Studi biblici/Matteo 24:36-44/Matthew 24:36-44
The Condition of Waiting
Waiting, but for who?
In a famous theatrical work of 1952, titled "Waiting for Godot," Samuel Beckett, the playwright, depicts two characters, two tramps, who simply, for the duration of the representation, talk and wait. They expect no one knows who or what, a mysterious "Godot". The play ends without revealing who exactly this Godot is and why they are waiting for him. In any case, "Godot" is not coming.
The playwright wanted to represent man's life, which, according to him, is without meaning or purpose and as being characterised by lack of communication and the crisis of identity, which prove to be the norm in relationships between human beings. This is called “The condition of waiting" or expectation, for those who wait in hope.
God's people, ancient Israel, lived in expectation of the coming of the Messiah, the Saviour. There had been many texts, for example in the Book of Daniel, which pointed to this period of time as being "right". There were military Messiahs who had already come and had been executed, even in the lifetime of Jesus. This expectation was kept alive not only by the prophecies, but also of the entire religious system of Israel. They lived in view of this event and all expected from it a kind of national liberation.
It was not, however, a vain and futile waiting, because, as it is proclaimed by the Christian faith, God's promises are accomplished with the coming of Jesus of Nazareth. His birth was foretold and special. His life was a fulfilment of prophecies and long withheld divine wisdom and His death is special. His resurrection from the dead was unique until then.
The New Testament describes and explains this Advent, the coming of Jesus, the Christ, in its various phases and meaning. The Lord Jesus had promised that he will also return to this earth and the entire New Testament also testifies to it. The Apostles' Creed  presents the work among us as that of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. One of the fundamental articles of the Christian faith is Jesus Christ’s Second Coming. Speaking of Christ who rises to Heaven, it says: "... He will come again to judge the living and the dead."
The biblical text on which we focus today is a fragment of the Gospel of Matthew speaks of the "second coming" of Christ.:
- “But as for that day and hour no one knows it – not even the angels in heaven – except the Father alone. For just like the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. For in those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. And they knew nothing until the flood came and took them all away. It will be the same at the coming of the Son of Man. Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one left. There will be two women grinding grain with a mill; one will be taken and one left. “Therefore stay alert, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have been alert and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Matthew 24:36-44.)
There are, in this text, at least three thoughts that stand out in my opinion, in a particular way.
1. The signs of the end. There are many today who see "signs" of the "end" in this or that other event. Many expected the years 2000 or 2012 as "the end of the world", but nothing happened. Others in history have given different dates and there will be more a pseudo-prophecies, indicating also the "signs" which, according to them, will indicate the approach of the last days. Jesus says that the time of His glorious return, however, will surprise most people. It will happen when they least expect it. In fact, this goes against the modern fashion, very common today, for so-called "apocalypticism". Will this cause fear among people so that they will repent it from their wrongdoings? Hardly. In fact, only up to a certain point does the fear of "terrorism" work. What, then does Jesus calls us to in this text?
2. God is a God who chooses. The second thought in this text is that of selection: God and His Christ is a God who makes choices and that choice, in fact, does not save everybody! This goes against the contemporary egalitarianism, where all feel they have a right to be treated equally. As someone has said, if God deigned to appear at the Court of Human Rights in Luxembourg, he would be accused of "discrimination". So this humanistic concept of justice, holds true only up to a certain point and only for certain things. The modern mentality of "equal opportunity" is also typical of most churches today, but it is not what God's Word says in all cases. This might offend someone, but it is not true that God loves everyone equally. Who are those who are "taken" and those who are "left"? By what criteria does God, in Christ, make this selection?
3. The need for watchfulness. A third thought that this text arouses is that of prevention and surveillance. "Security measures" are important. There are those who are afraid of everything and everyone and are extremely cautious, for example not sleeping at night for fear that a thief would intrude in the house. The insurance companies and security agencies make profits from them. To what extent and how should we be "vigilant"? What does it mean to "watch", in the teaching of Jesus?
