Wasted narrative exegesis (Matthew 24-25): Patient endurance is not idle, but active (serving the poor, hungry, shelterless, thirsty, sick, & imprisoned)
We’ve come to an “end time” text in Matthew, chapter 24. Too many Christians, preachers, and modern, self-appointed “prophets” mine this chapter in search for how they may “discern” the signs so they can announce “the end is near” (usually accompanied by some action that is needed, everything from send money, give more money, stop letting, go vote . . .) Even though we have 2000+ years of everyone getting it wrong, plenty still predict and announce.
When I was pastoring in Pennsylvania in 1987, I received a free book in the mail, 88 Reasons Why Jesus is Coming Back in ’88. Well, Jesus didn’t. So the next year, I received a new book from the same author entitled, 89 Reasons Why We Were Wrong in '88 and Why Jesus is Coming Back in ’89. You can’t make this stuff up.
Well, here we are, it’s 2019. And, we still have sign pointer-outers and prophetic manipulators and, even, innocent, well meaning Christians seeking signs and pointing out why “we’re living in the end times.”
If you skim through Matthew 24 and Matthew 25 (which should be like one chapter together) you will encounter the twin themes of “it’s not the end” and “you don’t know when the end is coming so be ready.” So, perhaps we should take this to heart and listen better to Jesus. Being ready isn’t about discerning the times and looking for signs, but enduring to the end. “You see these sign, endure to the end (since you don't know when it’s the end end).”
What’s truly interesting, the parables that follow the “signs” section of Matthew 24 all push the reader toward being ready because you don’t know when it’s the end end. There are some important parallels we gloss over, or ignore, or don’t take into account, namely each of the parables–the faithful servant (24:45-51), the ten virgins (25:1-13), and the “faithful/unfaithful investors” (25:14-30) and the “sheep and the goats” (25:31-46)–all end in pretty harsh judgement . . . Matthew intends some parallelism here . . . they are all teaching basically the same thing. So, this is important to grasp. While waiting and being ready and seeking to endure, the Christian community is to be characterized by . . . go ahead, read Matthew 25:31-46 . . . you got it . . . by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, by welcoming the stranger (don’t think US Border, that, too, is a misdirection; think your home, your church, your neighborhood, your circle of friends and acquaintances), by clothing the naked, and by visiting the sick and imprisoned. Matthew connects the “end times” teaching and the “sheep and the goats” judgment, so we should as well.
Church is expected (a church in a place, in a neighborhood is expected) to live (together) in such a way as to create space (i.e., habits, lifestyles, life) to make it possible for the hungry to be fed and the stranger welcomed and the sick and imprisoned visited for the “end” is nigh in that Christ Jesus comes to us in the poor, the hungry and thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.
So, Christian, stop seeking signs. Endure ’till He comes by doing what Jesus has been doing (in Matthew since chapter 4, i.e., ministering to the poor, the outcast, the unclean, the marginalized, et al.).
Stop pointing out signs (“Oh, it must be the end, see how bad it’s getting!” or “Look what’s happening with that country . . . or those politicians . . . or those people!”).
Just stop it. And, stop listening to it. It’s distracting you from true endurance, which means actively helping, serving, caring for the poor, the outcast, the marginal, the unclean.
Furthermore, there is an interesting twist afoot when we consider the thread of “second coming sign” texts in Matthew 24 and the juxtaposition of the three Matthew 24-25 parables and the parable of the sheep and the goats: The three parables, along with the noted (above) harsh conclusions, are also stories about a Master delayed (χρονίζω, chronizō) and who comes (24:48-50), a bridegroom delayed (χρονίζω, chronizō) and who comes (25:5, 10), and a Master who goes on a journey, “yet after a long time” (μετὰ δὲ πολὺν χρόνον, meta de polun chronon)* comes (25:19).
Then in the sheep and the goals parable (25:31-46), we have the Son of Man (i.e., Jesus) who comes (25:31). Here, we have a slight nuance to the concept of “coming,” namely the “coming” judgment is based on the incidences of Jesus coming in the persons who are poor, neglected, under-resourced, unclean (i.e., hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, sick, and imprisoned).
Of course there is a final “coming” when Jesus, as the Son of Man judges and separates the sheep and the goats. Yet, this coming-judgment is based on what the people (i.e., Christians, at least outwardly) do and do not do to/for/with the Jesus who had come as someone hungry, thirty, naked, homeless, sick, or imprisoned: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it [or not did it] to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it [or not did it] to me” (cf. 25:40, 45).
It seems clear, from the parallels in the parables and the juxtaposition of the coming-judgment of the sheep and the goats, that is, being ready, staying alert, staying woke while Jesus “delays” and being prepared for the final coming is repeating the same ministry that Jesus had illustrated (i.e., the fishing) in Matthew 4-23, that is healing and touching and feeding and caring for the poor, sick, and unclean. The true signs of His coming is the church among the poor, outcasts, marginalized, and unclean.
Don’t be a goat (nope). Be a sheep. Be ready, be prepared, be truly woke . . . when Jesus comes to you as one of the least of these (or go to them, be among them), so that you may be ready when he comes as the Son of Man on that Day.
*Note the paralleled usage of χρονίζω, chronizō (“delay”)–the verbal expression–and χρόνον, chronon (“a long time”)–the noun, which links all three parables together.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.