August 26, 2021 - When the Cat is Away - A Reflection on Matthew 24:42-51

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that wicked slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Have you heard the saying, “When the cat is away, the mice will play?” It is an idiom meaning that without supervision, people will disregard or break rules; or when someone in authority is not present, subordinates will do pretty much what they please. This seems to be a universal truth in the world, and one can find scores of examples of this even in the Bible. A notable one that you might remember is how wicked the people got when Moses went up the mountain to get the ten commandments from God. 

They were severe consequences for their wickedness when Moses returned, but that will be nothing compared to the fate that awaits the wicked when Jesus returns. He speaks about returning suddenly, when least expected, hoping to find that the servant he has placed in charge of his household has been distributing food to them at the proper time. And he warns about what will happen to the servant who fails to do this in no uncertain terms.  “The master ... will punish the wicked servant severely and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” 

Who does this servant represent? Given that Jesus said this to the disciples, and not to the usual crowds that hung around him, meant the warning was for a specific audience. This would be the shepherds in the church today—God’s priests and pastors—who have been placed to look after the flock that God has put in their care, feeding them the food they need. And what does this food represent? Readings over the past few days should make it clear that the food refers to the Word of God. 

But in some way or another we are all given charge over people. Educators are given charge over students put in their care. Parents are given charge over their children. Employers over their employees. And if you take it all the way to the top, leaders over their nations. But do we fulfill our obligations to those God has given us to nurture and nourish. Do we provide them with the food of life? And if we answer yes, then is this food good to eat? Or is it like congee—watered down rice with hardly any nutrition? 

There are four more days for the month to get over. Then another four months for the year to get over. I wonder how many years before time itself is over. We have waited a little over 2,000 years for Jesus to return. Most people have never given a thought to his coming back, and when we don’t think about it, we do pretty much what we like. Like mice when the cat is away. But today’s reading reminds us that he will return. And there will be a reckoning. May he find us, all of us, to be good and faithful servants.

In the meantime, let us feed our people well.