Watchfulness – commentary

First-AdventJesus concluded his discourse by stressing the responsibility of maintaining vigilance. The duty to watch draws its force from the fact that “no one knows” the critical moment of God’s decisive intervention. “That day” evokes a formula hallowed by use in the prophetic Scriptures; it appears with a clearly eschatological resonance in passages which announce the day of Yahweh’s appearing (Amos 8:3, 9, 13; 9:11; Mic. 4:6; 5:9; 7:11; Zeph. 1:9f.; 3:11, 16; Obad. 8; Joel 3:18; Zech. 9:16; 12–14).

Here it designates an indeterminate date which remains the Father’s secret. In the light of its association with the theophany of God on the Day of the Lord it must have primary reference to the parousia, the coming of the Son of Man (v.26). Jesus thus affirms that no one knows that day or the hour (the smallest unit of time; cf. verse 11) when the Son of Man will appear in glory with power. In order to understand the relationship of this affirmation to the assurance given in v. 30 that the events preliminary to the destruction of the Temple will occur within the experience of that generation, it is necessary to give full force to the adversative particle in verse 32: “I say to you solemnly, this generation shall not pass away … As for that day and that hour, on the contrary, no one knows …” While the parable of the fig tree illustrates the possibility of observing the proximity of the first event, another comparison is developed in connection with v. 32 which underscores the impossibility of knowing the moment of the Lord’s return. Verses 30 and 32 concern two distinct events (the taking of Jerusalem by the Romans, and the Day of the Lord, respectively).

The accent falls on the words “no one knows,” not on the qualification “neither the angels in heaven nor the Son.” Very early the clause “nor the Son” attracted the attention of theologians anxious to trace the christological implications in the confession of ignorance, but in this context it is accidental with respect to Jesus’ intention. His purpose was not to define the limits of his theological knowledge, but to indicate that vigilance, not calculation, is required. If the Son of Man (interpreting “the Son” by v. 26) and the angels are ignorant of “that day” it is because nothing allows a presentiment of its coming. Its approach is impossible to discern and so to prepare oneself for it. In this respect it stands in sharp contrast to the destruction of Jerusalem, which could be clearly foreseen and its devastation avoided by flight. The day of judgment will arrive so suddenly and unexpectedly that absolutely no one will have the least warning. That is why vigilance and confident faith are required of the disciples and the Church. Correctly understood, the qualification “nor the Son” indicates that even Jesus had to live by faith and to make obedience and watchfulness the hallmark of his ministry.

Jesus recognized one exception to the true ignorance implied: “except the Father.” The determination of the critical moment of intervention rests exclusively with him (cf. Acts 1:6–7). On this point the Father has not delegated his authority to anyone, not even to the Son. The one certainty the disciples may have is that the day will come when God will execute his decision to judge the world, and for that purpose he will send forth his Son with the hosts of angels (Ch. 8:38; 13:26f.). The parousia and the judgment it will inaugurate are matters irrevocably decided. From this perspective the parousia is not conditioned by any other consideration than the sovereign decision of the Father, which remains enveloped with impenetrable mystery.

The exhortations to vigilance which follow are linked to the fact that the critical moment remains unknowable. The connection with v. 32 and with the brief parable which follows is underlined by reference to an ignorance of God’s secret counsel:

  1. 32 “No one knows that day or that hour …”
  2. 33 “You do not know when the time will come.”
  3. 35 “you do not know when the lord of the house is coming.”

In the parallelism that is developed “that day or that hour,” “the critical moment,” and the moment of the householder’s return are identical expressions for the same reality: the mysterious moment of the divine intervention, which cannot be foreseen. Because the moment of crisis is unknowable, unceasing vigilance is imperative.

This fact is illustrated by the parable of the absent householder, which is peculiar to Mark. A journeying master delegated authority to his servants and assigned each to his work, specifying that the doorkeeper is to watch. These details recall a familiar early Christian pattern of exhortation stressing vigilance and an application of the vigilance concept to the Christian ministry in terms of work and labor. The true servant will want to be actively engaged in his Master’s service when he returns. The danger is “lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping” (v. 36). The imagery of a master who first leaves and then returns suddenly, which is integral to the call to watchfulness, is appropriate to the parousia and serves to make the content of “that day” precise. A subordinate feature of the parable is the reference to the four night-watches in verse 35b, which conforms to the Roman reckoning of time (in contrast to the Jewish practice of dividing the night into three watches). As in Ch. 6:48, Mark has transmitted the tradition he received in a form which would be recognized as familiar to his readers.

This statement serves to recall verse 3, where the question which prompted the eschatological discourse was asked privately by Peter, James, John and Andrew. The explicit extension of the exhortation to watch to a wider circle, which Mark undoubtedly understood to include the Christians of Rome, suggests that it was Jesus’ intention to transcend any distinction between the disciples, to whom he delegated his authority (see on Ch. 6:7), and the Church at large. That which is primarily the duty of the disciple is secondarily the responsibility of the entire community. Each member has “his work” and by completing it he fulfills the obligation to watch. Vigilance is the responsibility of every believer and provides the sole guarantee of preparedness for the Lord’s return.

The imperative “take heed, be vigilant” in verse 33 and the related call to “watch” in verses 35, 37 furnish a climax to the exhortations of verses 5, 9, and 23. The stress upon vigilance sustained throughout the discourse suggests that the final call to watchfulness in verse 37 is not focused exclusively upon the last day, but like the previous admonitions, has bearing upon the continuing life of the Church during an age marked by false teachers, persecution and delay in the Lord’s return. The phrase “to each his work” in verse 34 tends to strengthen this conclusion. When verses 33–37 are seen in the context of the entire discourse, it is evident that the vigilance of the Church may have as much reference to the perils from within and without delineated in verses 5–23 as to the climactic event of the parousia in verses 24–27. The time of the appearing of the Son of Man in glory is unknown, but the fact that he will come is certain. The Church is called to live vigilantly in the certainty of that coming.

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