It was the summer after my graduation from high school. My brother John and I were driving milk truck for my dad. My father and mother were going on vacation for a week. My younger brother and sister were going along. John and I would stay at home and do the milk routes. Along with doing the routes, dad gave us a long list of other things that needed to be done. His idea was that we would be kept so busy that we would not have any time to get into trouble. John and I had other ideas. As soon as they left, we were on the phone making plans with our friends; plans that my parents would not approve of and that left little time for work. We did get the milk picked up and hauled to the creamery every day, but that was all we got done. All week we did not do one other thing on that list of work dad had given us. This was our first taste of total freedom from parental control and we weren’t about to waste any of it doing dad’s busy work.
In Mark 13 there is a parable of Jesus that describes a similar situation. In the first part of the chapter Jesus is talking about what it will be like when the world ends. Then Jesus says (v. 32f), “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be on alert! You do not know when that time will come. It is like a man (perhaps a father) going away on a journey. He leaves his house (and probably his business) and puts his servants in charge (or perhaps his sons) each with his assigned task.” Then he has to trust them; but he does tell them to keep watch, because they do not know when he will return. So “if he comes back suddenly,” Jesus says, “don’t let him find you sleeping,” or, out running around with your friends and neglecting your tasks.
This parable of Jesus and my story from my youth are both stories of what happens when the boss is absent, and in both stories this absence becomes a time of testing. Whenever the boss or the father or the owner or the teacher is absent, even for a few minutes, it becomes an occasion for a testing of the servants or the students or the employees or the sons.
You know how it goes in school. Mrs. Hanson says to her students, “Now class, I am going down the hall to the principal’s office for just a few minutes. I hope I can trust each of you to act like little ladies and gentlemen, and not like maniacs as you did last week when I left the room. You each have some spelling words to study and I hope I can trust you to do that and be quiet.”
Absence of authority is a test. The return of that person in authority is the occasion for an accounting, for judgment, and perhaps for punishment. When Mrs. Hanson returns she hears loud noises coming from her classroom. She enters the room and says, “Jimmy, what are you doing on top of my desk? Larry, get that hamster out of the aquarium! Susie, get back to your chair! All right, I’ve had enough. Nobody goes outside for recess today!” Absence of authority is a test, and failing the test will mean trouble.
An employee who works only when she is being watched is a worthless employee, and may not have her job very long. A student that behaves and works only when the teacher is hovering over him is an irresponsible student, and in the end will not get much out of school. And a son who does not do the work when his father is not around is a disappointment to that father.
The New Testament is very concerned about this problem of absence. In Matthew 24 Jesus says: “Who then is the faithful and wise servant? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find hard at work. But a wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed’ and begins to beat the other servants and get drunk. His master will come on a day he does not expect him and that servant will be punished.” In a parable in Matthew 25 Jesus said, “For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one… then he went away… After a long time, that master returned, and he settled accounts with those servants.” In Mark 12, Jesus says, “A man planted a garden, set a hedge around it, and let it out to tenants; and then he went to another country.” And again, from Mark 13: “It’s like a man going away; he leaves his house in charge of his servants, each with his assigned task.” Jesus is very concerned about this problem of absence.
When we go to church we hear stories of the time when Jesus was right here on this earth, and then we hear that he returned to his heavenly Father, and then we also hear about the promise of Jesus that he is coming again. And we then proclaim our faith in that story when we recite the Apostle’s Creed. Jesus was here, “born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate…” Jesus was here! But now he is not here, because he “ascended into heaven,” and is now “seated at the right hand of the Father.” But then we also say, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” Jesus has been here in the flesh. Now he is not here in the flesh. He is absent for a time. But he is coming again. In the meantime, how will you act in his absence? Will you remember him? Will you obey him? Will you pay attention to him, to his Word, and to his commands? Will you be ready for him when he returns? While he is absent we are being tested. In Mark chapter 13 Jesus said he was coming again, and he said, “Watch! Be on guard! Be ready!” (continued…)
Mark 13:34-35a — (Jesus said,) “It is like a man going away: He leaves his servants in charge of his house, each with his assigned task, and he tells the one at the door to keep watch. Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know when the master of the house will come back….”
Mark 12:1 — (Jesus said), then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the wine-press and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey…”
Mark 13:36-37 — (Jesus said), “If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
O Heavenly Father, in whom we live and move and have our being, we humbly pray that you so guide and govern us by the Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our daily life we may never forget you, but remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
—Church of Ireland Prayer Book