This coming Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent. In yesterday’s posts we looked 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. Today, we consider more about the need for watchfulness, readiness, and being attentive to God’s call.
If the time is unknown… It will catch people unprepared. The analogy with the days of Noah suggests that judgment is to be a major feature (though it is not the whole picture) of the coming of the Son of man. But the main point is the unpreparedness of Noah’s contemporaries. Whereas Noah and his family were ready, everyone else carried on oblivious to the threat of judgment, and so, while Noah was saved, they were swept away. The implication is that it is possible to prepare for the parousia, not by calculating its date, but by a life of constant readiness and response to God’s warnings and introductions. There will apparently be only two categories, the prepared (and therefore saved) and the unprepared (and therefore lost).
Some are taken – some are not… This radical division is reinforced by two cameos of ordinary life suddenly disrupted. Both men are involved in the same work in the field, both women in the same grinding at the mill. It is not a difference in work or situation which causes the separation, but a difference in readiness. (Cf. 13:30 for the idea of a coexistence of the ‘saved’ and the ‘lost’ until the final judgment.) Taken is the same verb used e.g. in 1:20; 17:1; 18:16; 20:17; the word for “taken” (paralambanomai) doesn’t mean “to go up” or “to meet”, but “to go along with”. It is used in the Transfiguration story: “Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother.” It is used in the section on church discipline. If someone has sinned against you, you are to go to him and tell him his fault. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you.
If indeed discipleship is a primary focus of the narrative, it is perhaps useful to speculate what the people are doing when this “taking” or “leaving” occurs? They are at the place of employment. They are busy at work. I would guess that the man working in the field is “left”, because he couldn’t leave his important work. The woman working in the mill is “left”, because she couldn’t leave her important work. Work is important. One needs to provide food and shelter for self and family, but there is something more important than your work: the Son of Man. God might show up at your work place without an appointment. What would you tell him? “Great, let’s meet. I’ve got work to do right now, but have your people call my people and we can do lunch.” Of course, “his people” have been calling all along.
I would suggest, in the Matthean verse, the word “taken” (paralambanomai) points to the salvation of rather than the destruction of the one ‘taken’. No indication is given of where they are ‘taken’ to; the point is simply the sharp division which the parousia will entail.
What disciples should be doing. The practical conclusion to be drawn from vv. 36–41 is that of constant readiness, which will also be the focus of the rest of the chapter and of 25:1–13. The point of vv. 36–42 is summed up in a little parable (paralleled in Luke 12:39–40). If house-breakers (broken into is literally ‘dug through’, an easy mode of entry into a mud-walled house) gave prior warning, no-one would be caught out. In a rather bold analogy, the Son of man, like the burglar, does not advertise the time of his arrival. The only precaution, therefore, is constant readiness. In view of such plain statements as this it is interesting that some Christians still attempt to work out the date of the parousia.
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