Friday, January 25, 2013

The End on Hold

Prompted by being asked, Jesus informed His followers of would be the signs indicating His return, Judgement Day, and the end of the world. There would be false Messiahs, wars, and disasters. His disciples would become witnesses to the world. The most horrendous in all of history, before or after, would occur; the Siege of Jerusalem. Then He would return with great power, and great judgement on all mankind, so they had better be on guard.

The End on Hold
We know that the Gospels were written decades after Jesus had been around. Precisely when each of the four Gospels was committed to ink in its present form is a matter of debate. Most scholars suggest Mark was written first, and that his Gospel provided much of the backbone for Matthew and Luke.

As we saw in the previous series, the implication of Jesus' prophesies about the end of the world was that it would be soon after the Siege of Jerusalem. Quite interestingly, that is about all Mark has to say about timing, but Matthew and Luke appear to emphasize there being some delay before Jesus would reappear. Luke scattered these delay-references throughout his Gospel, but Matthew consolidated his chosen delay-references for us within the section we are studying now.

It started back in the last chapter. You may remember from the previous study, in Matthew 24:45-51, and much earlier in the Luke 12:42-46 parallel, Jesus gave a parable comparing wise and foolish servants. Let us take a closer look at the timing mentioned in these parables.

In Matthew 24:48 we find:
"But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, 'My master is staying away a long time,'" NIV
The phrase "is staying away a long time" weakly implies that the servant knows roughly how long the master will be away. From this perspective, we can infer a way to make sense of this: Jesus had allegedly just given them a list of signs which would forecast His return, so His followers would know that nothing would happen until these signs came to pass. This would give deviant followers living in the span between the death of Jesus and the Siege of Jerusalem decades of time to slack off in their morality before straightening up for Jesus' return, as the parable itself suggests. While the cat is away, the mice will play.

However, in the Luke 12:45 version we see:
"But suppose the servant says to himself, 'My master is taking a long time in coming,' and he then begins to beat the menservants and maidservants and to eat and drink and get drunk." NIV
The phrase "is taking a long time in coming" instead weakly implies that the servant had expected the master back already, but it appears that the master is delayed for some reason. From this perspective, we can infer a different situation; that perhaps the signs have all happened (up to the Siege of Jerusalem and so Jesus' return was expected) but there is an unexplained delay in Jesus' return.

Because these are only weak implications, they could easily be wrong, or both them could be taken to mean either interpretation noted above. However, if the latter version is true, it could be somewhat revealing. It could subsequently imply something about the timing of when Matthew and Luke were written, in that it could mean that these two Gospels were written after the Siege, possibly by several years, at a time when life seemed to be returning to normal. The closer you get to normal after some catastrophic event, the less it seems like Jesus' return is just around the corner, and, in turn, that means the more doubt springing up from within the community of the faithful. A message like this could be used to motivate the community to stay in the faith despite the apparent lag in manifest divine glory.

Given that Mark, the earliest of these three Gospels, did not share this sentiment anywhere, it appears that this delay may be an addition to the original story. Somewhat contrary to this theory is the fact that Matthew and Luke share this particular content nearly identically, suggesting a relatively early tradition committed to writing at some point in time earlier than the Matthew and Luke themselves. But given that we still do not know exactly when these two Gospels came into being, that "relatively early" could easily be after the Siege.

Continuing to the next chapter, in Matthew 25:1-13 there is a parable about ten virgins who "went out to meet the bridegroom." Half of them were smart enough to bring oil for their lamps just in case they needed it, but the other half did not. When the bridegroom arrived, he ultimately rejected the five virgins who were not adequately oiled. It seems a little odd that the bridegroom would kick out five extra virgins over such a trivial mistake, but let us leave that alone. ;-) The key verse for us in regards to this study is Matthew 25:5:
"The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep." NIV
In case it was not obvious, the bridegroom represents Jesus. Given that we started with these virgins going out to meet the bridegroom, you have a sense that they expected him to be there, ready for them. Instead we see that it took a long time, longer than expected, for the bridegroom to arrive. This plays into the notion noted above; that perhaps Matthew was written in a time when people were already expecting for Jesus to have returned, and so these verses were written to keep the faithful flock in line. The End was put on hold, and yet held perpetually at the threshold of occurring.

