Doubter's Daily Bible: Matthew 24
Welcome Doubter’s Daily Bible, a little blog post-style thing that I (Dan) am going to try out. The idea is fairly simple: many of us long to read the Bible devotionally, or to have the Bible influence our lives and our decisions, to find God within its pages.
But problems persist. Scripture has been used poorly in the hands of other people. We try to read in a prayerful spirit, but as we do, deep theological problems rise to the surface and distract us.
How do we move forward?
I would like to propose one option: read Scripture, set all your caveats aside, and then see what happens. I will attempt to do this—from my own perspective with all my own doubts and worries—--with daily Bible readings taken from the Catholic Monthly Mass reading schedule. Here is my first attempt, chosen basically at random, and boy is this passage a doozy...
Raise your hand if anything about this passage rubs you the wrong way. I’m guessing most of you? I certainly count myself in that group. I spent a good 15 years having actual panic attacks about the “End Times,” and whenever I'd come home to an empty house, I was instantaneously struck with the fear that my family had all been raptured and that I was left alone on Earth to suffer through the 7-year Tribulation.
But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. 48 But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
It is very difficult for me to read this passage, and indeed the entire chapter of Mark 24 (which includes the “abomination of desolation,” “wars and rumors of wars,” “this generation will not pass away,” etc), without immediately going on the defensive. First, I want to defend myself against all the bad theology that actually harmed me. In all seriousness—--and I have spoken about this a couple times on the podcast—--I was the recipient of what I consider spiritual abuse, at the hands of mostly well-meaning 90s Evangelicals who could not see beyond their own cultural moment.
And then additionally, there are the theological questions that this passage calls up. What are we to do with all of this weird apocalyptic language? Does verse 51 support the view of Eternal Conscious Torment for those not saved? Why does Jesus spend so much time in the earlier parts of the chapter giving all the “signs of the times,” but then in verse 36 say that no one save the Father knows when it will be?
How in the Hell (pun intended) can I read this passage devotionally? What can I gain from it? Well, let’s see if we can’t put into practice what I outlined above: get all our caveats out of the way, and see what’s left. Fundamental to this approach is this: you have permission to remain undecided about some things. Does that feel OK? Do you feel that freedom? You may or may not come to an opinion later in your life, but having a clear stance on any particular complicated question is not required for an active faith in God. Now that we've agreed on that...
Depending on your own perspective, here are some issues you might (or might not!) have with this passage:
- End Times theology is notoriously difficult, and modern Rapture/Dispensationalist theology is particularly inconsistent.
- This passage has been used to sanction all kinds of spiritual abuse: shame, fear of Hell, or fear of being “Left Behind.”
- It is a problem that Jesus and Paul spoke/wrote so much about the imminent return of the Son of Man, but Jesus still has not come back.
- The “weeping and gnashing of teeth” verse has been used so often to justify a sickening version of God’s justice, wherein finite human beings, created by God, are infinitely punished in the afterlife.
It felt good to write those problems down all at once. But if we bracket all of these concerns to the side, can anything else happen? (By the way, with a passage as contentious as this one, if we do indeed find some insights, then we can be pretty confident that other passages of Scripture will yield fruit much more easily.)
A little context might be helpful. At the beginning of Matthew 24, Jesus is explicitly talking about the Temple in Jerusalem: “Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” There are three things we ought to keep in mind: first, that at many points during his ministry, Jesus is directly at odds with a Jewish revolutionary group called the Zealots, who wanted to instigate a violent revolution against Rome. Indeed, a few Zealot leaders led such revolts. Second, one of these revolts happened in AD 70, and the Temple Jesus was referring to was in fact destroyed. So, this did happen historically. Third, the Gospel of Matthew was almost definitely written after this happened.
So here we have the original audience for Matthew’s gospel: mostly converted Jewish Christians, living after the actual destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70. If Matthew was written around 90 AD (best estimate), then it has been 20 years since the destruction of the Temple, 25 years since Nero began persecuting Christians, and also 25 years since Peter and Paul were executed. The Roman Emperor is now required to be worshipped as a god (started by Domitian in the 80s). It’s a complicated time for these early Christians.
In the midst of all this, Jesus is basically sticking to his guns. One way we might paraphrase this passage, give this context, would be as follows: “Right now, you are surrounded by suffering and uncertainty. There will be more of this. You will continue to suffer if you continue to follow me. However, in the end, I will win, and if you follow me, it will have been worth it.”
Now, how do Jesus’s words, paraphrased like that, strike you? Speaking for myself, I read that and I think, “That is accurate, and encouraging.” Although many people in the dominant culture will always find ways of bending Jesus to their own cultural norms or distorting the Gospel, the call to live like Christ is always there, always beckoning us. It does not prevent suffering, not in the least. Suffering is a given, and it will continue. But where is God in the midst of it all? God is still calling us, just as we have already been called, and as everyone will continue to be called, despite the chaos surrounding us: “Come and see,” “Take up your cross,” and “Follow me.” If we suffer for His sake, that is, if we suffer as a direct result of loving God with our whole heart and loving our neighbor as ourselves, in the midst of a culture that does not value those things (could such a culture ever truly exist?), then that suffering will be transformed into glory, if not today, then on the last day, whenever that day is.