Historical Cultural Context
Swords Into Plowshares
What American does not think about or prepare for the future? Americans save for a rainy day, to get married, to buy a home, to send the children to college, and to retire in comfort. Americans also protect themselves against future misfortunes with varieties of insurance.
Jesus’ advice to his contemporaries, “Stay awake!” and be prepared for an imminent event, belabors the obvious for Americans (Mt 24:42-43). However, future events are not obvious for Middle Easterners.
Generally speaking, people in the Middle East are unable and unwilling to think about the future. Only God knows that, and it is futile for humans to try to discover it.
People of that world live entirely for the present. Jesus chides them for worrying about tomorrow and what they will eat, drink, or wear (Mt 6:25-34). He instructs them to ask God only for today’s bread and not a week’s supply (Mt 6:11).
Where, then, did today’s exhortation to “stay awake” and “be watchful” for the “advent of the Son of Man” come from? Did Jesus say these words, or were they placed on his lips by his disciples?
Scholars point out that Jesus frequently proposed behaviors alternative to those favored in his culture. Obsessive and narrow focus on the present can cause a person to miss events just around the corner (which are also present but slightly delayed).
By the time Matthew compiled his Gospel, around 80 to 85 C.E., Jesus had been dead and risen nearly fifty years. About ten to fifteen years prior to Matthew’s work, the failed revolt of the Judeans resulted in the utter demolition of their Temple by Titus and his Roman legions (70 C.E.).
Still, the Son of Man had not yet returned, and many of Jesus’ original listeners had already died. Christians were frightened and becoming impatient.
Matthew’s community was further agitated by its vocal Judean opponents. Their taunt to the Christians ran something like this: “Where is your ‘coming Son of Man?’ You keep saying ‘in this generation,’ but you are deceived. Remember Daniel’s inability to calculate and predict? You are similarly misguided. Give it up!”
Hope for the “Future”
For today’s reading, Matthew has borrowed and redirected parables from Mark 13 to console and instruct his beleaguered community. The Son of Man gave his word; he definitely will return (Mt 24:35).
No one can calculate the exact time because his coming will be unexpected, just as the flood was for Noah’s contemporaries (Mt 24:37-39). For this reason, the Christian must be ever watchful. The parables about the two in the field (v. 40) and two grinding (Mt 24:41) give no clue as to which will be taken and which will remain. Each person must be vigilant like the good homeowner, wary of thieves and vandals (Mt 24:43). Each must be ever prepared for the Lord’s sudden return.
For our present-oriented ancestors in the faith, the ongoing delay of Jesus’ expected imminent return forced them to think “future.” When this delay had reached fifty years and more in Matthew’s community, the evangelist was able to force his present-oriented people to begin to think of at least a slightly remote, if not yet very far off, future.
The challenge to American believers is quite different. Americans are so terminally future oriented, often to a distant future (college for the infant; retirement for the new worker), that they frequently miss the present entirely.
With our futures relatively well-secured, we need to be wakeful to and watchful of the present lest misfortune creep up on us before we realize it.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to find out more.
**From Saint Louis University