The Master Is Returning — Have We Kept the Light on for Him?

SCRIPTURES & ART: Our Lord is coming back, but we don’t know when. Are we giving a faithful account of our service?

Jan Luyken, “The Faithful and Wise Steward,” 18th century, Bowyer Bible engraving.
Jan Luyken, “The Faithful and Wise Steward,” 18th century, Bowyer Bible engraving. (photo: Public Domain)

Motel 6 used to end its commercials with the line, “We’ll leave the light on for you.” Tom Bodett’s folksy phrase evoked a feeling of home: when you’re tired, you’ve been driving a long time, your eyes are bleary and maybe it’s raining, it makes you feel good to see a light in the distance that marks home … at least for the night. 

Today’s Gospel alludes to that. A master has gone away on a journey, leaving his servants in charge of his property. They are to keep the house in order, see that his assets are safe and his resources used responsibly. Those servants should keep thieves away and be honest themselves about what’s been put in their charge. In one sense, they should feel like what their master has left them with is their own, not to abuse but to use, to use wisely. One can even imagine that trusting master putting some money in each servant’s hand just in case, and to see what he does with it — though that’s another parable.

You might say, “that’s a pretty trusting master.” You might even think he’s a bit too trusting, a tad naïve, maybe even a bit of a sucker. 

But this master and these servants have something of a relationship. Who knows how long they’ve been together? There is some measure of trust.

Those servants are you and me.

Did you ever consider the magnitude of God’s trust given man in creation? Man is made in God’s image and likeness. Man is blessed with fertility, which means he shares co-creatively with God in his work of filling this world with other persons, other images of God, and man’s given dominion over the world (See Genesis 1:26-30). 

I want to dwell on that notion of dominion, because I fear it is misunderstood and undermined in our world today. 

God gave the newly-created human person two shares in his creative work. The superior share is to participate in God’s work of creating other human persons, other images of God. With God who takes the initiative — for only God can create a soul — man and woman are privileged in their communion of persons to share in his creative work. That is why the refusal to do so is in a very real sense sacrilege.

God also gave the newly created human person dominion over the world. The world is not finished. God gave man trees but man might need a table and a chair. Getting from tree to table is why God gave man a brain: to be creative in using the things of the world for his good. God gave man the very atoms of the world, which he could use responsibly to “keep the lights on for you” or irresponsibly to annihilate humanity.

Human dominion does not mean human abuse. Man is a steward, not a master. 

But we are losing the notion of human dominion today. Basic Genesis truths — the male/female differentiation as divinely willed, human fertility as God’s first blessing, dominion over the world — are being replaced by what are honestly pagan approaches to these questions. Sure, some people might sprinkle a little holy water on them and dress them up in religious language, but the fundamental truth of human dominion is that there is a qualitative difference between the human person and the rest of the material creation. To blur that distinction is to dishonor God’s creation and to do violence to man.

But we do blur it. We blur it when we pretend that the human person is just another part of the “ecosystem” (and one with an inordinately heavy carbon footprint at that).

We blur it when we put human beings and non-human species on the same level. Just last June, lawyers lost a case in the New York State Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, trying to claim habeas corpus rights for the Bronx Zoo’s elephant. And we blur that line when we refuse new human guests at the banquet of life in the name of “the earth.”

Just as the servants in Jesus’ parable, God has entrusted enormous responsibilities to us as human beings. He trusts us because he offers us a relationship: sonship in the Son. But with it comes responsibility: “Much will be required of the one entrusted with much” (Luke 12:48).

The servant does not strictly have a right to be praised for doing his job: that he fulfills his master’s instructions is what he is supposed to do. But Jesus does call him “blessed” for “doing” his master’s will. 

Today’s Gospel is illustrated by Jan Luyken as it appears in the Bowyer Bible. We’ve met both before. Luyken was a Dutch engraver who lived in the second half of the 17th century and produced a prodigious amount of religious engravings for Protestant books. The Bowyer Bible was a project begun in 1791 in England by Protestant publisher Robert Bowyer to present an illustrated version of the Bible. Subsequent editions undertaken by Bowyer’s successors grew to 45 volumes profusely illustrated. 

Today’s engraving depicts the servants. The subtitle on the illustration is wrong — it should read Luke 12 (not 13), verses 41-48. (There are no such versions in Luke 13). 

The master has just returned. We see a servant through the doorway taking care of his horse he has just dismounted (though I am not sure horses were frequently encountered in ancient Israel). The master has entered his door. His faithful servant is showing him that the house is in good order. The master’s expression appears to signify satisfaction. Two dogs wander underfoot. Their calm demeanor clearly indicates this man belongs here, that he is their master, and they too welcome him home. Given that the dog is a symbol of devotedness, it reinforces the faithful servant’s constancy as well. 

In the background are other servants at table, apparently receiving their “food allowance at the proper time” (Luke 12:42). A faithful servant is at table, passing around a platter of food and also looks at the newly arrived master. Clearly, proper stewardship of the master’s goods — used but not abused — is taking place.

The “Master’s return” is clearly eschatological. The “true” Master who is to return is Jesus Christ in his Second Coming, a return “like a thief in the night” against whom the faithful servant is to keep watch (a key Advent theme). It’s known the Master is coming back, but we don’t know when.

The same is true of us, in our stewardship of creation both in terms of other human persons and of the non-human world. The Master is coming back, but we don’t know when. Are we giving a faithful account of our service? Are we ready to show with pride the proper care we’ve exercised, like the faithful servant in today’s illustration?

We are supposed to be the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14-16). If the Master is on his way, the question is: have we kept the light on for him?

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