Let's look at the text, because it certainly raises many questions.
A selective revelation
“But as for that day and hour no one knows it – not even the angels in heaven – except the Father alone” (36).
The certainty of the fulfilment of the prophecy of Christ that He will return was meant to prevent His disciples presuming they could predict with accuracy the time of its accomplishment. God the Father did not want to reveal its date to anyone. The risen Lord before His ascension tells them, "You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority" (Acts 1:7). This does not mean that we should ignore it and live like everybody else. Jesus only asks us to be always ready, watchful. Jesus himself as a man says he does not know this date, even as the Second Person of the Trinity. Jesus is certainly the Word that reveals God, but the date of His return is not something that even He was authorized to disclose. In His humanity He reveals many of the mysteries of God to His people, but He has not been “programmed”, at it were, certainly as a man, to reveal this. We ask how His omniscient deity and the limitation of His humanity be harmonised. It is not something that we can even try to understand. For us, however, the "not knowing" undoubtedly has a pedagogical function, because the condition of "always be prepared" is a way of life that God wants us to learn habitually.
The same goes for the time and date of our death, already perfectly known and established by God. it is good that we do not know it, but that does not mean that that we are "always ready" to leave this world, in order to be reunited with God, having a constant attitude of "detachment" from this world. This attitude contrasts with the secular absolutizing of this world and this life. The Christian is called always asked to "look beyond."
The attitude that Jesus wants to teach in this biblical episode undoubtedly finds in the time of Noah and the Flood a very important illustration. In fact, Jesus goes on to say:
A selective proclamation
“For just like the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. For in those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. And they knew nothing until the flood came and took them all away. It will be the same at the coming of the Son of Man” (37-39).
The life in the days of Noah was going on normally: the usual things were happening, not necessarily bad in themselves. It could be said that people were "unaware" of what would happen next to humanity. "Unaware", however, is an adjective not entirely correct, because we know that Scripture refers to Noah as a "preacher of righteousness”. Undoubtedly, through Noah, God had solemnly warned this generation of their wickedness and of the judgment hanging over them and Noah had called them to repentance. However, he was ignored and ridiculed. In fact, "By faith Noah, when he was warned about things not yet seen, with reverent regard constructed an ark for the deliverance of his family. Through faith he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith "(Hebrews 11:7.)
The apostle Peter says even the generation of Noah "... after they were disobedient long ago when God patiently waited in the days of Noah as an ark was being constructed. In the ark a few, that is eight souls, were delivered through water "(1 Peter 3:20). This case also reveals the mystery of election in salvation: the whole of humanity is corrupted by sin and destined to be subjected to the righteous judgment of God. God, nevertheless, in the context of that same humanity showed His mercy first by warning and then saving righteous people: "Noah was a godly man; he was blameless among his contemporaries. He walked with God" (Genesis 6:9) . So God delivers them in "an ark" of salvation, a symbol of Christ and His Cross.
Similarly today, in this world corrupted by sin, the Gospel is preached to the whole world. It proclaims the righteous judgment of God on sin and the grace of salvation in Christ. Through it, many find in Christ their "ark." Most people, however, distort, ignore or deride the Gospel and continues to live their usual life, "unaware" of things to come. God’s judgement, however, will fall on them, and they will be irreparably taken away, like a flood, as the Psalm says: "You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed." (Psalm 90:5-7 ESV).
So it will be in the latter times. The normality of lives will not necessarily be extra sinful, but the world will be so absorbed in their worldly affairs, such as earning a living, buying things and getting married that it will not pay any attention to the solemn warnings and appeal of the gospel of Christ.
The disciples of Jesus must keep things of this world in perspective and, like Noah, have to be witnesses of the gospel of judgment and salvation, "building the ark," that is to say, the body of Christ, the Church, welcoming anyone who comes to repentance and faith in Him. Some will be inside and others will be left outside, as the following verses state.
A selective rescuing
“Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one left.There will be two women grinding grain with a mill; one will be taken and one left” (40-41).
