Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent (27 November 2016)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. (Matthew 24:37-44 – NRSV)
Chapter 24 of Matthew’s Gospel has been called The Eschatological Discourse. We find similar texts in Mark 13:1-4 and Luke 17:20-37 & 21:5-38.
The English word “eschatological” comes from the Greek word eschata meaning “last things”. Whilst Chapter 24 of Matthew’s Gospel speaks about the “last things”, it is also peppered with statements warning the listeners that no one knows the details – when, where, how. “Take care that no one deceives you ...” (24:4); “If anyone says to you then, ‘Look here is the Christ’ or ‘He is there’, do not believe it ....” (24:23). “Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will never pass away. But as for that day and hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, no one but the Father only” (24:35-36).
In the core of “not knowing” there is a consequent “not being in control”. That troubles some people deeply. Hence the claims – ad nauseam really – by many individuals and groups throughout history, to know when and where and how “the end” will occur.
One scholar writes: “With such firm and detailed prophecies of the end of the age it seems natural to most of us to look for the date, and through the centuries there have never been lacking those who felt that it was possible to work out that date, sometimes exactly, sometimes approximately, referring only to a general period. ..... That day and hour defines the measures we use in fixing a date, but that no one knows firmly excludes the possibility of doing so. .... But Jesus goes further. The angels do not have this knowledge; even in heaven the knowledge is not shared. And what surprises us even more is that the Son himself did not share the secret. The only person who knows, Jesus says, is the Father only. Nothing could be more explicit.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 613.)
History gives us evidence of many people – a good number of them Christians and at least two of them Popes – worrying about the end of the world. One common form of this worrying found in Christian history is called “millennialism” (from the Latin mille meaning “one thousand”) or “chiliasm” (from the Greek chilias also meaning “one thousand”). It stems from a misinterpretation of the Book of Revelation 20:1-6: “Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while. Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. Over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him a thousand years.”
It is helpful to distinguish between eschatological thinking and apocalyptic thinking. The former recognizes that the world as we know it will come to an end sometime, without attempting to detail just how and when this will occur. That “end” is factored into “now” and the way we ought to live in the present. By way of contrast, apocalyptic thinking is absorbed by attempts to detail how and when the ending will come about. Often enough, people dominated by apocalyptic thinking take perverse delight in the thought that the world is not only about to end but it will be catastrophic, high drama as it were.
So let us look more closely at Matthew’s text.
For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man: There seem to be two significant features of the Noah comparison. Firstly, the flood was totally unexpected – except by Noah: “they knew nothing until the flood came”. And so it will be with the coming of the Son of Man. Secondly, God’s servant Noah went about the long, tedious, apparently silly business of building a huge boat on dry land. Leon Morris writes: “We get the picture of a long time of waiting and of a sudden act at the conclusion.” (Leon Morris, op cit, 614.)
Implicit in Jesus’ teaching is the call to be patient and wait without knowing. Again the “not in control” comes into play. The “totally unexpected” implies this anxiety-provoking fact. So what we do not know and therefore do not control, we pretend to know so that we can pretend to control. And so we allay our anxiety. All of which is profoundly ironic because the allaying of our anxiety generally involves imagining lots of doom and gloom! The act of knowing seems to be the key – knowing when, knowing how, knowing where and being able therefore to present yourself to the world as the one who knows, even if what you know is horrible!
two will be in the field; one will be taken ....: In the end there will be no hiding, no confusion about what is real. All will become very clear. Essential differences, now hidden, will be made evident at the end. Daniel Harrington writes: “The verb paralambanetai has eschatological overtones. The point of the ‘two men in the field’ and the ‘two women at the mill’ comparisons is the division that will be caused (or better, be clear) at the Son of Man’s coming. Two people who are doing the same tasks and therefore look the same—one will become part of God’s kingdom, and the other will be left behind, when the Son of Man comes.” (Daniel Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 342-343.)
