This coming Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent. In yesterday’s posts we considered the pastoral concerns of the gospel; concerns that sometimes get lost amid all the attention to an “apocalyptic” fervor around the reading. In today’s post we’ll look at Matthew’s emphasis that the disciples will not know the day – no one knows – but that does not remove the need to stay awake – a key theme of Advent.
Our gospel combines several pictures in order to describe the arrival of the Son of Man (v. 37). The Noah parable (vv. 37–39) contrasts Noah and the other people of his generation. The flood came upon them suddenly and had dire consequences for many. The pictures of the two men in the field (v. 40) and the two women grinding meal (v. 41) emphasize the suddenness of the coming and the separation that it will bring. Since the exact hour of the coming is unknown, the only appropriate attitude is constant watchfulness (v. 42). This attitude is encouraged further by the story of the homeowner (v. 43). If a homeowner knows when a thief is coming, he exercises watchfulness at that time. But since the time of the Son of Man’s coming remains unknown, the watchfulness must be constant (v. 44).
Matthew (and Luke) use this material that is common to them – but not in the Gospel of Mark – in a way that is very different from the “little apocalypse” of Mark 13 (you should take a quick read of that short chapter to gain a sense of Mark’s vision and purpose). It is clear that Mark emphasizes a wickedness upon the earth that only a final eschatological cleansing can rectify. Matthew (and Luke) refer to the days of Noah “When the LORD saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how no desire that his heart conceived was ever anything but evil, he regretted that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was grieved. So the LORD said: ‘I will wipe out from the earth the men whom I have created, and not only the men, but also the beasts and the creeping things and the birds of the air, for I am sorry that I made them’” (Gen 6:5-7). And yet the gospel writers do not compare this generation to Noah’s. Compare the two gospel accounts:
This text has been preceded by: “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Mt 23:36). The emphasis is that life goes on as normal. The emphasis is that the disciples will not know the day – no one knows – but that does not remove the need to stay awake.
The Matthean text, written well after Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians, does not contain a “rapture” eschatological understanding. The “taken” (vv.40,41) is, as in Noah, a gathering of the saved community. Those on the Ark did not escape the tribulation, as always, they are witnesses and thus their mission continues. Matthew’s pastoral concerns are the same. The new tribulations of Matthew’s time (and ours) are not something from which to escape, rather the tribulations are a time in which the faithful/saved are revealed – as well as the lost. It is revelatory of what “already is.”
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