Matthew 24:1-2: Jesus is leaving the Temple with his disciples and they remark on the buildings. Jesus responds by telling them that the entire structure will be thrown down. By the time Matthew is composing his gospel, the Temple had indeed been destroyed. In 66 CE, a massive Jewish revolt against Rome was launched, and for awhile it was successful – but only for awhile. Jerusalem was the center of the resistance movement, and it took Rome four years to recapture it, but they did. When they did, Roman troops offered sacrifice to the emperor in the Temple and then destroyed the Temple and the city. All of the gospels were composed with this war as a part of their context. For Matthew the war and its tremendous suffering for the Jewish people, including Jewish Christians, is definitely in the past. The historical scars remained.
All that follows in the next two chapters needs to be read within the context of that war and its aftermath. How many of the sayings and stories reported in these chapters go back to Jesus is a matter of scholarly debate. Whether they do or not, Matthew puts the sayings and stories together in such a way as to speak to his context – a post-70 Jewish Christian community. I want the focus of my notes on the New Testament to be formation rather than information, though I know I have included quite a bit of the latter. In order to help the words in the coming chapter be more formative, I think it is important to get some information on the table.
The materials in chapters 24 and 25 have to do with eschatology (a semitechnical term that means “the last things, the final things, the end of things”), judgment, and apocalypse (a word meaning “revelation” or unveiling). “Though sometimes equated with ‘the end of the world,’ it is important to realize that biblical eschatology is not about the end of the space-time world, not about the disappearance or vanishing of the earth, but about the transformation of this world” (Marcus Borg, Jesus, 252). The verses in chapter 24 have a lot to do with the end of things, but they speak about them in a particular way. “An apocalypse is a kind of Jewish and Christian literature that reveals or unveils the future in language loaded with images and symbols. Apocalyptic literature speaks of a time of great suffering followed by divine deliverance” (John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, The Last Week, 78). Matthew uses material found in Mark (chapter 13) in constructing chapters 24-25. “Mark’s gospel thus has an apocalyptic eschatology, a technical phrase the refers to the expectation of dramatic and decisive divine intervention in the near future, one so public that even non-believers will have to agree that it has happened” (The Last Week, 82-83). In the coming two chapters of Matthew we will find passages of apocalyptic eschatology along with parables about judgment. In addition, Matthew puts much of this in the context of a coming of the son of man, a “second coming of Jesus.”
So how much of this goes back to Jesus? That is a matter of scholarly debate, but beyond such debate asking the question may help us ask questions that help form us in our faith. If some of the apocalyptic eschatological context helped Jesus’ sayings and stories receive more attention for Matthew’s community, we can legitimately ask whether bracketing such a context helps these stories speak to us in some new ways, ways that aid in our being formed by the Spirit into the image of Christ.
Second Coming: Did Jesus speak about his own second coming? Most mainline scholars do not think that Jesus spoke about his second coming. To suppose that he did would require imagining that he tried to teach his followers about a second coming when they had not really understood his “first coming” very well, including not really understanding that he was going away, that is, the he would be killed…. We think the conviction that Jesus would come again emerged in the post-Easter community. The Jesus whom the rulers of this world had executed and who had been vindicated by God would soon come again to complete what he had begun. (Borg, Jesus, 179, 255). Language describing God’s future is a set of signposts pointing into a mist. The signposts may tell the truth but shouldn’t be mistaken for the reality…. The New Testament often uses the Greek word parousia, frequently translated “coming,” to express this “presence” of Jesus within God’s future recreation of the cosmos. Of course, someone who is present after a time of absence must have “come,” “arrived,” or “appeared.” But the root meaning remains “presence;” the word often used of the “royal presence” of kings and rulers. If we spoke of Jesus’ royal presence within God’s new creation, rather than thinking of his “coming” as an invasion from outside, our talk about the future might make more sense. It would also be a lot more biblical. (N.T. Wright in Wright and Borg, The Meaning of Jesus, 201-202). Language about a second coming of Jesus might best be thought of in terms of a conviction that what God was doing in Jesus, making God’s dream for the world more of a reality, would continue until it wins the day and the world is transformed.
