Contrary to one’s first impression, vigilance is not the main theme of Jesus’ parables of “absence and expectation.” Absence is central to these stories because it is absence that enriches them, rather than impoverishing them. Absence is not a shortage, a gap, or a sign of non-existence—it is a catalyst.
“Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Luke 12:35-40).
“It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:34-37)
“The Lord answered, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk. 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 unbelievers” (Luke 12:42-46).
What do you do during the absence?
One of the most influential events in samurai history occurred in 1701, during the Tokugawa era in Japan. Following a long, derisive and offensive quarrel, Asano Naganori, a young daimyo from Ako, drew his sword and attacked a high-ranking adviser to the Shogun, Kira Yoshinaka. Because the law forbade using one’s sword in Edo castle, the young lord, of only 34 years old, was ordered to kill himself (to commit seppuku). After his death, the shogun confiscated his properties and the samurais under his command were demoted to the status of ronin (masterless samurai). This was such a dishonour that usually ronin chose to kill themselves rather than live without the noble task of serving their lord.
Unfortunately for Kira Yoshinaka, 47 of the 320 samurai of Asano, led by Oishi Yoshino, decided to stay alive, and swore to avenge their master by killing Yoshinaka. A war of nerves broke out, but the ronin in Ako were willing to wait as long as necessary. As part of their strategy, some of them sought employment, got married, or apparently destroyed their lives through alcohol and immorality.
As time went by, believing that an act of vengeance had become more and more improbable, Lord Kira Yoshinaka relaxed the security measures in his domain. This is exactly what the 47 ronin were waiting for. One windy and snowy January morning in 1703, they attacked Yoshinaka’s castle. The ronin climbed over the fence quietly and rained blows on the guards. Suddenly awakened from their sleep, all of the approximately forty samurai guarding Yoshinaka’s residence were killed, without any of the 47 ronin losing their lives. After searching the castle for an hour, Yoshinaka was found and beheaded.
The remarkable patience of the ronin testifies to the strength found in waiting with a firm goal in mind. Still, how would this history have been written if there was no perception of the absence? What would have happened if Kira Yoshinaka had ignored the apparent absence of danger, and been more vigilant?
The absence that paralyzes and the absence that animates
The way in which absence is perceived is essential to understanding vigilance. Absence is the thing that conveys meaning and substance. It conveys meaning because it is the bulwark which those who are waiting cling to, and it is the substance because it defeats even the strongest resistance to reveal the truth about those who are waiting.
There are only two reactions to absence. On the one hand, it can be a source of satisfaction for the one who sees it as an opportunity to evade, relax, or, on the contrary, to gain authority and advantages. This character perceives the master’s return as a stressful, repulsive, detestable eventuality, like a thief’s illicit action. His vigilance, if exercised at all, means insomnia, torment, deprivation, and stress.
On the other hand, the master’s absence is a loss, a permanent loss, for the one who, in his mind and heart, cannot in any way replace his master. This character experiences a continuous feeling of incompleteness, regardless of the length of the absence. For him, the master’s return means a return to normality, a liberation, and a celebration. This is why he does not experience his vigilance as deprivation and torment, but as anticipation, and an expectant state of mind.
The absence that disowns
Against the same background of vigilance, while the parables of “absence” refer to an unexpected, sudden return, the parable of the Ten Virgins refers to delay. God’s people at that time already had a conception of the delay of the Day of the Lord, and Jesus does not avoid the subject, but presents it sharply. This is a sign that the delay, whether real or only perceived, is recognised and even approached by God. The unwise virgins are not blamed for falling asleep, but for the lack of oil in their candles. Again, vigilance does not mean insomnia, but anticipation; yearning doubled by a sound mind.
“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.
“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
“Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’
“But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’
“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” (Matthew 25:1-13).
