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"Watch Therefore" (24:42-25:46)
The theme "Watch" is here developed in a series of parables. All pose the same question under different forms: When the Son of Man comes, will he find his own "ready"?
Discourse on the End of the Age (24:1-41)
The Destruction of the Temple (24:1-2)
The Temple, begun by Herod the Great forty-six years earlier (see John 2:20), was of impressive dimensions, and the disciples do not hide their admiration of it. The words of Jesus must have struck them with a shock. The days of this glorious edifice are numbered and all its glory is only vanity!
These words of Jesus echo those of the prophets (Micah 3:9-12; Jeremiah 7:4; Jeremiah 7:12-15; Jeremiah 26:4-6; Jeremiah 26:17-19). The first Temple had been, in fact, destroyed in 587 B.C., but that judgment was remote and forgotten. The judgment declared by Jesus is considered as a blasphemy by the Jews of his day. His words spoken to the disciples must have been reported to the Jewish leaders, for they are cited, albeit in a twisted way, at his trial (Matthew 26:61; see also John 2:18-22).
Jesus’ thought here without doubt goes beyond the mere fact of a material destruction the age of the old Temple, of the old worship, is at an end; a new era has begun. Indeed, the place of divine revelation is now the Person of Jesus: "something greater than the temple is here" (Matthew 12:6). This is the interpretation which is explicitly given by the Fourth Gospel, but it makes clear that the meaning of these words will be understood only after the Resurrection. Matthew reports only the imminent judgment The Temple was in fact destroyed at the time of the burning of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
The Disciples Question Jesus on the End of the World (24:3-14)
Jesus is seated with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, opposite the city. The judgment which he has just pronounced troubles the disciples. By their question, "Tell us, when will this be . . .?" they seem to comprise in one three distinct events the destruction of the Temple, the precursory signs of the coming of the Messiah, and the end of the world.
According to Jewish tradition it was on the Mount of Olives that God would take up his position at the last day to wage war against the nations and manifest his Kingship (see Zechariah 14).
After the apocalypse of Daniel the time of this "coming" was a constant object of speculation. The Greek term for "arrival" or "advent" was used to describe the coming of a monarch such as Caesar, who was treated as a god. The reference here then is to the coming of Jesus as King and Judge.
From the very first Jesus puts his disciples on guard against false messiahs (vss. 4-5; see vss. 23-24). We know from the historian Josephus that during this epoch there was a series of nationalistic leaders who had Messianic pretensions. The upheavals of the years 66-70 were due to hopes of this sort. And at the time of the insurrection in the years 132-135 one named Bar Cochba was identified by some as the Messiah. Jesus did not cease to put his followers on guard against the danger of political messianism. This problem is not peculiar to Jewish messianism. It appears anew in history under various forms each time that men claim to achieve spiritual ends by temporal force and so present themselves as "saviors" of their nation. We are warned that many men will be seduced by such false messiahs.
To this first warning Jesus immediately adds a second the catastrophes of history are not in themselves evidence that the end of the world is near (vss. 6-7). Wars, famines, tremblings of the earth, were regarded by the prophets as warnings, as punishments from God. This note never ceases to resound throughout the Old Testament, and the Jewish apocalypses re-echo it Jesus underlines the inevitability of crises. He certainly does not intend either to justify war or to invite us to resign ourselves to evil. He simply states that in a world in revolt against God, a world of hate and violence, such explosions are in the logic of things, and should not trouble our faith. It will not be necessary to conclude too quickly that the end of the world is near. We well know why such warning was necessary. At each war or threat of war we see predictions of all sorts arising to trouble credulous spirits!
Jesus compares the "last times" to pangs of childbirth (vs. 8; see Isaiah 26:16-21). These increase in intensity until the child is born. Thus the adverse forces will arise with increasing violence against the children of the Kingdom. We find here again the warnings given at the time when the disciples were sent out (Matthew 10:16-23) but now intensified. Some will deny their faith and become informers against their brothers. Hence confusion will reign in the midst of the Church itself.
