According to Mark’s Jesus, nobody knows about “that day or hour” in which the Son of Man will return, neither the angels in heaven, nor Jesus himself, but only the Father (Mk 13:32). Yet Jesus assured his immediate audience that they would not “pass away until all these things have taken place” (Mk 13:30). His thrice-repeated exhortation, “keep awake, stay alert,” highlights the urgency of the situation.
To appreciate Jesus’ exhortation, a modern Western reader needs to understand the Middle Eastern view of time and the relationships between master and servants.
Mediterranean cultures are oriented primarily to the present. Future events are very difficult to imagine and nearly impossible to grasp. Activities that do not have to take place at the present moment (e.g., cooking the next meal, getting dressed to start the day) are routinely put off. For the Spaniards there is mañana, and for the Italians, domani. The popular song lyrics say, “Let’s forget about domani.” Even Jesus reminded his followers not to “worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will have worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Mt 6:34).
So what is the point in today’s Gospel? In Mark 13, Jesus has announced an event that is imminent, along with its accompanying signs. But none of these signs was yet visible to his listeners, and the normal cultural tendency would be to put such an exhortation and event out of mind. “Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
People with a strong cultural orientation to the present need to be nudged to think more about the future, even if only tomorrow, just as Americans whose cultural orientation is primarily toward the future need to be reminded to think about the present, today, this very moment.
Ancient Israelites viewed themselves as “slaves of God” because the Lord had liberated them or their ancestors from bondage in Egypt (Lev 25:55). Freeborn persons in the New Testament period who became Christians viewed themselves as having become “slaves of Christ” (1 Cor 7:22) or “slaves of God” (1 Pet 2:16).
Further, because the Mediterranean cultures are group centered, the slave’s worth derived from the group served. All the slaves mentioned in the New Testament are members of an extended household. This means they are considered to be members of the family. Accordingly, Christian slaves are cautioned against taking advantage of being “brothers” or “sisters” of Christian owners but are instead to “serve all the better” (1 Tim 6:2).
It is precisely the slave’s status as member of an extended household that helps a modern believer to grasp the importance of Jesus’ parable. These slaves are family. The master who goes on a long journey expects every member of the household, every family member, to do the work they are assigned (Mk 13:34). They must not put it off for tomorrow.
The doorkeeper, too, is to keep watch for the master’s return, lest he find the family fast asleep instead of eager to greet and welcome the returning head of household. Anyone who has returned home after a long absence at a late hour knows the difference between being greeted by a loved one and entering a house where all are asleep.
Mark’s Jesus urges his listeners and subsequent generations of believers to be ever watchful for the return of a beloved family member. It is, after all, a fact of our faith: the beloved Master will indeed return and expect to be welcomed by family in fitting fashion. Are we ready?