Recall the earlier warning of Jesus: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘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?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ (Matthew 7:21)
watch: The proper attitude of eschatological thinking is vigilance. Apocalyptic thinking is not interested in watching except with a view to seeing what they know will happen. Because the end will be when you least expected, better to be ready all the time. Do not take your existence – or the existence of anyone or anything else – for granted. Do not be careless about your life. Be present to the present! After all, existence is ultimately about the coming of the Kingdom of God, not my kingdom. We sometimes have to be very deliberately diligent about remembering that.
if the owner of the house had known ..... he would have stayed awake: At first glance, this is an odd comparison in the light of the fact that Matthew has just been at pains to point out that you cannot know when the Son of Man is coming. Two observations come to mind.
Firstly, Jesus commonly refers to ordinary, everyday experiences to evoke feelings and insights and thus lead the people to understand his message. More than once he appeals simply to common sense, encouraging his listeners to look around and read the signs: “The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, ‘When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red”. And in the morning, “It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening”. You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah’.” (Matthew 16:1-4) (There are related texts in Mark 8:11-13 and Luke 11:16-22) So, the comparison with the coming of the thief is apt – all the listeners would immediately have a gut sense of that situation and how it would prompt vigilance and making oneself ready. (Interestingly enough, the example of the coming of the thief is also used in 1 Thessalonians 5:2, 2 Peter 3:10 and Revelations 3:3 & 16:15.)
Secondly, the very mundane and worldly example of the householder being prepared for a thief, provokes a reaction by way of contrast: How much more should we be prepared for the coming of the Son of Man!
Therefore you also must be ready: This sentence continues the emphasis on vigilance. It implies availability and openness, a preparedness to respond as required. Simone Weil’s observation makes good sense of these words: “God and humanity are like two lovers who have missed their rendezvous. Each is there before the time, but each at a different place, and they wait, and wait, and wait. He stands motionless, nailed to the spot for the whole of time. She is distraught and impatient. But alas for her if she gets tired and goes away ... The crucifixion of Christ is the image of the fixity of God. God is attention without distraction. One must imitate the patience and humility of God ... God waits like a beggar who stands motionless and silent before someone who will perhaps give him a piece of bread”. (Simone Weil, ‘The Things of the World’ in George A Panichas, The Simone Weil Reader, David McKay Company Inc., 424f).
When did it first dawn on you that you are incomplete? And how soon after that realization did you also realize that, not only are you incapable of completing yourself, no finite person, event or thing is capable of completing you?
Our lives are haunted by the not-yet and the more than – even if we are not conscious of it. We are not in control. To be human is to be restless. It is also to be radically alone. This means our lives, each in its own unique way, will always be ambiguous, paradoxical, more or less confused and – sometimes at least – lonely and contradictory. Thomas Merton seems to have been suggesting this when he wrote: “I am thrown into contradiction: to realize it is mercy, to accept it is love, to help others to do the same is compassion.” (Thomas Merton, Learning to Love: The Journals of Thomas Merton – Volume Six: 1966-1967, edited by Naomi Burton Stone and Patrick Hart, HarperCollins, 1997, 355.)
We are always waiting. Sometimes we are acutely aware of it. We wait for telephone calls, buses, meals, sleep, people, we wait for doctor’s reports and news of loved ones and so on. Our very lives are a form of waiting – to live is to wait. The richness and depth of our lives has much to do with how well we wait.
We need to make two important distinctions. The first is between rigid expectation and creative anticipation. The second is between waiting for and waiting upon.
Rigid expectation is ego-centred. It is driven by a wish to control and is almost certainly arising from deep-seated anxiety. Creative anticipation, on the other hand, is Mystery-centred. It arises out of attentive listening and a capacity to enter into the conversation that life is. Creative anticipation implies a detachment and surrender that rigid expectation lacks. It also implies a greater inner security and awareness of and connection with what really matters.
Waiting for is focused on the moment to come. It tends to have us gathering our energies towards that end point that is yet to arrive. Without a complementary waiting upon, waiting for can be destructive. Waiting upon is focused on the present moment with an openness to the moment to come. It tends to have us listening to and entering into intelligent conversation with what is happening now so that we might facilitate the emergence of the next moment rather than engineer it or demand it.
“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” This is a glimpse of a practical eschatology, where the “last things” and the “end time” are allowed to give shape and vision and energy to the present things and the present time.
What is it about waiting that distresses us?