51. Owners, Servants & Thieves

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 51.  Owners, Servants and Thieves

Mt 24:42,43   Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.

Again there are two analogies here and again we will run them together because of the unity of what is being said. Remember, the context is the teaching Jesus has just been giving his disciples about the characteristics of the Church age, the coming disaster on Jerusalem and Israel, and the signs of the End Time just before he returns.  It is in the light of all this that he now says, Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” (v.42) and then a little later,So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (v.44) and sandwiched between those two exhortations comes the first analogy-cum-parable. Keep watch and be ready are the two direct instructions.

“If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.” (v.43) What? Where did that come from? Well just look at the two instructions again. First, keep watch. Ah!, “he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.” Second, be ready. Be ready for what? “If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming.” Ah! Yes, the potential of a burglar coming.

Most of the time we probably don’t think about these things but in this last week there have been three burglaries in the street in which I live!!! Suddenly we are all alert to the possibility that ‘we might be next’ and so we are alert and taking extra precaution to be ready to keep out intruders!

And so Jesus says have these two things in mind all the time as you pass through your life, being ready because we know one day – either at his coming or our going to heaven before, maybe – we will see him face to face. So be alert because you don’t know when it will be, but the signs in the sky will give you a good indication that there’s not much time left.

Be quite clear on the structure of this chapter that we considered in the previous study. The things we see in the first section are just the general characteristics of this age, so wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, false Christs, deceptive teaching sometimes, all this is just par for the course and will carry on until the end of this age whenever that will be. It’s when the big things start happening. Remember in the previous section, squeezed between two references to his coming again we find, “Immediately after the distress of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” (24:29) The ‘distress of those days’ refers to the Church period which is often stressful. Now whether these ‘signs in the sky’ are literal or figurative referring to persons, only time will tell, but those things haven’t happened yet, so be at peace – but be ready and be alert for they could be tomorrow.

But then Jesus adds what is more a parable than an analogy – or is it? “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns.” (v.45,46)  That is the ideal picture, Jesus implies. There is a household and the owner has put a servant in charge of the household who is faithful and wise and always makes sure the rest of the servants are looked after all the time. He is commended. Surely this has to be a reference to spiritual leaders who provide for the rest of God’s children and will keep doing so faithfully until Jesus returns again. Jesus concludes, “I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.” (v.47)

But that isn’t the end of his analogy-cum-parable, there is a ‘But’! There is an alternative then portrayed: “But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, `My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards.” (v.48,49) Wow! That is bad! That chief servant takes advantage of the fact that the master seems to be staying away a long time and he takes advantage of the other servants. That is bad. So Jesus gives a severe warning: “The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (v.50,51) The master IS going to come back one day, Jesus IS going to return one day and if he finds abuse by those who should know better there will be a serious accounting!

Now in the light of all that has gone before we cannot help think of the Pharisees who Jesus said put burdens on the people and basically abused them with their additional interpretations of the Law. These surely must be in the firing line of Jesus’ story. Yet these are analogies that apply to all of us. As we concluded the previous study, it is relevant to note that Luke records Jesus saying, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:8) When Jesus comes again, will he find you and me people of faith? Will we be those with an ear open to the Lord and then be those who obey what we hear, whether it is what we ‘hear’ when we read His word, when we read bible notes, when we hear sermons or when we hear the quiet whisper of His Spirit into our hearts? Being faithful means being obedient to whatever we hear. May it be so.

20. Laws of Theft

Lessons from the Law: No.20 : Laws of Theft

Ex 22:1 “If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.

In the Ten Commandments we have already seen, “You shall not steal” (Ex 20:15) but, as we have already commented, laws are not only to restrain sin, as that command does, they are also to legislate for when sin has occurred. Elsewhere in the Pentateuch we have laws for dealing with that sin before God (laws of sacrifice – see Leviticus) but here in today’s verses we have how to deal with that sin in society. It is a recognition that we live in a Fallen World where people will go contrary to the basic laws God laid down.

So, we now come to the law of straight-forward theft. Being an agricultural economy, theft of animals was clearly the worst sort of theft envisaged because it took away a family’s food or livelihood. Domestic theft is that sort covered here. The law here seems to have an element of deterrence in it. The assumption is, of course, that the thief has been found out. The thief has stolen an animal belonging to someone else and has either killed it or sold it on. If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it.” In other words, there is no possibility of giving it back. The original owner has lost his property and there is no way of returning it.

