As a young teenager – a now admittedly distant memory – I remember the first time I encountered end-time missionaries with their dire warnings of impending doom for the unbelievers, it did seem plausible. Now it has reached the point where many of the large sector of evangelicals in the US claim they have to support the Trump administration because they are convinced that the US foreign policy is the fulfilment of the end times Bible interpretation (with I have to add Mr Trump himself as the designated “Chosen One”)!! I find it far harder today to share such conclusions with those whose sense of zeal and certainty seems to welcome such a set of beliefs. Even although I have much to learn I now know far more about the history failed “Bible based” prophecies and rather more about the way the Bible was assembled. Because today’s passage is so commonly seriously misrepresented, I want to start with some intentionally pointed observations.
We might start with reflecting on what faced the early copyists and editors of Matthew’s text. By the time we get to encounter the text it has been copied many times and differences in the subsequent versions suggest it has been extensively edited.
The wisdom of hindsight (eg knowing the Temple had already been destroyed and the Jews driven out) is a powerful editorial factor. Yet, even assuming we are reading the relatively unedited text of what Jesus originally said, we should at least look at the whole of today’s text. The lectionary allows for a certain amount of wiggle room and it is perhaps unfortunate that some denominations (and that includes my own!) start by often simply avoiding parts of the chosen readings that don’t have a good fit with their particular favoured theology.
For example if you compare the Roman Catholic reading for today’s gospel with those of the other Churches’ readings you may have noted that this time it is the Catholic version which starts one verse later. I don’t happen to know the official reason but I cannot help but wonder that, since in the dropped verse Jesus states that “no-one knows the hour” and for emphasis adds, “neither the angels in heaven nor the Son – but only the Father”, to some this would be an awkward admission that Jesus was not in the same league as the Father. Perhaps today’s Bible prognosticators need to be asked if Jesus himself cant give a time, what gives them the right to their certainty. We might also note that some copyists or editors were so discomfited by the three words “nor the Son” that a number of versions of the gospel quietly leave those words out altogether.
I guess we can at least understand their motivation. If Jesus admits he doesn’t have total knowledge about what is being predicted, he comes across as being more human than the God who is all-knowing which is a problem for some traditional Church theology.
Next we consider the setting. When Jesus uses the analogy “Just as in the days of Noah” – he is saying figuratively that this applies to those caught up in cataclysm. The Greek word, translated in NRSV as “flood” in verses 38 and 39 is kataklusmou—which we can equally translate indeed as “cataclysm”. This should give us a clue, namely that here Jesus is reported talking to those who are shortly to be caught in a maelstrom which of course is exactly what the early Christian Church was facing.
The early Christian church membership at the time of Matthew’s gospel numbered a few thousand at best. Those who were struggling to help their tiny church survive, lived in frightening times, and were for the most part were suffering the double difficulty of being rejected by the Jewish community while at the same time being harassed by the Romans, offended by the Christians’ reluctance to acknowledge the Emperor as a God.
As if this wasn’t enough, the scholars’ date for Gospel of Matthew, set at about 80AD, tells that the sacking of the Temple and destruction of most of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans had already happened since the Jewish war was from AD 66 to 70. In a very human setting, editing to remember to slant prophecy with hindsight may well have been a reasonable -even sensible- temptation. But what ever the reason, a very visible cataclysm was already part of the experience for the first readers of the version of Matthew’s gospel which today’s translators are left to work with.
This should offer the opportunity for us to draw at least some parallels with our own lives. Do we really need to wait for end-times to encounter cataclysm? Part of the human condition means that virtually everyone born, sooner or later will experience at the very least a “quiet apocalypse” in their own lives. For example, for many, sooner or later there will be a health crisis, and cancer is depressingly common especially with the elderly. Even in the best ordered family death will need to be faced, whether it is one’s own death or a death of some figure absolutely critical to the well being of the family.
In this nation at least, there are other issues which may resonate with some. Sooner or later, most families experience severe financial pressures, perhaps in the form of unexpected redundancy, and it is common that one or more family members may get caught up with addiction or depression. If it comes to that, even nice houses and quiet neighbourhoods are no protection against marriage breakdown which is an ever present feature of modern society.
