Matthew 24:32-51

Matthew 24:32-35     Learning from the Fig Tree

(Mk 13:28-31; Lk 21:29-33)
32Learn from a comparison to the fig tree.  
When its branch becomes pliant and its leaves shoot,
you know that summer is getting close.  
33 So when you see all these things,
know that the time is near, at the gates. 

There was some inconsistency in Matthew’s use of his two different sources.  Whereas the source that he shared with Luke clearly said that there would be no signs, his Markan source was less clear.  

Perhaps, in some ways, the signs Jesus gave were non-signs – life as usual.  Effectively, Jesus was claiming that, beneath the ordinary unfolding of everyday events, redemption was at work, at the gates.

34 I assure you that this generation will not have passed away
before all these things happen.  
35 Earth and sky will pass away,
but my words will not pass away.

With Jesus’ death, the earth would quake and be judged, the elect be set free from their graves [27:51-52], and God’s Kingdom would continue its journey towards final fulfilment.

Calls for Watchfulness in the Interim

Matthew 24:36-44     Need for Watchfulness

(Mk 13:32-37; Lk 17:26-27, 34-35; 21:34-36)
36On what day or hour, however, no one knows,
not even the angels of heaven – only the Father.

Jesus had been speaking as though he knew clearly the details about the coming of the Son of Man.  However, at least with regard to its timing, he was in ignorance.  That would be known to God alone. 

Awaiting the Return – Life in the Interim

It would seem that the first Christians expected an early return of the Son of Man, who would establish God’s Kingdom definitively.  That did not happen.  Christians in the next generation were forced to re-think many of the assumptions that had guided the mindset of their elders.  The stark alternatives – kingdoms of the world and their lifestyles on the one hand or the Kingdom of God and its values on the other – could no longer be conveniently approached as totally self-contained and mutually exclusive.  Rather, they intersected and influenced each other.

The Church has come to realise the need to act responsibly in the world and, with a profound respect for freedom, along with a humble recognition of God’s Spirit eternally at work in the world, to help it to move towards greater truth, justice, love and peace.   Of recent years, it has realised more clearly that action for justice is an integral part of proclaiming the Gospel.   The values of God’s Kingdom can, and need to, replace and reform values accepted in the kingdoms of the world.

All too easily, however, worldly values dilute the life-style appropriate to God’s Kingdom.  Christians need to be alert both to maximise their opportunities to reshape society and to avoid the destructive behaviours of the unredeemed world.

Matthew’s community seemed to have been caught in the middle of the changing assessment – not yet universally convinced of their opportunities and responsibilities to animate their world according to the mind of God, yet aware of the danger of the world’s ways creeping into their community lifestyle.

Matthew proceeded to address the danger, drawing on, interpreting and applying his sense of the authentic message of Jesus.

In light of this uncertainty of the timing of his return, Jesus insisted that his disciples be prepared.  He used four different images.

37 The coming of the Son of Man
will be like things were in the time of Noah.
38 Just as in the time before the flood
people were eating and drinking,
marrying and giving in marriage
right up till the day Noah went into the ark,
39 and they had no idea until the flood came
and took everyone,
so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

In Noah’s day there were no noticeable signs of the pending flood.  Life went on as it had always gone on.  Similarly, the coming of the Son of Man will have no noticeable forewarnings that could be interpreted by an informed observer; there would be no signs.

The warning did not assume that people were sinners.  Simply, they were not prepared – unfocussed, oblivious to the intentions and actions of God.

40 Then, there will be two men out in the paddock;
one of them will be taken away and the other left;
41 two women will be grinding in the mill,
one of them will be taken away, the other left.  
42 Be on the alert, therefore,
because you have no idea when the Son of Man will come.

The first of these two examples referred to a common male occupation – working the paddocks.   The second applied to women – grinding was a female task.  In both cases, a difference of the outcomes was highlighted – but the text did not specify whether those taken or those left were the fortunate ones.  Once again, the unexplained difference was preparedness, awareness of the spiritual dimension of every human action – service given in loving attentiveness to the living God. 

43 Know this, that if the one in charge of the house had known
at what hour of the night the burglar would come,
he would have been ready for him
and not let him break through the wall of his house.
44 So with you, be ready -
because you have no idea when the Son of Man is coming.

Consistently for Matthew, notional awareness of the need to take care was not enough, but needed to be take practical shape.

In his repeated insistence on preparedness, Matthew spoke in the plural: he was addressing the community.  People would influence each others’ morale.  He had referred, repeatedly, to Jesus’ concern lest disciples cause each other to lose focus and succumb to the negative influences of their surrounding world.  The community was vulnerable; their lifestyle was counter-cultural; their options for the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith [23.23], called for discipline and an openness to die to self.  Without constant vigilance, they could easily regress to what they had been before they converted to Jesus and began to share his hopes and his vision.

Matthew left his Markan source, and continued to develop the point of the non-negotiable need to be always prepared.  He drew his illustrations from the same source that he shared with Luke.

Matthew 24:45-51     Alert or Unheeding Slaves

(Lk 12:41-48)
45Who, then, is the reliable and thoughtful slave
whom the master placed in charge of his household staff
to give them their food at the appropriate time?

In talking of special responsibilities within the household, Matthew seems to have had in mind those disciples responsible for leadership in the Christian community.  If that were the case, Matthew was also indicating that their authority derived from the master.  It was a work of service (a reliable and thoughtful slave); and implied no special honour or dignity (a slave among other fellow slaves).

46 Blessed is that slave whom the master finds, on his return,
doing just that.  
47 In fact, I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his goods.  
48 But if that slave is bad, and says to himself,
‘My master is delayed’,
49 and starts to push around his fellow slaves
and to eat and drink with drunkards,
50 the master of that slave will turn up
on the day he does not expect
and at an hour he does not know. 

Matthew may have been addressing an attitude of assumed superiority, or even bullying, within the community.  Since there would be no signs of Jesus’ coming, soon or otherwise, those with special responsibility had a particular need to be alert at all times.  Certainly, there was no place for oppressive control.  Instead, in line with Jesus’ constant insistence throughout the Gospel, all disciples would show themselves prepared by their concern for justice, mercy and faith.

51 He will flog him severely,
and sentence him to the same fate as the hypocrites,
where there will be lamenting and grinding of teeth.

The violent language of flogging severely mirrored, in fact, the punishments common in the earlier Persian Empire.  (Matthew’s use of threat to encourage compliance has already been discussed in the commentary.)

The earlier part of the discourse had severely criticised the hypocrites, the Pharisees.  Then, in fact, Matthew had not been addressing Pharisees, but the members of his own community.  The faults to which Pharisees were prone were potentially the faults of every disciple: the values of the world all too easily seep into life in the community.  Unprepared and exploitative Christian leaders would face the same dispossession threatened earlier to the Jewish leaders [21:41-44].

Next >> Matthew 25:1-13