The term which is translated "wickedness" in verse 12 means literally "absence of law" or "violation of the law." It describes the total anarchy which rages where no norm is any longer respected. At such a time "most men’s love will grow cold." The basic law which governs the disciples of Jesus is the love of God and neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40). The victory of the Cross is the victory of God over all the forces of hate and death. But such will be the power of evil that many "most"! will be carried away by the current; they will reject the Cross. Everything which kills the love within us and war always engenders hatred of the enemy kills the soul. The danger of persecution and injustice is not physical death but this sort of death.
"But he who endures to the end will be saved" (vs. 13). To endure is to hold fast; it is to observe the Word of God and count on his fidelity whatever be the unfurling and the apparent triumph of contrary forces (see Revelation 3:10-11). The possibility of falling remains for the Christian to the very end. This is why he must fear temptation (see Matthew 6:13) and know that at every moment if he were abandoned to his own human strength he could only perish (Matthew 24:22).
Whatever be the power of evil let loose by the Adversary, the purpose of God will nonetheless be fulfilled. The good news of the Kingdom, the announcement of its coming, must be proclaimed to the ends of the earth (vs. 14). All must know the message of salvation. Thus the proclamation of this salvation becomes a preliminary condition to the end of the world. It is in this sense and in this sense only that believers can "hasten" the day of the coming of the Lord (see 2 Peter 3:3-13).
Matthew 24:14, which is given only in this Gospel, is very important because it stresses as no other the eschatological importance of the missionary task entrusted by Jesus to his disciples (see also 28:18-19). We have seen earlier several times that of all the Gospels, Matthew is the most deeply rooted in Jewish tradition; yet he is at the same time strongly missionary. In this he is faithful to the prophetic tradition which sees Israel as the witness of God among the nations (Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 2:2-4; Isaiah 49:6; Isaiah 52:7-10; Isaiah 60:1-3). He has first shown Jesus concentrating all his efforts on the Elect People and gathering around him the "remnant" on which he is going to build the New Israel of tomorrow (Matthew 10:5-8; Matthew 11:20-24; Matthew 15:24; Matthew 23:37-39). He shows him now entrusting to his disciples the evangelization of the Gentiles, opening the gates of the Kingdom to the whole world (Matthew 8:11-12).
In retaining these two phases of the ministry of Jesus, Matthew, more than the other evangelists, puts his finger at the same time on both the grandeur and the tragedy of the unique mission of Israel. "Salvation is from the Jews" (see John 4:22), but this salvation embraces the world. And the rejection of it remains possible to the end of time as much for those called tomorrow as for those called yesterday.
Days of Distress and Judgment (24:15-41)
This prophecy is inspired directly by the Book of Daniel. It seems to comprise both the ruin of Jerusalem and the end of the world. In reality, the scene is situated in Judea (vs. 16) . A shocking sacrilege will be the sign that the hour is come. According to Daniel 9:27; Daniel 11:31, this refers to a profanation of the Temple where the destroyer will celebrate his idolatrous worship on the very altar of God. The Jews kept the burning memory of the sacrilege of Antiochus Epiphanes who, after dreadful massacres, had placed the statue of Jupiter Olympus in the Temple, destroyed the Books of the Law, and forced all the inhabitants of Jerusalem into apostasy on pain of death (168 B.C.).
The passage here announces similar events. We know in fact that in the year A.D. 38 the Emperor Caligula planned to erect his own statue in the Temple in Jerusalem. Death alone prevented him. In the year A.D. 70 the Emperor Titus placed a statue on the site of the burned Temple.
The expectation of an antichrist who would bring iniquity to its zenith marked the first Christian generation (see 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12). The same theme is to be found again in the Revelation (Revelation 13).
What should we Christians of the twentieth century retain of these warnings? Let it be said at the very outset that they are not to be bound to a determined chronology. The numbers which are found in Daniel (ch. 12) and in the Revelation (Revelation 13:18) have occasioned vain speculations. Jesus himself has told us that no one but the Father not even the Son! knows when the last time will come (Matthew 24:36). The crises of history remind us that God is not mocked, that the battle between God and Satan continues to the end. There are some moments when evil unfurls itself with such force that Jesus advises his own to flee, not for fear of death but because resistance would be vain. It is up to the Church to determine whether such a moment is come.