Eschatology: Marcus Borg does a good job in his book Jesus discussing this topic. A theory many scholars maintained throughout the twentieth century was that Jesus believed and taught an “imminent eschatology.” “Imminent eschatology means that Jesus expected a dramatic supernatural intervention by God in the very near future that would establish the kingdom of God” (254). There is some significant and solid biblical evidence for this. One difficulty in holding this position is that it would mean that Jesus was wrong. Borg argues that even if Jesus believed and preached an imminent eschatology, it was a secondary theme. Borg argues that Jesus’ primary theme would have been a “participatory eschatology.” Jesus called people to participate in the coming of the kingdom. There is solid evidence for this position as well. Borg’s own words are helpful. Does participatory eschatology mean that Jesus thought the kingdom of God, God’s dream, would come about through human political achievement? By no means. I do not imagine that he thought that. It is always God’s kingdom, God’s dream, God’s will. And it involves a deep centering in the God whom Jesus knew. So did he think God would bring in the kingdom without our involvement? I do not imagine this either. Indeed, the choice between “God does it” or “we do it” is a misleading and inappropriate dichotomy. In St. Augustine’s magnificent aphorism, “God without us will not; and we without God cannot.” (260) Whatever “the end” looks like finally, and whenever it may come, the important point is that we are invited to work toward God’s dream for the world, not speculate on “end times signs.”
Apocalyptic: Recall that apocalyptic literature had as its central conviction that God’s deliverance will arrive after a time of intense suffering. That is the most important theme. Beyond the symbolic language and metaphoric timetables, there is a deep conviction of faith “namely, what has begun in Jesus will triumph, despite the tumult and resistance of this world” (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 83). Again, it seems a misplacement of energy to spend too much time speculating on the meaning of all the symbols (remember this when we get to “Revelation”). We do better to align our lives with what God was up to in Jesus. Many of the stories to come in Matthew make a similar point.
Judgment: I have already quoted this passage once, but it is worth repeating. Granted Jesus used language about a final judgment, did he believe in a last judgment with eternal consequences – that some people would go to hell?... It is possible that Jesus did believe in a final judgment in which some people would go to hell. It is also possible, at least equally so, that the afterlife was not a central concern of Jesus and that he used the language of a final judgment to reinforce the importance of acting compassionately. We can imagine that language working this way: you who believe in a final judgment – what do you think the basis, the criterion will be? His own answers to that question, as reported in the gospels, subvert and undermine widely accepted notions of his time (and perhaps every time). The judgment will not be based on membership in a group, or on beliefs, or on rule keeping, but on deeds of compassion. But whatever Jesus believed about rewards and punishments in a final judgment, his mission and message were much more concerned about life in this world than about our fate beyond death. (Borg, Jesus, 180-181).
Forgive this lengthy introduction, but these are important themes to discuss as we read through the New Testament. There are a number of Christians who argue for very different understandings of the end times, the second coming and judgment. They remain part of the family of faith. Sometimes I find their discussions less helpful as I seek to be formed by God’s Spirit. Focusing on “making it in the end” and on the shortcoming of others has less to do with becoming Christ-like than with reading the words of the gospels and asking how they speak to me about how I should live. It is o.k. to disagree about eschatology – you don’t have to think like I do on these matters. It is more important that we help each other live lives consistent with the love and justice Jesus proclaimed.
Matthew 24:3-26: Jesus has just spoken of the destruction of the Temple, and the disciples ask not only when this will happen, but also “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age.” Notice how the question does not fit the context all that well. Some of Matthew’s theology and the theology of the community is creeping in. The words Jesus “speaks” are a present reality for Jesus’ community. False teachers have come – some proclaiming a violent revolution against Rome (and Rome had responded by crushing the opposition, and destroying Jerusalem and the Temple). Wars and famines and earthquakes will be but birthpangs. This is a brilliant image. Giving birth is painful (or so I hear!), but the results are miraculous. The community of Jesus followers is living in very difficult times, but they are being asked to see these as birthpangs rather than death throes. Those who followed Jesus were persecuted – as Jews by the Romans and as unfaithful Jews by other Jews. Undoubtedly people fell away. Verses 13 and 14 get to the heart of the matter – “those who endure to the end will be saved,” will remain a part of God’s kingdom; and the good news of the kingdom will continue to be shared. The desolating sacrilege may be a reference to what had already happened in Jerusalem, a sacrifice was offered in the Temple to the emperor before it was destroyed. It reminds the reader of an earlier such desecration in 160s BCE when an alter to Zeus was established in the Temple. Verses 27-28 are words of assurance, mocking Roman symbols (lightening and eagle - a more adequate translation than vulture). Finally God’s purposes will prevail not the imperial ambitions of Rome which were proving so painful for so many.
