The scene here is a wedding banquet in a typical village in Israel. It’s in the public area of the home of the rich man of the village, and everyone’s there, because in that culture there’s normally no such thing as a private party. At least, almost everyone is there. In the host’s private quarters, those of his servants who are lowest in status are keeping themselves ready to serve him whenever he leaves the party and returns to his rooms. They have to stay up to keep the lamps lit, because trying to prepare and light an oil lamp once it’s already dark is quite difficult. They have to stay dressed for work; like everyone, they’re wearing loose-fitting floor-length robes, but they have ends of their robes pulled up, and belts on to keep them up. This way, they have the freedom of movement to work, and they are ready whenever their service is required. And they have to stay alert, so that they respond quickly to the master’s return.
At some point, the master slips away from the feast while it’s still going on, and he knocks on the door. Normally, only strangers knocked—if you were going to someone who knew you, you would call out so they could recognize your voice. Why does the master knock? Because if he calls out, some of the wedding guests will hear him, and his absence from the banquet will be noticed. He trusts his servants to be awake and paying attention; if he knocks, they will hear, they will know who’s at the door, and they will let him in.
They open the door, expecting to go to work—but because they were waiting expectantly for him to come, they find a great surprise. The master has come bearing dinner; he has filled a tray with food from the banquet, and brought it to them to serve them. He sets down the tray, takes a length of rope, and belts up the end of his robe—which is no ordinary robe, but a fancy one for the celebration. He then tells them to recline around the table where he and his family eat, and proceeds to serve them himself. They cannot be at the feast, because they have a duty to perform; because they are performing it faithfully, the master brings the feast to them.
This isn’t how the very rich treat “the help.” You know that. I experienced that pastoring in the Colorado Rockies. I did a fair number of weddings up there, mostly for part-time folks with no connection to the church; some of them could have paid my salary out of pocket change. The couples always appreciated me, but some of their families saw me the same way they saw the people bussing tables at the reception. We existed so they could get what they wanted; we were essentially tools to them, not people, with no purpose but to serve their wishes.
But here, the master turns this completely on its head, and serves his servants. He lowers himself, he humbles himself, he sets aside his pride and his ego, in order to honor his servants and show them love. This is why he slips out of the wedding. If it were just a matter of sharing the feast with his servants, he could have sent one of his other servants off to them with a tray. He doesn’t do that—he goes himself in order to make himself their servant.
This is the love of God, and this is what he did for us in Jesus; and this is why Jesus declares the servants blessed. He doesn’t say they will be blessed when the master returns; they are blessed already because they are waiting faithfully and expectantly. As he does in the Beatitudes, Jesus is saying here that the blessed life isn’t what we think it is. No doubt the servants had other things they would have preferred to be doing. They weren’t accomplishing anything, they weren’t being productive and getting things done; nor were they having fun doing things they enjoyed. It would have been easy for them to look up at the end of an hour and see only an hour wasted. And yet, they continue to wait actively, listening and keeping ready for their master’s return—and it is for this faithful dedication that Jesus calls them blessed.
Why? They’re blessed because they’re waiting for the right person. They’re blessed because their master is worth their faithfulness. Because they’re focused on serving him, they have to say no to many other things they could be doing, which would seem at the time to be more enjoyable and satisfying; but they put their master ahead of all those other things. And note this: it’s all about their master, not anything else. They aren’t waiting up because they expect a reward—they only expect to serve. When he returns, he proves they were right to do so. He honors their faithful waiting and confirms their blessing in a way that makes all their waiting and all their self-denial worth it.