The problem is contemporary. We have seen many an instance of men obliged to flee their country in fidelity to their faith, whether it be Huguenots, English Puritans, or more recent examples. Jesus himself escaped from his adversaries several times before his "hour" was come. The Book of the Acts shows all the Christians save the Apostles scattering at the time of a great persecution, and this became for them the occasion for carrying the gospel elsewhere (Acts 8:1-5). At the time of the capture of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 the Christians fled and took refuge in Pella. The passage here is doubtless not unrelated to this event. Jesus tells us not to look for martyrdom but to submit to it if God calls us to it. It is a matter of discernment and obedience.
The discourse of Matthew, like the parallel passages in Mark and Luke, underlines the suddenness of the crisis which will demand a precipitous departure (Matthew 24:17-21; see Mark 13:15-19; Luke 17:31; Luke 21:23-24). The mention of the Sabbath in verse 20 shows that among Jewish Christians, Sabbath observance had been maintained; hence, they are enjoined to pray that the catastrophe not happen on that day. The allusion to the siege of Jerusalem is clearer in the Gospel by Luke than in the other two (see Luke 21:24).
Verse 22 stresses the fact that the final trial will be such that no one can be sure of resisting it God, in his mercy, will shorten it so that the elect will not be tempted beyond their strength. His fidelity is the only guarantee of our fidelity in the hour when trial swoops down upon us; but his fidelity is certain (see Romans 8:31-39). Thus again the warning is accompanied by a promise.
Verse 23 returns to the theme of false messiahs already broached in verse 5. The characteristic mark of false prophets or false messiahs will be that they will imitate the actions of Christ; they will astonish the world by their power of seduction, by their "miracles," thus throwing believers themselves into uncertainty. But if the first coming of the Son of Man was secret, the second will assert itself with the suddenness of lightning. Doubt will not be possible (see Revelation 1:7).
Verse 28 is likely a recollection of a word from the Book of Job (Job 39:27-30). Just as the piercing eye of vultures discerns a dead body from afar, so the judgment will be sudden and inevitable and no one can elude it, no matter where he may be (see Luke 17:37).
The judgment thus described has a cosmic significance. Even the heavens are shaken, the sun is darkened, the stars fall. This passage draws its inspiration directly from the Old Testament and the Jewish apocalypses. The old world is destroyed to make room for the New Creation (vs. 29; see Mark 13:24-25; Luke 21:25-26; Isaiah 13:9-13; Isaiah 34:4). The Son of Man appears, according to the prophecy of Daniel (7:13-14), to judge the earth and gather the elect.
How is the mourning (vs. 30) which will break forth at his appearing to be interpreted? This is the place to recall the moving prophecy of Zechariah: "And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a first-born" (Zechariah 12:10). These are tears not of despair but of repentance, "of compassion and supplication." Jerusalem will know "him whom they have pierced," and "the tribes of the earth" will lament not having recognized him. But may we not believe that a spirit of compassion and supplication will descend on them too at the last hour the hour of the great gathering of the elect? (see Revelation 1:4-8) . The One who has come in the obscurity of the Incarnation under the figure of the crucified Servant will be revealed to all eyes in the brightness of his divine glory. But the glorified Christ has pierced hands (see Luke 24:39; John 20:27; Revelation 5:6). A very ancient tradition pictures the Son of Man appearing in the heavens, stretching his arms above the world in the form of a cross. The trumpet of judgment, the gathering from the "four winds," are classic symbols of the Last Judgment (vs. 31; see Isaiah 27:13; 1 Thessalonians 4:16; 1 Corinthians 15:52; Revelation 8:2-6; Daniel 7:2; Revelation 7:1-3).
The parable of the Fig Tree in verses 32-33 expresses the same thought as the one on the signs of the times in 16:1-3. Men know how to read the signs of nature. The young leaves on the fig tree announce the heat of summer. Likewise, "these things" of which Jesus has just spoken are an announcement of his coming. By "these things" it is doubtless necessary to understand not so much the final manifestations, since they will be immediate and unforeseeable (see vss. 27, 42), as the struggles, the persecutions, and the seductions which precede them.
