Matthew 24 and 25 (selections)
This commentary will conclude the exploration of the Gospel of Matthew over the next two weeks, dealing with two doctrines that became fundamental to traditional Christianity, and skewed the teachings of Jesus almost beyond recognition: Apocalyptic eschatology and the Last Judgment.
The process the early followers of Jesus went through that resulted in the Church of Jesus Christ is fairly long, fairly obscure, and full of pitfalls for those who seek to recreate it. One of the key debates among New Testament scholars is whether or not Jesus believed himself to be the “son of Adam” (KJV: “son of Man”) described in the apocalyptic legend of Daniel. For example, see The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate (Polebridge Press, 2001, Robert J. Miller, ed.). In the Book of Daniel, written in the 2nd century before the common era, God acts to establish God’s Kingdom (the 5th Kingdom) on earth by designating a savior, who will be “taken up” to God, then returned to earth at a time determined by God to overthrow the wicked empire of Rome. Specific timing is spelled out. The dead will be resurrected so that even they can participate in God’s ultimate justice.
Jesus is highly likely to have known about the legend of Daniel. But he never referred to himself as the hoped-for messiah described there. Jesus may have countered a future hope for deliverance (apocalyptic eschatology) with transformation in life here and now (participatory eschatology) by offering his own real-time solution to the injustice suffered by his people under Roman occupation. Scholarly research done and publicly disseminated by the Westar Institute’s Jesus Seminar clearly separates Jesus’ hands-on, immediate, transformative, way of life from later interpretations developed after Jesus’ death, which were colored by apocalyptic thinking, and devastating changes in first-century, middle eastern politics, religion, and social arrangements. Jerusalem was destroyed, Temple Judaism was replaced by rabbinic, synagogue-based Judaism, Jewish populations were dispersed, and those who believed Jesus was indeed the Anointed One described in the legend separated themselves from traditional Jews who did not. Occasionally early followers of what became a “Jesus movement” were forcibly removed from local synagogues.
The apocalypse and the final judgment are thoroughly covered by the Elves – of course – in each of the lectionary years assigned to the synoptic gospels. The cherry-picking of specific apocalyptic portions from Mark, Matthew, Luke, and the letters of Paul starts in Advent, is revisited at the New Year, and resurfaces at the end of the liturgical year, with the season of the Reign of Christ, when the end of the wicked world is proclaimed, and Christ the King is Lord of All. The ultimate apocalyptic tale is the resurrection of Jesus as the Christ at Easter, and the ascension into heaven of the Christ at Pentecost, from whence he will come again to judge the living and the dead – just as “predicted” by Daniel 7:13-14.
John Shelby Spong continues to argue that Christianity must change or die. If Christianity is to have any relevance to present and future life on Planet Earth, the change that has to occur is to abandon the theology of “end times” and “final judgment.” So long as the “end times” are seen as some vague future to be brought about in a cataclysm by an interventionist god, for Christian believers, there is little incentive for humans to make any significant changes in how we are impacting life on the Planet among ourselves, and between us and the rest of creation. What may be worse, non-believers in the dogma are increasingly likely to see Christianity as crazed irrelevancy, and completely miss Jesus’ transformational call for non-violent distributive justice-compassion, here and now. As John Dominic Crossan puts it in his response to the “so what?” question posed in the above-cited debate, “We are guilty of historical malpractice to go on using a phrase that can only misunderstand the past and mislead the present. A[n] apocalyptic prophet announces the imminent transcendental change of a terribly evil world into a perfectly good one. Say that clearly, and we might get somewhere . . . Go on talking about “the end of the world” and only misunderstanding and irrelevance are possible” (p. 138).
The Elves skip Matthew 24:1-35. This is a practically word-for-word recounting of Mark’s “little apocalypse,” which is covered in Year B (Mark 13) and Year C (Luke 21). Matthew 24:36-44 is read on the first Sunday in Advent, and is paired with Romans 13:11-14. Matthew writes, “As for that exact day and minute, no one knows, not even heaven’s messengers, nor even the son – no one, except the Father alone (24:36) . . . So stay alert! You never know on what day your landlord returns (24:42) . . . you too should be prepared. Remember, the son of Adam is coming when you least expect it (24:44).” Even though attendance might be down (if the first Sunday in Advent happens to be Thanksgiving Sunday), Church choirs sing Bach’s “Wachet Auf!” Jesus is coming again. The infant savior will be reborn in three weeks.
If the Elves were really interested in pairing the gospels with Paul’s letters, they really should put 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 with Matthew 24:36-44, not 25:1-13. Matthew 24 is about “the Rapture,” as is 1 Thessalonians 4 – if read literally. Matthew’s Jesus says, “This is how it will be when the son of Adam comes. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left.” Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died . . . For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”
In 24:43-44, Matthew’s Jesus says, “Mark this well: if the homeowner had known when the burglar was coming, he would have been on guard and not have allowed anyone to break into his house. By the same token, you too should be prepared. Remember, the son of Adam is coming when you least expect it.” One wonders if Matthew stole Paul’s metaphor from 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3: “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. . . . But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief . . . So then let us nor fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.”
But the Elves pair Paul’s letter to the Romans with Matthew’s description of imminent end times. In Romans, Paul is certainly convinced that “we are living in the most decisive moment in human history. The hour has already passed for you to be roused from your sleep . . . The night is almost gone, the day is almost here. Let us rid ourselves of the preoccupations of the darkness and clothe ourselves with the armor of light. . . . make no concession to the lifestyle of this age and its pursuit of self-gratification.” As Crossan points out, if we put these ideas into a transformation of society from greed to sharing, from retributive pay-back to distributive justice, then Paul’s first century words resonate down the centuries like a bell in a valley – or an earthquake in the solid granite of the U.S. eastern coastline.
Jesus is not going to come again. He left plenty of lessons, parables, and examples of how to recreate God’s covenant relationship among the diverse tribes of earth. Earlier in his letter to the Romans, Paul says, “But so far as you are concerned as scripture says, ‘If your enemy is hungry give him something to eat, and if he is thirsty give him something to drink; because if you do this, you will pile red hot coals [of shame?] on his head.’ So don’t let yourselves be defeated by what is evil, but defeat what is evil with what is good” (Romans 12:20-21, Scholars Version).
Matthew 25 starts with Matthew’s parable of the ten Maidens, five of whom were not prepared for the Bridegroom. Paul doesn’t talk about the consequences of not being prepared for Jesus’ return. He assumes that everyone who accepts the “good news” of Jesus’ death and resurrection are automatically included in the realm of God. He asks only that they “caution the unruly, encourage those who lack confidence, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure you don’t retaliate against evil, but always seek the good for each other, even for outsiders (1 Thessalonians 5:13-15, Scholars Version emphasis added). If Paul had written the story, the five wise maidens would have shared their oil.