Scripture in Depth
Reading I: Isaiah 2:1-5
This is a vision of the pilgrimage of all the nations to Zion to be taught the ways of YHWH. YHWH will arbitrate international disputes, and a universal peace will follow. The prophecy is reproduced almost verbatim in Mic 4.
It is uncertain whether Micah lifted it from Isaiah or Isaiah from Micah, or whether both derived it from a common source. Scholars seem to favor the third possibility. It certainly looks like an ancient liturgical fragment.
It is important to notice two things about this vision. It is speaking about what will happen at the end of history—in other words, it is eschatological. It is not envisaged as a possibility within history. Holy Scripture does not permit us to indulge in the illusion that a time will come within history when there will be no more wars.
This does not, of course, mean that we should not work to eliminate the causes of war or to avert or bring to an end particular wars. It only means that we should not cherish extravagant hopes that are doomed to inevitable disappointment. The final abolition of war will be possible only when God’s purpose has triumphed in the consummation of history.
The second point to notice about the vision is that it is only when the nations have been taught God’s ways and walk in God’s paths that they will beat their swords into plowshares and live at peace with one another. “It is a beautiful vision; but, be it noted, peace rests in no human program, but in obedience to the divine law” (J. Bright in Peake’s Commentary on the Bible).
Responsorial Psalm: 122: 1-2, 3-4, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9
The responsorial psalm takes up certain points from the first reading—the pilgrimage to Zion and the ensuing peace. This psalm was sung by the pilgrims as they went up to Jerusalem for the festivals. The first part expresses the pilgrims’ excitement as they arrive within the sacred precincts. They exult in the unity that Jerusalem symbolizes as the festal crowds, representing all the tribes, flow together to the temple of YHWH.
In some strands of postexilic Judaism, it became part of the eschatological hope to envisage a day when the nations would flow together to Jerusalem (e.g., Isa 25:6). The New Testament sees this hope partially fulfilled in the admission of the Gentiles into the Church, and completely realized in the final coming of Christ.
See especially Rom 9-11, where the Apostle Paul develops the thought that in bringing the collection from the Gentile churches to Jerusalem, he is symbolizing the partial fulfillment of this hope, and propounds the conviction that his mission will contribute decisively to the final fulfillment, when the fullness of the Gentiles will be gathered in and all Israel will be saved (Rom 11:25-26).
Reading II: Romans 13:11-14
This is the traditional reading for the first Sunday of Advent. It is full of great New Testament eschatological words: night/day, darkness/light, sleep/wake, hour and full time.
This language presupposes the early Christian scheme of the two ages—this present evil age and the new age soon to dawn. It interprets Christian existence as a life of tension.
It is lived within this present old age but is already determined by the new age that is soon to come. Christians stand in the dark with their faces lit by the coming dawn.
They can therefore already cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. They can live “as in the day,” although actually they are still in the night.
Note that it is not by their own unaided effort that the believers are to conduct themselves becomingly as in the day, but rather by “putting on the Lord Jesus.”
In Gal 3:27 the same phrase is associated with baptism: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
Hence, in our present passage Paul is exhorting Christians to live out the implications of their baptism, in the power that their baptismal status gives.
One final problem. Paul tells his readers that our “salvation” is nearer than when we first believed, that is, nearer than it was when we first became Christians.
By “salvation” Paul is not thinking of salvation in an individualistic, pietistic sense, as though we were now nearer to our death and therefore to heaven. He means the great day of salvation, the consummation at the end of history.
Like all the early Christians, the Apostle believed that this end was to come very shortly—so soon, in fact, that it was now appreciably nearer than when the Romans first became Christians. Paul was clearly mistaken as to the date, for we are still here today and the consummation has not come yet.
Perhaps an answer can be sought along these lines: the Christian always has to live as though the final consummation were just around the corner, in the certainty of it, a certainty so strong that already the light of the new age is casting its ray upon the Christian’s present existence.
Gospel: Matthew 24:37-44
This passage is from Matthew’s version of the so-called Synoptic apocalypse (Mt 24; Mk 13; Lk 21). Like other contemporary Jewish apocalypses, the Synoptic apocalypse relates a series of catastrophes identifiable with historical events that preceded the Jewish revolt of 66-70 C.E.
These events are to usher in the final consummation—the return of the Son of Man, the Last Judgment, and the new heaven and the new earth.
Such an apocalyptic scheme creates an overall impression that conflicts with the general tenor of Jesus’ teaching elsewhere, including this present passage, which Matthew has inserted from his sayings source into the Synoptic apocalypse.
Here, in sayings that have the freshness of authentic Jesus material, the end is depicted, not as something that is preceded by a carefully planned apocalyptic timetable, but as something that is to come suddenly, like the flood in Noah’s day: “they knew nothing until the flood came. … Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming … for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
This coming of the Son of Man will be accompanied by the ultimate separation of the saved and the lost. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and the other left. One will be saved, the other rejected. Therefore, watch as a householder must watch for the thief.
There can be no doubt that sayings like this, rather than the Synoptic apocalypse as a whole, correctly reproduce the eschatological message of Jesus.
But this brings us face to face with the same problem as in the Pauline passage, though here it is Jesus rather than the early church that was apparently mistaken about the date of the end. It did not come soon.
Once again, we can take the apocalyptic perspective as an expression of the eternal consequences of the choice with which Jesus confronts his hearers. They must certainly react as though the end were just around the corner.
Joachim Jeremias has made a further bold and exciting suggestion: Jesus does not regard the will of God as fixed and immutable. God can shorten the days for the sake of the elect (Mk 13:20), and he can also lengthen the period of grace (Lk 13:6-9) as a free act of mercy.
Reginald H. Fuller
**From Saint Louis University