainly because he does not want those whom he loves to lose — through their own indolence and inattentiveness — what God has promised to them. The promise of the Kingdom depends on the energy and will of recipients, who will give their hearts and minds to God’s project for the redemption of the world.