Commentary on Matthew 24:36-44
Today’s congregation is sometimes perplexed as to why the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent focuses on the second coming.
The preacher can thus explain that beginning the liturgical season of Advent with the second coming reminds us that the work of the first advent (coming) of Jesus is not complete. The risen Jesus instructs (and empowers) the church to continue its witness until the second coming (Matthew 28:16-20).
Matthew has an end-time (apocalyptic) orientation, believing that history is divided into two ages — a present, evil age that God would soon replace with a new age (often called the realm of God or the realm of heaven). The old age is marked by the presence of Satan and the demons, and by idolatry, sin, injustice, exploitation, sickness, enmity between nature and humankind, violence, and death. The new age will be characterized by the complete rule of God and the angels, and by authentic worship, forgiveness, mutual support, health, blessing between nature and humankind, and eternal life.
For Matthew, God is acting through Jesus Christ to effect the change. The birth, life, and resurrection are the first phase of the transformation, with the complete manifestation arriving with the second coming. Meanwhile, Matthew’s community lives in a conflict zone between the ages. God calls the Matthean community to follow the instruction and model of the Matthean Jesus.
Some scholars affirm that many in Matthew’s congregation were losing confidence in the coming of the Realm. The apocalypse was delayed. Their witness was fading. Matthew wrote to encourage them to continue.
Matthew 24:1-31 employs stock apocalyptic language to say, “These signs indicate that you are living in the final chapters of history.” Matthew 24:32-44 underscores, “You cannot know the exact time of the final apocalypse, so you need to witness with intensity.” Matthew 25:1-46 then tells four interlocking parables to point the community toward Realm-like qualities of life necessary in the great transition.
According to Matthew 24:36, neither the angels nor even Jesus can know the precise time the apocalypse will occur. Only God knows.
Matthew 24:37-44 reinforces the idea that the community must “be ready.” In this context, to “be ready” is to continue to do what Jesus taught in the Gospel of Matthew. The community is to prepare for the final advent less by doing special things and more by living and witnessing as Jesus instructed. The liturgical season of Advent is an annual reminder of the importance of faithfully doing what Jesus said.
Matthew’s Gospel uses four examples to underscore the fact that the community cannot know when the cataclysmic event will occur. The first is from the days of Noah (Matthew 24:37-40). Before the flood, people carried on with their daily lives — eating, drinking, marrying. But they knew nothing about future events until, suddenly, “the flood came and swept them all away.” The listener would remember that the story of Noah in Genesis 6-8 calls attention to the unfaithful lives of many in Noah’s generation, a situation similar to that of Matthew’s own generation. But the emphasis on the reference to Noah in Matthew is on the sudden coming of the flood.
The second example is two people in a field, perhaps working. Suddenly one is taken (Matthew 24:40). The third example is two women grinding meal together. One is taken. (Matthew 24:41). Where are the field worker and grinding woman taken?
These examples could prompt many preachers to address a popular misinterpretation. Premillennialism (also known as Darbyism or Dispensationalism and associated with the “Left Behind” series) takes these texts to refer to “the rapture,” when believers are airlifted out of the world while the rest of humankind suffers the tribulation. However, neither Matthew in particular nor biblical eschatologies generally contain the detailed time-line scenarios of premillennialism. To the contrary, Matthew encourages the congregation to remain faithful in witness even in the midst of conflict until the second coming (Matthew24:1-28). Perhaps one way to prepare in Advent is to leave behind “Left Behind.”
The fourth example is a homeowner who did not know when and where a thief was coming. Had the householder possessed such information, the householder would have stayed awake and prevented the break-in (Matthew 24:43). The congregation, then, should stay awake.
From Matthew’s perspective if people do not know when the second coming will occur, they cannot wait until the time is near in order to prepare for it. Matthew wants the congregation to be prepared through witnessing at all times (Matthew 24:42, 44).
Before the preacher moves from the exegesis to the sermon, the preacher needs to make an important theological determination: How do the congregation and preacher relate theologically to the apocalypticism of this passage (and of Matthew more broadly)? I see three main options (recognizing that there can be many nuances).
- Some preachers (and listeners) believe we are living in the last days. These ministers can use the imminence of the second coming as an immediate reason to prepare in Advent.
- Many congregational members believe a final manifestation of the Realm is ahead, though they are ambivalent as to when. It might be soon, or it might not be. The preacher who addresses this group encounters an audience much like Matthew’s, and will do well to encourage listeners to stay alert in spite of the delay.
- Still other congregational members take apocalyptic language as figurative and as tied to a first-century world view that is no longer their own. They do not anticipate a singular event that will instantly transform the world. Instead, they believe God is constantly present, luring the world toward Realm qualities. The preacher can invite these listeners to participate with God in bringing about such realm-like life.
In each case, a preacher can help believers identify interpretive possibilities and identify what they gain and lose with each option, while pointing out that Jesus in all options calls the disciples, and empowers them, to witness faithfully to God’s ultimate purposes of love, peace, joy, and abundance. Coming to such clarity is a powerful way to prepare through Advent.