Having discussed the situation in the proximity of His return, Jesus explains the consequences of the two possible answers to this announcement for judgment and salvation of the gospel. Faced with this, no neutrality is possible. Jesus says: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Luke 11:23).
There are many readers today who interpret this text on the basis of the so-called "rapture" of the church and speculate a lot about it, writing speculative books based on their interpretations This text, however, only talks about the selection of the judgment of God, which will not be a "universal salvation" as many today like to think. God will separate respective destinies, two workers who do the same job, or even two members of the same family. From the human point of view, there may appear that there is no difference between one and another person, but God looks at things from a different perspective and acts otherwise. Of course, there is no distinction: all are sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God, but the difference lies in the unquestionable choice of God, to grant the grace of salvation in Christ to some, in order to demonstrate His mercy, while allowing, unwillingly of course, to let others suffer His righteous' judgment in order to demonstrate His righteousness. This God did with Noah and those who found refuge in the ark.
Apostle Paul writes: "You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who has ever resisted his will?” But who indeed are you – a mere human being – to talk back to God? Does what is pot say to the potter, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special household use and another for ordinary kitchen use? But what if God, willing to demonstrate his wrath to make known his glory and justice, endures with much patience the scorn and rejection of the objects of wrath? And what if He is willing to make known the wealth of his glory through the objects of mercy that he has prepared beforehand for His glory" (Romans 9:14-23).
Our text ends with an exhortation to faith and watchfulness, to be always on the alert. “Therefore stay alert, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come”.“ But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have been alert and would not have let his house be broken into"(42-43).
Jesus' disciples must remain watchful because the precise time of Christ's return is unknown, although the signs of His coming are indeed there to indicate its proximity. In the parable that Jesus introduces at this point, He compares Himself to a thief in the night, but only in one aspect, namely in the fact that others do not expect that He will be coming. The point of this parable is that if the owner of the house had known at what time the thief will come, he would prepare himself.
The meaning of this text does not need much explanation. Clearly if you are asleep you will not hear someone breaking in and if you stayed awake you could get up and raise the alarm. Scripture in this regard is very clear. Apostle Paul writes: "Now on the topic of times and seasons, brothers and sisters, you have no need for anything to be written to you. For you know quite well that the day of the Lord will come in the same way as a thief in the night. Now when they are saying, “There is peace and security,”then sudden destruction comes on them, like labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will surely not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in the darkness for the day to overtake you like a thief would. For you all are sons of the light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of the darkness. So then we must not sleep as the rest, but must stay alert and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But since we are of the day, we must stay sober by putting on the breastplate of faith and love and as a helmet our hope for salvation. For God did not destine us for wrath but for gaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that whether we are alert or asleep we will come to life together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, just as you are in fact doing " (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11).
For most people today, like for those tramps waiting for Godot, life has no ultimate meaning. It is thus lived in constant expectation of something undefined that might stimulate them or satisfy their sense, but in vain. Hopes, promises and dreams are soon forgotten or are frustrated. The Christian faith, however, lightens up human existence because the expectation is fulfilled in the Faithful and True, in Jesus of Nazareth as Saviour and Lord. In Him and with Him we can enjoy the first fruits of the new heaven and the new earth which He will accomplish at His return. It is at that moment that He wants us to turn to look in eager expectation. This means relativizing the present reality and sharing from now on in the realization of the New.
In the Biblical texts examined today, God discourages us from seeking to know "the date" of the Second Coming of Christ in order to educate ourselves in living in the present. With that faith, that hope and that love we must lay the foundation of our lives. This text too speaks to us of God's grace which by its very nature is selective but also allows us to live as watchful, alive and well, waking people, engaging them in industrious work, in the transformation of reality, according to the intentions revealed by God in Christ.
Christians are not to be counted among those who "sleep" as if nothing had happened, but between those who are aware of things as they really are and who work in obedience to the Lord, because God has revealed them those things to him and prepare accordingly.
“Therefore you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (44) Are you preparing yourself today for that moment? It could happen at any time!