Exegesis for the Christian Year by Henry Gustafson
Henry A. Gustafson is Professor Emeritus of New Testament Theology, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, Minn. He now lives in Santa Fe, N.M. This article appeared in No Other Foundation , Summer, l998, pp. 5-10. Copyright by the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ and used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.
Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent: Matthew 24:36-44
The principal theme in this text for the First Sunday in Advent is: "The Son of Man is Coming." Four times this claim is made. Three times it is made explicitly about the "Son of Man" and once about "the Lord."
The context of this claim is an eschatological sermon: Matthew 24 and 25. At its beginning Jesus’ disciples ask him: "What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" In response they are told of the birth pangs of the new age (24:8). This new age had been proclaimed at the outset of Jesus’ ministry (4:17). Its coming was the good news that was to be spread throughout the world (24:14). But it would be characterized in part by a time of suffering and judgment (24:21, 30). Still it would be consummated in an ultimate victory -- when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and’ great glory" sending out his angels to gather his people (24:30f.).
In attempting to interpret this picture and the claim of our text we will consider three questions: 1) Who, according to Matthew, is this Son of Man?; 2)When is he coming?; and 3) What does this coming mean?
"Who is this Son of Man?"
Throughout his gospel, Matthew identifies the Son of Man with Jesus. When the disciples ask Jesus "what will be the sign of your coming?" (24:3), he responds by speaking of the coming of the Son of Man (24:30). This identification is developed rather fully in Matthew 16. There, Matthew’s version of the question raised at Caesarea Philippi about Jesus’ identity begins with Jesus asking "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And then in tandem he asks, "Who do you say that I am?" (vv. 13-15). "Son of Man" and the personal pronoun "I," both point to Jesus.
In the verses that follow (16:21ff.), Jesus is identified implicitly with the suffering servant. The language here is the same as that used to forecast the sufferings of the Son of Man in Matthew 17:22f. and 20:17ff. And finally, in 16:27f., the Son of Man appears as the glorious judge who ultimately "will repay everyone for what has been done." The context makes it clear that Matthew is still speaking of Jesus. Thus the earthly Jesus, the suffering servant, and the glorious judge are all used by Matthew to speak of the same person. Readers familiar with his gospel will readily understand, therefore, that in our text (24:42) the phrase, "your Lord is coming," is just another reference to the "coming of the Son of Man."
A second question arising out of our text’s repeated assertion that he is coming is:
"When is the Son of Man coming?" or "When is the end of the age?"
In its lead sentence (v. 36) our text says that no one knows when. The text then proceeds through a series of brief parables to emphasize both the uncertainty as to when Jesus would come and the certainty that he would come, and hence, the importance of being prepared.
The first parable recalls the disaster that struck the people of Noah’s day. They failed to be watchful and were caught unprepared. The text does not fault them for their wickedness, as did the source in Genesis, but for their being so fully involved in the ordinary activities of life -- eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage -- that they took no thought of that future which would help define both the character and meaning of their present.
The last parable in our text focuses on a homeowner who likewise failed to be watchful. When the thief came he was unprepared. Here again no negative observation is made about the homeowner except that he failed to be watchful.
The two intervening parables carry this same message: Two persons working in a field, two others grinding at a mill. In each setting one may be taken and the other left. No advance warning as to when is indicated. So "keep awake." "You do not know on what day your Lord is coming" (vv. 40-42).
Through all of these parables the message is clear. A crisis is approaching. When it will come cannot be determined. No chronological calculations can be made. But it will surely come. So be ready.
However, this "when" question is not so easily resolved. The Gospel’s emphasis upon a future coming needs to be correlated with another and most basic conviction that gets expressed throughout Matthew’s gospel. Something has already happened. A definitive change in the times occurred with the appearance of Jesus. The change is anticipated in the story of the star which announced his birth. It is further expressed in the unique events accompanying Matthew’s description of Jesus’ death and resurrection. These include accounts of earthquakes, of the raising of saints and their appearance in Jerusalem, and of a descending angel who opens the tomb. This change is made most explicit in the appearance narrative that concludes this gospel (28:18-20). Here the promised presence (parousia) of Jesus -- with you always to the end of the age" -- is set forth. And the account shows the risen Jesus sharing with his people "the victory of the son of man." (1)
Accordingly, it is evident that Matthew asserts the Son of Man is present with his people now and to the end of the age, and that at the same time he proclaims the Son of Man is coming at the end of the age. The Gospel claims that he is already here and that he will come again.(2)
How can the Gospel writer do this? Only because of his non-literalist approach to the future hope. To help show how far Matthew is from a literalist eschatology, George Caird directs attention to Matthew’s version of Jesus’ trial before the high priest.(3) To the question ‘Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God," Jesus says, "You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven."
