Martin Luther is supposed to have said something like, "Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree," or, when told that the world would end tomorrow, "I would plant a tree today." I've sometimes heard the same story attributed to St. Francis.
The quote is supposed to show a caring and concern for God's world by doing something to make it better up until the very last moment before Christ's return. It's also used to indicate a sense of readiness for that return. A follow-up explanation is sometimes added that makes that clear, something like "I'm always ready for the Lord to return and I was going to plant a tree tomorrow anyway."
That second thought underlies the caution and guidance that Jesus gives his listeners in this passage. The alert slaves welcome their master when he returns, rather than make him wait while they wake up and stumble to the door or greet him in the morning. The alert homeowner makes his house safe before thieves try to break in. In both cases, Jesus suggests that choosing to be ready for something to happen is a better way to work than to react when it happens. That makes sense, of course. All of the business books and success DVDs and whatnot say so, and there's no way that Jesus and The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People could both be wrong about it.
The connection between this kind of readiness and readiness for the Lord's return gets a little loose, though. For one, the slaves may not have known whether the master would come home at dawn or at mid-day, but they had a window of 24 or maybe a little more hours that they could prepare for. No less an authority than Jesus himself, though, says that no human being knows the day or the hour of his return. Something that people might remember before they write their books outlining how Pope Benedict's German heritage means he's descended from the last nation that was a part of the Holy Roman Empire and is thus the perfect candidate for the Anti-Christ and that means Jesus will return Tuesday. And please know I made all that up.
Anyway, we really don't know when Christ will return, unlike the slaves who had a specific window of time. Another difference is that the master had returned before, so the slaves had a frame of reference when they prepared themselves. They knew what it would be like, and we have no idea what the return of the Lord will be like. Even if every description of it people have ever gleaned from the Bible is exactly accurate in every detail we don't have any frame of reference for it. When's the last time you saw a new heaven and a new earth being created while the old ones were passing away?
How, then, do we prepare for the Lord's return? How do we make ourselves watchful and alert for his coming if we don't know that we'll ever live to see it and if we have no idea what it will be like?
There are a lot of answers, but one that helps me goes something like this: I make myself ready for the Lord's return by following him. Think about it. Jesus ascended to the Father, "going" to a place or a state of being that is in complete communion with God. We may know few details of the life to come, but we know we will be in God's direct presence in a way we are not able to be now. Jesus "went there" first, if you like. He's also asked us to follow him -- most of the time that refers to obeying his commands and living as he taught us, but if I think of the word "follow" in its spatial sense then I get an image that I move along a path Jesus moved along before me. When he returns along that path, he will meet me coming to him.
Of course, that's all metaphor, and to make things more concrete maybe we should set those aside and look at it this way. Sometimes we say that we get ready for something, which means that we've made plans or prepared for it, and now all we do is wait for the something to happen. Jesus seems to suggest that readiness for his return is not so static. Rather than get ready, we are to be ready.
When I worked for the newspaper, I could be a reporter only if I reported on things and wrote about them. It was ongoing and just earning my journalism degree wasn't enough. I can be a Christian only if I continue to seek after God and allow him to shape me every day instead of relying on a onetime experience of conversion to cover for the rest of my life.
I pray that we can all be ready for the Lord's return. Not because he'll tell us we're out of luck and we have to catch the next Second Coming or that our applications will be processed in the order they were received and so we will need to wait our turn or anything. Not because the Kingdom of Heaven has festival seating and the people who aren't ready when the gates open are stuck behind a post.
But because I can imagine no better life than one lived in readiness for God to be present. Now or forever.