Keeping Watch

This coming Sunday is the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time in lectionary cycle B. Our Gospel reading is from Mark 13:24-37, the end verses of the larger “Olivet Discourse” in Mark’s gospel. Today let us consider:

 32 “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch. 35 Watch, therefore; you do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. 36 May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”

Here at the end of the Olivet Discourse, Jesus’ primary message is not about signs or their interpretations, but maintaining vigilance – the watchfulness that is imperative, because no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. No knows which day will be that day, a phrase with clear 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). As previously noted by Witherington [338], Jesus’ goal has been to get the disciples to focus less on the things that will happen and more on the one who will bring all things to a conclusion in due course – the Son of Man.

One of the phrases that has garnered attention in every age is nor the Son. Seemingly, there is a clear indication and confession of ignorance about the events at the end of the age. At one level it is the same mystery one faces when plumbing the Incarnation, that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. The history of heresy is filled with attempts of people to explain how there can be a divide between the human and divine. But I would suggest in this passage, there is no theological or chistological intention on Jesus’ part. It is a warning that what is needed is vigilance not calculation. If the ever-vigilant angels will not have a “playbook of signs,” it makes no sense for humans to prepare the checklist of signs. Not that generation after generation have not tried. The only common trait is that they are always wrong. That day 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 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:

32 “But of that day or hour, no one knows
33 “You do not know when the time will come.”
35 “you do not know when the lord of the house is coming.”

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