Matthew | Like a thief

Jesus may come looking poor, scruffy, and dangerous – and he’ll probably take something precious away. (Listen.)

When a thief broke into our house one night, I was sound asleep. My husband was in Melbourne, but a friend and her daughters had come to stay. And so I was woken at 3am by my friend whispering, ‘Ali! Ali, wake up! There’s someone in the house …’ Heart pounding, I crawled out of bed, and we crept out together to see. And that’s when we found a thief in the dining room, pocketing my grandmother’s jewellery.

He wasn’t very impressive. Subconsciously I think I’d assumed the thief would be a bit like David Niven of Pink Panther fame: slim waist, debonair, and impeccably dressed. But this thief was wearing my old bike helmet. He had holes in his jeans and holes in his shoes, his t-shirt was grubby, and from beneath the helmet his greasy hair stuck out in all directions. ‘Whoops!’ he said, clutching the jewellery box and taking a belligerent step towards us.

My awesome friend took charge. She said very kindly, ‘Are you okay? I think you might be a bit confused.’ That’s when I realized he was off his face, agitated and jittery; my fear shot through the roof. I wondered if he was going to attack us; and there was a moment there. But my friend kept chatting as if it was the most natural thing in the world for him to be in the dining room wearing my bike helmet, and us standing there in our pyjamas.

Gradually, he calmed down. ‘Don’t tell on me!’ he said, and offered us money not to report him. We said we didn’t want it, but he insisted we come to his house the next day to collect it, and he gave us his address. I watched another fleeting ‘Whoops!’ fly across his face, and wondered what would happen next. But then he put down my grandmother’s jewellery, and pulled out a chair. I realized he was about to sit down and ask for a cup of tea. Because I am not a saint and there were five sleeping children in the house, I said, ‘No. Don’t sit down. You shouldn’t be here; you need to leave.’ And then I gently but firmly walked him towards the exit.

At the door, he paused. Then he pointed to his head. ‘Do you want your helmet back?’ he asked. Because I am an idiot, I said yes. He took it off, then carefully hung it on the doorknob and walked out into the night. Well, that’s what I thought. The next morning I realized he had stolen my daughter’s bicycle to ride home, and that’s where the police found it when I reported the incident and gave them his address. As my friend and I cleaned the mess, vacuuming up the contents of a fire extinguisher which he’d let off and restoring the silver teaspoons to the prayer station, a very cheerful policeman rode my daughter’s bike back.

‘Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day the Lord is coming,’ says Jesus. ‘But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, she would have STAYED AWAKE!!! [and LOCKED THE DOOR!!! and ARMED HERSELF WITH A BASEBALL BAT!!! and CALLED THE POLICE!!!!] and NOT have let her house be broken into. Therefore you must also be ready, for the Human One is coming at an unexpected hour.’ (Matt 24:42-44).

What on earth is Jesus saying here? Should I really being battening down the hatches and locking him out and arming myself with a baseball bat? Because in this, the first week of Advent, we are presented with this image of Jesus coming like a thief in the night; and, given the other stories of his life and ministry, I don’t think he’ll be much like David Niven. Instead, I think I can expect someone a bit more like my burglar: poor, scruffy, and somewhat dangerous, but ready to pull out a chair and have a cup of tea and find out if I want my bike helmet back.

We sing ‘Come, Lord Christ, in the stranger’s guise …’ – but do we really mean it? Do we really want Christ to turn up in the prisoner, the addict, the fool, or in a bumbling man like my own burglar who, when charged with the burglary, promptly breached the conditions of his bail by stealing some pork chops?

Because I suspect that this is pretty much how Jesus comes. In the next chapter of Matthew, Jesus tells a story about how and when we serve our king. ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me … Truly I tell you,’ says Jesus, ‘just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matt 25:35-36, 40).

When he stole the pork chops, my burglar was asked why he had stolen them. ‘I was hungry,’ he said: and I hadn’t offered him a sandwich. He was angling for a cup of tea: but I said it was time to leave. He wasn’t quite naked, but his clothes were torn and shabby and I could see his big toes poking through his shoes: but I didn’t give him one of my husband’s shirts; I didn’t offer him new sneakers. He was a stranger: but I didn’t welcome him. Instead, I walked him out of the house and reported him to the police. And then, on my account and despite my request not to press charges, he was sent to prison: and I did not visit him.

I’m not beating myself up over this. It was three o’clock in the morning; he was high as a kite and showed more than a hint of aggression; there were kids. Yet I admit that I wasn’t prepared for the thief in the night: but maybe that’s the point of Jesus’ story. Nobody is: and even if we were, we wouldn’t let him in. So Jesus’ story and my own lead me to think of how it might be when our Lord comes.

I’m thinking he’ll turn up, again, in a way that I least expect and do not like. And I’ll probably find him offensive, even somewhat threatening, or perhaps, as the Apostle Paul puts it, he’ll seem foolish and contemptible to me (1 Cor 1:28). I mean, who steals pork chops while out on bail, then lets themselves be caught?

I also expect that my neat little life will be turned upside down and I’ll be cleaning up what feels like chaos.

I’m thinking that a thief usually manages to take things away, and so I wonder what Jesus plans to grab. Maybe there are things I hold precious which are obstacles to faith; and maybe they can only be stolen when I’m asleep and vulnerable and my defences are down: so I wonder what these things will be.

I’m thinking I’ll come out of the encounter knowing more about myself: what I have capacity for, what I need to pray about, what needs a whole lotta work.

And if God has anything to do with it, then I reckon I’ll also come out with a rollicking good story, and the gratitude that comes from sharing the experience with a kind and compassionate friend.

This Advent, I invite you to think about Jesus coming as a thief in the night. And I invite you to wonder:

  • What do you cling to, and what might the thief steal from you for your ultimate good? That is, what possessions, what ideas, what values, what loyalties, what theologies get in the way of love? What lies do you tell yourself? What gives you the illusion of security or control? What might Jesus need to take away?
  • If you’re alert enough to actually encounter him, and if he appears offensive and threatening, or foolish and contemptible—what would it take to welcome Christ in? Ω

Blessing: ‘Salvation is closer than when we first believed. The night is far gone, the day is near; let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the [pyjamas] of light.’ (Rom 13:12-13) And may God grant sleep to the beloved (Ps. 127:2), and, while you are slumbering, may Christ steal what needs to be taken from you, and may the Spirit fill your newfound emptiness with love and longing for God. May you go in peace to love and to sleep: in the name of Christ, I pray: Amen.

A reflection by Alison Sampson on Matthew 24:36-44 (Year A Advent 1) given to Sanctuary on 27 November 2022 © Sanctuary 2022. Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash.

Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here. It’s been a week of unseasonable cold, wind and rain. Even so, seeds are sprouting in the garden, and whenever the sun breaks through, skinks slip out between the cracks and bask on the garden wall. I pay my respects to elders past and present. The peace of the land be with us all. Amen.


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