The words "from now on" (26:64) convey the conviction "that the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven would be seen not merely at the end of time but continuously or repeatedly from the moment of Jesus’ death.(4)
It appears then that Matthew’s emphasis on the final judgment does not rise out of any preoccupation with the end of the world but rather from a recognition that the final judgment is forever pressing upon the present with both offer and demand. How could it be otherwise in a gospel which begins with the birth of him whose name is Immanuel, God with us, and ends with his promise, ‘I am with you to the end of the world’ ?"(5)
N. T. Wright supports this metaphorical approach to the language of the future hope. He notes that the word parousia, translated "coming" (vv. 37 and 39), means "presence" or "arrival." It is not a reference to the literal downward travel on a cloud of Jesus or the Son of Man. Rather it means "presence" as opposed to "absence" (apousia). It denotes the arrival of someone not present.(6) In our First Testament, persons often experienced the parousia or coming of God. God came in visions, in storms, in the quiet breath, or in victory over their enemies. In Plato the term is used as a synonym for "participation."(7)
The other word in our text, translated "coming," (vv. 42 and 44; it can also be translated "going") also is meant to be understood metaphorically. For here we are not reading flat prose about the end of the space-time universe. There is no literal scenario regarding what is going to happen when or next. Rather, this is prophetic language which speaks of God confronting people with judgment and vindication. It is poetic language that represents both what is hoped for and what is feared. This anticipates our third question:
"What does this coming mean?"
From our discussion above and our observation of the "Immanuel motif" it is obvious that an answer requires attention to the whole gospel story. However, in our particular Advent text, it is the motif of judgment that gets the attention. We are not given much information about the hereafter, but we are confronted by the absolute seriousness of God’s claim upon us and the importance of dealing with that claim now.
In Noah’s generation, some were saved in the ark and some were swept away in the flood. Similarly, when the Son of Man comes some will be saved; some will be caught unprepared. A separation is envisioned. Of workers in a field or at a mill, some will be taken, some left. Scholars debate what "being taken" means. N. T. Wright, rejecting any literalistic notion of a rapture, i.e., of a sudden supernatural event removing individuals from this earth, interprets "being taken" as being taken in judgment. The picture, he says, is of secret police coming in the night or of enemies sweeping through a city, seizing every one they can. If disciples were to escape it would only be because they remained alert.(8) Others understand "being taken" as being similar to the experience of Noah’s family who were rescued from the dangerous flood waters. With either interpretation, however, there is a note of separation at the last judgment. That judgment will disclose those who belong to the true people of God and those who do not.
The only criterion on which the judgment is based that appears in our text, is preparedness. However, elsewhere in Matthew more substantive bases are offered. In 16:24-27, the future judgment that involves "repaying everyone for what has been done" is related to the moral demands placed on Christ’s followers. This ethical link is also evident at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Using a phrase to designate the coming judgment -- "on that day" -- the text (7:22f.) says that many Christian prophets, exorcists, and miracle workers will appear before the messianic judge. They will seek to defend themselves by appealing to their past words and deeds, saying "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?" But their defense will fail. The judge will say "I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers" (lit. "You workers of anomia," of lawlessness) Matthew believed that even within the Christian community there were false prophets, i.e., persons who used the right words and did charismatic deeds, who yet were leading people astray. By their anomia they were causing love to grow cold (24:11). And this was a most serious offense. For loving God, neighbor and self were God’s most important commandments. To do them was to do God’s will (22:34-40).
The practical expression of this ethical demand is made explicit toward the end of the eschatological sermon -- in the parable of the sheep and goats. Here, (25:3 1ff.), the Son of Man comes to judge people on the basis of their response to the Christ who confronts them now in the needy persons of their world. "As you did it (or did not do it) to one of the least of these, you did (or did not do it) to me" (25:40,45). The ones who did not do it, the loveless ones, are relegated to eternal punishment, and the others, the righteous, to eternal life.(25:46).
It is important, however, to remember that in Matthew this is not the last word. The message of the last judgment is to be heard in the context of the gospel. The judge is none other than Jesus. It is he who calls us to take seriously the summons to love God, neighbor and self. As responsible persons we will be called to account for what has been done. We will discover that the meaning of our present acts is only fully discernible at the end. The significance of planting seed, enriching the soil, (or polluting it), will be known at the harvest. Thus our behavior has consequences, both now but also not yet.
How shall we think about these negative consequences, about punishment? They are best understood, not as some quid pro quo, but as expressions of the purgative love of God. Such an understanding leaves room for hope in God’s power to create justice. And as Hans Kung has written, though salvation for all is not a priori guaranteed, still even in hell there are no limits to the grace of God. As love is stronger than death (Rom. 8:28f.), so also is justice. Accordingly, our prayer for the future is for the loving judgment that is an aspect of the final victory of God’s rule.(9)
Believing that the future as well as the present belong to God, the minister of these Advent texts might find it well to listen to Hans Kung’s admonition: to take care lest she preach judgment too loudly and insistently before the small and defenseless and too softly and half-heartedly before the powerful of this world.
1 Raymond Brown, An Introduction to The New Testament, (New York: Doubleday, 1997) 218f.
2 Cf. M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew, ("N. I. B."; New York: Abingdon, 1997) ad loc.
3 George Caird, The Language and Imagery of The Bible, (Grand Rapids Eerdmans, 1997) 268.
5 N. T. Wright, Jesus and The Victory of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press,1996) 341.
6 E. Oepke, "parousia. pareimi." (TDNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967) 860f.
7 Wright, op. cit. 366.
8 Hans Kung, Eternal Life?, (New York: Doubleday, 1984) 210.
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