It is a bit confusing always as we begin a liturgical year and take up the reading of a different Gospel. We never start at the beginning. In one sense we start at the end, the end, that is, of Jesus’ ministry before his last days, what we call the Passion.
So here we are beginning Matthew at the end. And the end also means talk of the end, that is, the end of days, when the Son of Man will return, and God will reign, as we have longed prayed, on earth as in heaven.
To get ourselves oriented, here we are in the latter half of chapter 24. Palm Sunday happened back in chapter 21, and since that time Jesus and the disciples have been in Jerusalem. Jesus has been teaching and having theological disputes with various sects of the Jews of his day, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, mainly. As chapter 24 begins, Jesus and the disciples are leaving the Temple.
The disciples marvel at the buildings of the Temple. They were magnificent, this Temple that Herod the Great had re-built in grand style, as much to pacify the people as to aid their religious devotion. Jesus is not impressed. He says
You see all these stones, do you? I tell you the truth, these stones will not hold together. All of them will be thrown down. Matthew 24:2
The disciples at first don’t respond. Maybe they didn’t dare. Jesus was in one of his moods. But later on that day they got brave and did ask the obvious question.
When will this be? And while we’re asking, how will we know when you are to return and bring the close of the age? Matthew 24:3b
You may remember the disciples asking a similar question at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, right before Jesus’ Ascension.
Lord, is now the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? Acts 1:6b
In both instances the answer was, “It is not for you to know.” In Matthew’s Gospel, as we just heard, Jesus says that not even he knows.
All these questions and pronouncements about the “end of the age” and the “return of the Son of Man” make us a bit uneasy, despite the fact that we repeat in the Nicene Creed, and often elsewhere in the liturgy, every week that
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
For most of us, this is not a matter of primary concern. But for the early Christians for whom Matthew was writing this was a primary concern. Jewish spirituality in Jesus’ day, and for many years after his death, had a strong apocalyptic streak. The people of God, be they Jewish or Christian, lived under significant oppression. Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple had, in fact, taken place. The Romans, it seemed, had the power to wipe out Jewish religion. When would God intervene?
For Christians of the time, God had begun to intervene in Jesus of Nazareth, but that intervention was not complete. The resurrection, they believed, was the first word of that final intervention, but the last word would be the return of the resurrected one to reign over the kingdom of God.
By the time Matthew was writing his Gospel, close to the end of the first century, we are working on the third generation of followers of Jesus. The times in which they lived had not gotten any less difficult and anxious and dangerous. But where was Jesus?
Back at the beginning of chapter 24, when the disciples asked “When?” Jesus gave them a series of “not” answers. Not when it may seem obvious. Not when some proclaim themselves to be the Messiah. Not when there are wars and rumors of wars. Not when there are great natural disasters.
And then the news got harder. Also, not when you are persecuted, tortured or put to death because you follow me. Not when many fall away and love grows cold among you.
My return will not be about any of these things. But it will be about these two things: your capacity to endure, and how you have spread the good news throughout the world. That is what you must do.
He then goes on to speak of the chaos of the very last days, during which many more false prophets and false Messiahs will arise, but they are to look for him coming on the clouds.
Then we get our passage this morning in which he stresses our attentiveness and reiterates that the coming will be a surprise, “an unexpected hour.”
But even with all that, surely the expectation, even of the Jesus speaking here, is that all this would happen sooner rather than later. Of course, it hasn’t, which makes many of us hear this stuff and throw up our hands and ask, “What good is all this talk?”
What good it all is comes with the next chapter of Matthew, which contains three parables. The first is about the foolish and wise bridesmaids, reiterating the message that we must remain alert and ready. The second is the parable of the talents, emphasizing that we must work with what we have been given and not be controlled by fear. The third one, the judgment scene sometimes called the parable of the sheep and the goats, is where it all suddenly makes sense. Interestingly enough, we will read that story to end our year of Matthew next November.
You remember the scene. The Son of Man has come and been enthroned. He gathers “all the nations” before him for the final judgment. It is simple. He separates them into two groups, like a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. To the sheep he says, “You inherit the kingdom, because when I was hungry, you gave me food, when I was thirsty you gave me something to drink, when I was a stranger you welcomed me, when I was naked you gave me clothing, when I was sick you took care of me, when I was in prison you visited me. He names six acts that will come to be known as the corporal works of mercy.
They are astonished because they did not remember doing these things to him. The King says,
In truth I tell you, when you did it to the least among you, you did it to me.
The goats are told that they did not do these things to him when they did not do them to the least among them. They are to go to eternal punishment.
What does all this mean for us today?
First of all, when we think of judgment or the end of time, there are three simple things to remember:
· We have no idea when any of this is going to happen. It is all uncertainty. Jesus told us to be uncertain, not to try to crack the code. What about all those Christians who are trying to figure out the signs of Jesus’ returning? Jesus’ advice is simple, “Do not listen to them. They are wasting their time.”
· Our job is to stay awake, watch, remain prepared. At any moment we may might God face to face. That is not a threat, but a promise, in the best sense of that word.
· The primary way we do this waiting and watching is by going about doing good, by practicing mercy and, indeed, justice. The primary way Jesus is present to us in between his advents is in “the least among us.” In any given situation, whoever is the least, is Jesus, and it matters eternally how we treat him or her.
Many commentators on Matthew’s Gospel think that the most important words in it are words Jesus quotes on two occasions from the prophet Hosea (6:6): “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9:13 and 12:7) “Go and learn what this means,” Jesus says in chapter nine. And so we spend our lives doing just that, Matthew imagines, and then, in the end, it is our mercy on which we will be judged.
Our job is to keep the story of God alive, with all its hopes and dreams and visions, and of all the impossible possibilities to which we are called to hang on stubbornly, like the dream of the nations beating their swords into plowshares. Will it ever happen? We don’t know. But it will surely never happen if we let the vision die.
In the meantime we look for the least and serve them. We practice mercy. This is how we work out our salvation.