We must also be honest, at least if only with ourselves, and admit frankly that even if Jesus had been predicting his second coming in the near future for his contemporary followers, and if the second coming was intended to mean what the rapture predictors claimed to be the truth, Jesus was simply wrong. It didn’t happen in the lifetime of his listeners and it didn’t happen in that form for the approximate two thousand years which have since passed.
At the same time we might also note that there are some clues to suggest Jesus may have been on about something rather different.
This coming is certainly portrayed as unexpected. The thief in the night is unexpected just as each crisis is often unexpected. Yet encountering the experience of Jesus may not be separate from the cataclysm. Parousia—the Greek for “coming”–is formed from para and ousia. Literally, the term means “being alongside.” The scholars remind us the verb translated as “coming” (erxetai) is in the present tense, not future.
OK we should admit we can’t be certain of his words because even if he is accurately reported, Jesus was presumably not speaking Greek, but this simultaneous coming and being experienced alongside implies that Jesus is found in each apocalypse whatever form it might take. At the same time we should reflect on the fact that nowhere in the Bible do we find the words “second coming”. It is certainly reasonable to suggest Matthew was recording an suggested event intended to remind his listeners of the Apocalyptic Book of Daniel where in Daniel 7:13, Daniel saw “one like a son of humanity, coming with the clouds of heaven.”
The notion that Jesus doesn’t come for all may be a picturesque way of suggesting that those unprepared will simply fail to recognise his presence because they cannot recognise his presence in the familiar. It should be emphasised that as far as we know, particularly from other things Jesus is thought to have said, being prepared for Jesus coming seems very unlikely to have anything to do with rushing to the top of some mountain to sing hymns and say Amen to the loud prayers of some self appointed Holy man.
It is for example interesting to read today’s text alongside that other famous passage on the final judgment from Matthew Chapter 25.where the confused chosen ones asked “37 …… ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
Recognizing Jesus may seem an easy task, but even the thought that everyone starting with King Herod, to the religious leaders, to Pilate and even the soldiers at the foot of the Cross reportedly had the greatest difficulty in understanding who Jesus was, even when they had met him in the flesh, and this should be enough to show that this task may not be straightforward. Jesus specifically claimed that it is rather in our understanding that he is present in those who need our help, so perhaps we need to start by reflecting on how we approach those who are the least among us.
In short – if Jesus is right in his parables of his coming again, staying awake and being prepared to recognise the coming of the Son of Man, is not and never has been a so called religious event. Perhaps it is rather, nothing more nor less than a sincere attempt to recognize opportunities to live the Christian ethic.
It is probably uncomfortable to many Church members to allow in Jesus’ terms that sponsoring the installation of a well for poverty stricken villagers in the third world, providing a food bank for the destitute in our own city, or even volunteering for a peacekeeping force may be closer to getting ready for whatever is meant by the coming of the son of man than lustily singing a few verses of Onward Christian Soldiers and quietly sleeping through the preacher’s well intentioned sermon.
Cataclysms can still come as they always have come, and for each of us the ultimate cataclysm may seem more dreadful in our future.
Far from impending cataclysm our Advent candles seem to offer a gentle and even ordered approach to Christmas. Today the first Sunday of Advent (at least in many churches) we lit the candle of Prophecy or Hope for what the coming of Jesus might mean. Next week we would probably light the candle of Love, then it will be the candle of Joy and finally the candle of Peace. Only then according to this ordered tradition will we be ready to light the Christ candle on Christmas day.
I like this tradition, but if we really are to celebrate the coming of Christ to the real world, perhaps we need to be more keenly aware that for many of the least of our brothers and sisters, caught in their own genuine cataclysm of poverty, pain and despair, words like Hope, Love, Joy and Peace will mean little until those who claim to share Christ’s vision for the future reach out to the despairing with genuine compassion. I wonder if we will be found numbered among those who care. Jesus of the Parousia may be noticed alongside as we light our candles. How we prepare ourselves to recognize his coming is the challenge now before us.