The Stories Jesus Told: The Waiting Servants, Mark 13:34–37 and Luke 12:35–38
July 31, 2018
by Peter Amsterdam
The Stories Jesus Told: The Waiting Servants, Mark 13:34–37 and Luke 12:35–38
Within the Gospels of Mark and Luke, Jesus spoke of His return in two different parables. While they’re somewhat different from each other, they both make the same point, so it seemed fitting to cover both together.
The first parable is found in Mark 13:34–37. The parable itself is told by Jesus in the first sentence of the passage, followed by explanations for His disciples regarding the parable’s application. Prior to telling this parable, Jesus was speaking about events which would precede the parousia (His return at the end of time). He said that only the Father knows when that time will come, but that in the meantime, His disciples were to Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come.1
He then proceeded to tell them this parable:
It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.2
The master of the house set things in order by making sure each of his servants knew what they were to do during his absence. He made a point of telling the doorkeeper to stay awake, to be ready for his return, and to open the door upon his arrival. Generally the duty of a doorkeeper was to keep out possible intruders,3 but in this case he was instructed to be prepared to open the door on the master’s return. However, he wasn’t given any indication as to when that would be.
Jesus then stopped speaking about the doorkeeper and started speaking to His disciples, telling them that they too are to stay awake and alert, because they don’t know when their Master will return. Jesus made reference to the four watches of the night that the Roman soldiers used—the evening, midnight, cockcrow, and morning.
His inference that the master could come suddenly didn’t mean soon, but unexpectedly—that he could come at any time and no one would know exactly when he would arrive. If the servant was found sleeping when the master arrived, he would have failed in his duty. Similar calls to stay awake and to be alert are found throughout the Gospels.
Stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.4
Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.5
Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.6
To be discovered sleeping when one is supposed to be on duty would be considered a shameful failure to fulfill one’s obligations. We read of this very thing happening on the eve of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus told Peter, James, and John:
“My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. … He came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour?”7
Jesus stressed that His disciples must be alert, awake, aware, and vigilant, for no one knows the time of His coming. What Jesus said to His disciples, He says to all Christians in all times, including us today. Jesus calls us to vigilantly live our faith in a manner that ensures we will be ready to meet the Lord.
It’s easy to let our spiritual lives drift to the neglect of our faith and relationship with God. The cares of our everyday lives require us to focus on our daily duties, work, family, friends, and the never-ending affairs of everyday life. It takes intentionality, as well as time and effort to actively live our faith, to feed our souls, to keep our spiritual lives vibrant and relevant, to fulfill Jesus’ call to us: Stay awake!
The second parable, which has a similar message, is found in Luke 12:
Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants!8
The King James translation opens this parable using a literal translation related to a custom of that time: Let your loins be girded about means “be dressed for action.” This expresses the idea of being in a constant state of readiness to act. Men in ancient Israel wore long robes. When they were going to be actively working physically, or would need to run, they would put on a belt so that they could tuck the robe into the belt, making their movements less restricted. Descriptions of tying up one's garment are used in both the Old Testament and the New.
The hand of the LORD was on Elijah, and he gathered up his garment and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.9
Then Elisha the prophet called one of the sons of the prophets and said to him, “Tie up your garments, and take this flask of oil in your hand, and go to Ramoth-Gilead.”10
Preparing your minds for action [gird up the loins of your mind, KJV], and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.11
Jesus follows this call to be ready for action with another phrase which makes the same point: Keep your lamps burning. This reflects being prepared for taking action at night. Both point to an attitude of preparedness that Jesus is calling His disciples to have as they wait for His return.
The third word picture completes the idea of being prepared: Be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Wedding feasts during this time period could last for days, and even up to a week, so the servants had no way of knowing when their master would come home. They had to be constantly ready and alert as they waited.
Jesus used three examples of readiness—being dressed for action, keeping the lamps burning, and being prepared at all times for the master’s return—to express the need for His followers to live in a manner which reflects His teachings. We are to live a life guided by His Word, with one eye heavenward looking expectantly for His return.
He then focuses on the reward of those who are ready. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Those who are awake at the master’s return will receive God’s favor. They have been spiritually vigilant, living their faith. We find a similar statement in the book of Revelation in reference to Jesus’ return:
Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake.12
Jesus then spoke of the behavior of the master who has returned home and found his servants awaiting him. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. The master will reverse roles with the servants and engage in the servants’ activity, which in essence means that the servants no longer have the same status as before. The actions of the master in this parable reflect the actions of Jesus at the Last Supper.
Jesus … rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.13
He said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”14
The concept of Jesus as the one who serves is found throughout the Gospels.
Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.15
Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.16
Jesus continued: If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants! Unlike the four Roman watches of the night used in Mark’s parable above, in this case Jesus refers to the three watches of the night used by the Jews. He tells those who follow Him that the time of His return is uncertain, and that those who are awake and ready no matter what time the master comes will be blessed.
Jesus told this parable to make the point that those who follow Him should be awake, alert, and vigilant in spirit at all times. Twice He calls those who are ready blessed: Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. … If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants! Scripture teaches that Jesus will return, but that no one knows when His second coming will happen. Like the servants in the parable, none of us know the day or the hour of our Master’s return, but we are exhorted to always be vigilant in spirit in anticipation of that time. At some point the Lord will return, and we want to be ready when He does.
We can also take the same principles to heart in regard to the time of our death. No Christian in history has experienced Christ’s return, but all Christians who have passed on from this life have come into His presence. None of us know exactly when we will die, we only know that we will. From what Jesus taught in these parables, we should recognize that we don’t know when the Master will call us home, and therefore should strive to be spiritually awake and ready at all times.
The Waiting Servants, Mark 13:34–37
34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake.
35 Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—
36 lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.
37 And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.
35 Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning,
36 and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks.
37 Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them.
38 If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants!
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Mark 13:32–33.
2 Mark 13:34–37.
3 Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 266.
4 Luke 21:36.
5 Matthew 24:42.
6 Matthew 25:13.
7 Mark 14:34–35, 37.
8 Luke 12:35–38.
9 1 Kings 18:46.
10 2 Kings 9:1.
11 1 Peter 1:13.
12 Revelation 16:15.
13 John 13:4–5.
14 John 13:12–15.
15 Mark 10:43–45.
16 Luke 22:26–27.