The Christian knows that "the last times" have begun at the coming of Jesus Christ into this world. However long should be the duration, we are already in the end-time, marked both by the advent of his reign and by a stiffening of the opposition of the Adversary. The hand-to-hand combat of the sons of the Kingdom with the powers of evil is intensifying, and each episode in this struggle carries in itself the marks of the final assault and triumph. To discern the signs of the times is to penetrate the meaning of current history from the standpoint of this end toward which it moves and which is already near; for brief is our life and brief the life of this world. The Christian is a man who knows himself on the edge of eternity.
Verse 34 poses a question which we have already raised several times. Did Jesus believe in an imminent end of the world? Or should the word "generation" be interpreted with a different meaning than that which it has in our speech? In Greek it can mean "species." If thus translated, then, the word could signify "this people," the Jewish people (on the term "generation" see Matthew 12:41-42; Matthew 16:4). First in the order of election, the Jewish people will live to the day when the One whom they have rejected will be
manifested in power and glory and they will be constrained to acknowledge him (see Rom. chs. 9-11; Philippians 2:9-11). This second interpretation seems to be quite in accord with this Gospel (see Matthew 23:39; Matthew 10:23; Matthew 26:64).
"Heaven and earth," that is to say, the form of this present world, will pass away. But the words of Jesus will never pass away, for they have living power. Whoever believes them is born into the life eternal (vs. 35; see Mark 13:31; John 6:63; John 6:68).
Verse 36 is very important, for it emphasizes the fact that the Father alone fixes and knows the "day and hour" of the end of the world. The Son himself is subordinate to the Father with regard to this day; the angels are ignorant of it. How much more is it concealed from men! Those who seek to calculate this day pretend to a knowledge which God has judged it well to keep secret. They succumb to a forbidden curiosity. We would all do well to remember this. Is it perhaps objected that the Gospel has just described the "signs" of the end? But this is done in a fashion to make us take seriously this end as always near, as already present in the struggles of each moment, yet nonetheless hidden.
The example of Noah calls to mind the suddenness of the Judgment. Men ate, drank, married, as they do today, without great concern for the morrow. They thought no more about the Flood than we think seriously about atomic war. For the heedlessness of men is stronger than all the warnings which both nature and history give us in profusion. It is this false security which the prophets continued to denounce throughout the time of the Old Israel. And it is still this false security on the part of the religious people of his time which Jesus seeks to destroy, for he regards it as fatal. No one, he tells us, knows in advance who will be "taken" and who will be "left" of two companions in work laboring in the same field, or of two women at the same millstone. Only Noah was "ready" at the time of the Flood; the others were swept away. The important thing, then, is "Watch."
The Parable of the Thief in the Night (24:42-44)
The paradoxical image which compares the coming of the Lord to that of a thief in the night must have struck the first disciples with singular force, for we find it in a succession of passages (see Luke 12:39; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; Revelation 3:3; Revelation 16:15). Judaism tended to regard the coming of the Messiah as a day terrible for the pagans but glorious for Israel. Christianity has not always escaped a similar illusion. The warning of Jesus, however, is not addressed primarily to pagans but rather to the disciples. The house is entrusted to them: do they know how to take care of it? Will they be wide-awake at the sudden irruption of the Lord who will surprise them as a thief in the night?
Parable of the Faithful or Wicked Servant (24:45-51)
The "faithful and wise" servant is a steward to whom the master has entrusted the management of his household. He is charged with giving out food to the servants and watching over them. Such a role is attributed to Moses in the Old Testament. He is the servant of God of whom the Lord declares: "He is entrusted with all my house" (Numbers 12:7; see Hebrews 3:5-6). It is possible that in this passage Jesus is thinking particularly of the responsibility of his Apostles; but all Christians are "his household," his possession. Blessed are those whom the Master will find faithful at the post which he has entrusted to them! He will entrust to them all his possessions; they will take part in his reign. But woe to him who takes advantage of the absence of the master to abuse his power and give way to his passions. He will be condemned with "the hypocrites." We have seen that this is the term which Jesus applied to the Pharisees; it describes the flagrant contradiction between what they in reality were and what they pretended to be (Matthew 23:3; Matthew 23:13; Matthew 23:15; Matthew 23:23; Matthew 23:27; Matthew 23:29-31). It is on the "hypocrites" that the worst condemnation rests (Matthew 23:33; see Matthew 24:51).
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"Commentary on Matthew 24". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Epiphany