Matthew 24:29-31: Another vision of the triumph of God’s purposes. Here are a couple of notes from the New Interpreter’s Study Bible that I found helpful. “The present is a time of tribulation for disciples. It requires faithfulness, non-violent resistance, and hopeful anticipation. Ironically and regrettably, the chapters depict God’s future purposes by employing symbols from the imperial world that the Gospel resists…. The irony of this triumphant sign is clear. The Gospel presents the triumph of God’s empire with the very imperial model it resists.” There is a constant struggle in the Christian life, it seems to me, to find ways to relate the message of God’s love, compassion and justice to a culture without letting inappropriate cultural symbols become too predominant. Some of the apocalyptic eschatology in the New Testament does just that. A tyrannical emperor is replaced by a God who seems to rule capriciously rather than by the God of Jesus whose nature is compassion and inclusion. Where to draw the line between creative appropriation of culture and being compromised by culture is a challenge.
Matthew 24:32-35: A metaphor is used – just as you may watch a fig tree to determine when the seasons begin, so rest assured in the midst of these hardships God’s kingdom will make its presence known. Verse 35 is one of those challenging verses reflecting an imminent eschatology – God’s kingdom was going to come soon. The important verse is 35 – Jesus' message will remain valid. Hold on to it.
Matthew 24:36-44: Wonderful images are used in these verses to encourage watchfulness, which should be viewed as faithfulness to Jesus, to Jesus' message and to God’s work in Jesus. Times are difficult – hold on. This is the primary message of the chapter so far, and this is something we can relate to in our own lives. It will not always be easy to live as a Christian, though most of us will not face the kinds of hardship known by Matthew’s Jesus community.
Matthew 24:45-51: The first of four stories in a row – Matthew uses these stories to describe the kind of life that those who follow Jesus and foster the kingdom will live even in difficult times. Some of the details of the stories are rather stark, but that perhaps makes them attention grabbers. In this story the emphasis is on being “faithful and wise.” Slavery is assumed, as is the ability of a master to be cruel to slaves. This is being told as a story to make a point about faithful living.
Matthew 25:1-13: The story, and the stories, continues. Here we have a tale of ten bridesmaids, some of whom are wise and some of whom are foolish. “Oil represents faithful, active, obedient discipleship – deeds of love and mercy” (combined quote from The People’s New Testament Commentary and The New Interpreter’s Study Bible). “Keep awake” is a rather poor ending. All the bridesmaids slept. Nevertheless the story remains an encouragement to faithful discipleship. If we take some of the eschatological judgment out of the context, it is easier to take this parable not as something that should send us worrying about our supply of good deeds (oil), but as a tale told to encourage us to be oil producers.
Matthew 25:14-30: The sense that being a disciple should be a productive enterprise is reinforced in this story of the talents. At talent was a substantial sum of money, equal to fifteen years of wages for a day laborer. Each slave is given talents, but no instructions. Two of the slaves produce more. One slave is afraid and in his fear is unproductive. Even in difficult times, followers of Jesus should be about the work of the kingdom, multiplying good works of love, not letting their fear get the better of them. It would be a shame to let this story which encourages bold action, initiative and risk become a story that makes us afraid.
Matthew 25:31-46: These two chapters which weave eschatology, apocalyptic, judgment through stories and sayings come to a marvelous end with a story that A. N. Wilson calls “perhaps the most haunting passage in the New Testament” (Revelations). Raymond Brown, an important New Testament scholar writes, “the admirable principle that the verdict [of judgment] is based on the treatment of deprived outcasts is the Matthean Jesus’ last warning to his followers and to the church, demanding a very different religious standard both from that of those scribes and Pharisees criticized in chap. 23 and from that of a world that pays more attention to the rich and powerful” (An Introduction to the New Testament, 199). Love involves caring for the least, the lonely, the down and out. My Sunday sermon will focus on why this story is central to Christian faith, but not the sole center of Christian faith, at least as it is sometimes read. Let me end with another quote from The New Interpreter’s Study Bible. This judgment scene (and others like it in chap. 13) has several troubling (and not easily resolved) features. It bullies disciples into faithfulness. It celebrates the imposition of God’s empire while the gospel criticizes imperial strategies. It upholds God’s justice, but the vision of harsh condemnation is at odds with the presentation of God’s inclusive mercy (5:43-48) and with the acknowledgement of God’s covenant faithfulness to save Israel (23:37-39). Some of these tensions are slightly less pronounced if one reads the story as a story, and one primarily wanting to define and encourage faithful action, action consistent with God’s dream for the world as it has been present in Jesus.