Now here comes the tough part for the thief: he is to pay back fivefold cattle or fourfold sheep to the man he stole from:he must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. Without any doubt that is a strong penalty and a strong deterrent.  A few verses on the possibility of the animal still being alive is dealt with: If the stolen animal is found alive in his possession–whether ox or donkey or sheep–he must pay back double.” (v.4) In other words, he’s not going to get away with just giving back the animal; there is an element or punishment or deterrent about it, for he has to give double what he took. Yet there is a further element to be added: “A thief must certainly make restitution, but if he has nothing, he must be sold to pay for his theft.” (v.3b) This surely is the ultimate deterrent: if you steal and can’t pay the appropriate amounts you will end up working to pay for the debt. It is unclear whether this means slavery, which is unlikely in the light of our previous considerations, and so it probably means, more likely, that he will have to work as a servant, a little bit like our modern community service. It is interesting that our modern law is moving closer to the Law of Moses.

Next comes dealing with the situation of where a thief breaks in and the homeowner, defending himself or his home, kills the intruder: “If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if it happens after sunrise, he is guilty of bloodshed.” (v.2,3) The law is very simple: if it happens after dark, the homeowner is not guilty; if it happens in the daylight, he is. Presumably there is a recognition that in the dark there is a greater likelihood of fear and great probability of violent defense, and greater difficulty in being careful to avoid over use of force that might result in death of the intruder. In the daytime presumably there is less fear and it is easier to control what takes place, and therefore the homeowner should do what he can to avoid seriously injuring the intruder. In recent years court cases have come more in line with this way of thinking. It is a recognition of the practical difficulty in carefully defending your home, especially at night.

For those who have the tendency to criticise the Law of Moses as either harsh or outdated, the consideration of these laws should provide an adequate rebuttal for both claims. In each law, that we have been considering in these laws of chapters 21and 22, there is a strong concern for the wellbeing of all the parties concerned. We have also seen that our own legal system now operates in very similar ways to the ways we have been considering. There is nothing haphazard about these laws. They are very down to earth, showing a clear understanding of the failures of the human race while at the same time seeking to provide the best possible guidance for how to deal with those failures. There is nothing ‘religious’ or ‘super-spiritual’ about these laws. To the contrary, they simply display the wisdom and compassion and understanding of the Lord.

Death-bed Confessions

Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.Luke 23:43
Yesterday we saw Jesus’ consideration and desire for all those involved in bringing him to this point. Today we see an equally remarkable example of care and compassion.  Two thieves are being crucified alongside him.  One of them reviled Jesus but the other one saw Jesus’ innocence and, by the way he spoke, accepted Jesus for who he was. Today we might speak of a ‘death-bed confession’ when someone genuinely turns to God in the closing minutes of their life.    In that respect we might see Jesus responding in the way that a modern day priest might, pronouncing absolution.  The one thing the dying person wants is assurance of their future, the other side of death.  Jesus gives it to this man.  He acts as a priest.   But the man has just spoken about Jesus as if he is a king about to enter his kingdom on the other side of death, and there is about Jesus’ response, a certain definiteness that is akin to a regal pronouncement.  The king is declaring his will.   Jesus is speaking as both a priest and a king.
It is when we pause and think about the circumstances that this seems all the more remarkable. By the way we have spoken so far, it almost sounds like a father confessor sitting at the bedside of a dying person, but it’s nothing like that!  Jesus is dying!   Jesus is hanging on a wooden cross by nails that have been driven through his body, an agonising experience enough when the soldiers did it, but now he is actually suspended by those nails they tear at the flesh, and all the muscles, nerves and tendons are screaming out in agony.  This is one of the vilest forms of execution known to man.  This is supposed to be the ultimate deterrent!
In this position you have to make every effort to hold yourself up otherwise it becomes impossible to breath, and so every survival instinct in you makes you pull up on the nails which only accentuates the agony. In this position one thief screams out of desperate, hateful agony. The other thief, out of this position, calls out of integrity and a desire to know Jesus.   Every word in this position is a major effort. You do better to remain quiet, and so every word must come with a powerful motivation behind it.   
For Jesus, that powerful motivation was simply the compassion that he had shown again and again throughout his three-year ministry. Despite the agony, he continues to minister hope and love.   Nothing will stop the Son of God ministering the grace of God, not even the nails of death!
What is Jesus actually saying to the man?  This day you will enter heaven, for that is surely what Jesus is referring to when he speaks of paradise.  The dying thief is the antidote to all those who insist that you have to work for your salvation.  Here is a man who confesses that he deserves the punishment he is getting, a man who has not been religious, who has not atoned for his wrongs by good works.  He had done nothing – except confess his state and believe in Jesus – and for this he receives, directly from the Son of God himself, the confirmation that he has a place in heaven that he will shortly receive. He epitomises the truth: salvation is not by good works, it is by believing in Jesus.   End of story!
Lord, thank you for your staggering love and compassion that reached out even in what must have been one of the worst moments of your human life.  Thank you that you gave us the assurance, that it is simply by confession of need and acknowledgement of you, that we can come with you into heaven.  Thank you so much for this!