The delay of the groom was a standard characteristic of Jewish weddings that Jesus uses in this parable to strengthen the feeling that the delay of the Day of the Lord, His return, is natural. The delay is already a given, and should not cause excessive preoccupation. However, what was not characteristic of the Jewish context of that time is the reaction of the groom to the unwise virgins. The groom refuses to receive them at the wedding feast because He does not know them.
The groom’s reply is the crux of the parable of the ten virgins. Because their waiting was not proper, because they did not conscientiously anticipate the arrival of the groom, and because they did not make sure they didn’t spoil His arrival by unfit preparation, the unwise virgins exclude themselves from the recognized entourage. “Blocking access is not, in itself, a ban. It is the total absence of the ‘petitioner’ from the waiting space, an absence that translates into a serious loss of identity.”
If you haven’t crossed the threshold of the door that was opened for you in this life, if you haven’t lived like one who is already part of the restored family of the Kingdom, you have no proof of belonging when the groom returns, and “you find yourself in the situation of being faceless.”
The absence that rekindles hope
Frank Wild is one of the less familiar characters from the famous story of the Imperial Transantarctic Expedition. The expedition failed after the ship Endurance, led by the British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, got stuck and, in the end, was engulfed by the ice of the Weddell Sea. The crew needed several weeks before they could transport—first on the ice and then on water—the three lifeboats and provisions from the ship to Elephant Island, where they established a temporary camp.
Captain Shackleton knew that their only chance of survival hung on getting to an island in the Atlantic Ocean, South Georgia, 800 miles away. He also knew that to find such a small island in the ocean, sailing on a lifeboat, was an almost impossible endeavour. On April 24th, 1916, the captain, together with five other people, set out to sea, either to their own salvation or death, and the salvation or death of those twenty-two other people left waiting.
Without any certainties, experiencing temperatures as low as -45 degrees Celsius, with limited resources and health problems, the twenty-two left behind on the island were fighting their darkest thoughts. To make it through alive was as unlikely as their captain’s goal of reaching them. And yet, their captain’s absence was their great hope.
Frank Wild, the leader of the group on the island, and Shackleton’s right-hand man, built a dry shelter from the materials from the two lifeboats and dedicated himself to raising morale and occupying the group’s time with useful tasks. The words that he said to the others, only two weeks after Shackleton’s departure, went down in history: “Pack your things, boys, the boss may return today.”. From that moment on, for three and a half months, Frank packed his sleeping bag every day to make sure he was ready to meet the rescue boat. In the end, the rescue only happened on August 30, 1916, two days before they would have run out of food supplies.
Jesus wants us to live fully in the Kingdom that is to come, but to be equally involved and authentic in the small, fleeting kingdom He has established here and now. The survivors on Elephant Island might have buried their worries in routine or even concrete activities. But there is no room for worry in Jesus’ words. He requires the people waiting on Him to lucidly and devotedly fulfil their tasks. Their vigilance must not be an insomnia, but an active state of mind, dominated by hope, needfulness, and happy anticipation.
The attempt to live in one of the two, alternatively or selectively, generates extremes: carelessness and bigotry. Either of these extremes amounts to one’s removal from the books of the Great Kingdom.
If Frank Wild sought to neutralize the uncertainty of the absentee’s return, Jesus went even further. The uncertainty of the return is missing from His words. The greatest certainty of the “absence and waiting” parables is that the absentee will return. The Captain’s absence does not only speak of hope, but of the certainty of the salvation to come.
Expectations that disappoint
“Suppose one of you has a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’”(Luke 17:7-10).
No matter how careful our waiting is, how worthy the waiting person is or how scrupulously he fulfils his tasks, nothing of what the “servant” does is an argument, a reason, or a cause for his salvation. It is aberrant to have claims on grace, as it is illogical for an orphan to have claims on adoption, based on his or her achievements and talents. This is a claim only the one filing for adoption can make. He is the one who is able, and who expects the orphan to behave in a manner worthy of the name and love of the person who has adopted him.
Norel Iacob is Editor in Chief of ST Network and Semnele timpului.