In the next parable the point was briefly emphasized again. Matthew 25:14-28 contains the Parable of the Talents, which somewhat similar to the Parable of the Ten Minas which we studied before from Luke 19:11-27. As noted in the previous study, the many differences between these two parables combined with a similar backbone suggests that this was an oral tradition carried on verbally for a considerable amount of time before being written, much longer than the parable we started this study with, as well as perhaps some intentional "enhancement" of the parable by Luke. Anyway, there is one particular difference we should focus on relevant to the timing aspect. In Matthew 25:19 we find:
"After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them." NIV
"After a long time" also appears to be preparing believers for a longer than expected time frame for Jesus' return. If the comparison with Luke's version of the parable is valid, it appears that Matthew may have deliberately inserted the "long time" into the story, as Luke 19:15 does not mention anything about how long it took for the master to return. Luke also used this parable to speak about timing, but explicitly did so to explain that Jesus did not intend to establish the Kingdom of God the first time He was on earth in the flesh (Luke 19:11).

Matthew was generally pretty good at aggregating and consolidating information, and here we can see an example of his work. Back to back to back, we have seen three references where Matthew was trying to communicated that, contrary to what we may have guessed from the previous chapter, Jesus' return would not be immediately after the Siege of Jerusalem. In short, we have seen here how Matthew prepared his followers for a long wait; a wait which may have already been in progress at the time of writing the Gospel.

How about we end on a somewhat positive note? Closing out this chapter, in Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus relayed how, on Judgement Day, He would reward people according to what they had done. He explained that such good deeds as feeding the hungry, clothing the needy, and visiting people in prison were actually done to Him vicariously. On the other hand, if you did not help out these people in need, you vicariously rejected Jesus.

On the good side, this is a great way to motivate people to help other people. Followers should literally be thinking that what they are doing to help they are doing to Jesus Himself. Even if Christianity was a deliberate hoax (which I think is an inaccurate, or at least incomplete, assessment), with messages like these it is hard to say that it was a completely malignant hoax. You could argue that church leaders may have been becoming wealthy and powerful as the movement grew, but you would also have to acknowledge that the movement did, and still does, aid the marginalized people in society to some extent.

On the other hand, this message is the proverbial gun-to-the-head situation. Help the needy, or get punished. And it is not a proportional punishment, either. Matthew 25:41 sends those who provide no aid "into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels," and Matthew 25:46 confirms that this will be an "eternal punishment." This is one of the most explicit references to the eternally torturing fires of Hell that you find in Matthew. Some Christians who do not like the concept of eternal torture will instead argue that this just means either an eternal "separation from God" or an annihilation (as in, if you cease to exist, that is an eternal punishment). Eternal punishment, of any flavor, for not visiting people in prison seems a little bit extreme to me.

Finally, from another perspective, note that this is explicitly a works-based Salvation plan. Merely having faith in Jesus will not save you if you do not take action to feed the hungry, visit prisoners, clothe the poor, etc.


  1. I have talked to Christians about this type of thing that advocates works instead of simply faith. As I recall, the answer I get is that this part takes place before Jesus died on the cross.

  2. That is the power of rationalization, Hausdorff! :-) But this is at least one case where that idea fails epically. I can say that with some degree of confidence because this Salvation-by-works section starts off in Matthew 25:31-32 with:

    "When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His throne in Heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats." NIV

    This is explicitly a portrayal of how Judgement Day will proceed. Lacking in that scene is any kind of differentiation for people who died before Jesus' death on the cross and those who died after. That solution is something dreamed up by theologians to get them off the hook for not taking the action Jesus demanded of them, not something claimed in Scriptures. They have built a foundation on the sandy beach.

    The other angle you can argue is that Jesus was making these statements in very close time proximity to His death on the cross, meaning that nearly everyone He was speaking to would outlive Him, in the traditional sense of life at least. ;-) To claim that Jesus made this strong proclamation only to make it null and void in less than a few months is nonsense, because everyone who heard Him, believed Him, and followed His teachings would still be actively doing those things at the time of His death and beyond. Assuming, of course, that Jesus actually said those words. ;-)

  3. Nice, that is pretty much a slam dunk against this argument. I'm quite certain I did not do this well against them :) I'll try to remember this for if it comes up again

  4. How much is enough? Does one need to be a Mother Teresa who totally sacrifices oneself for the poor and needy in order to "earn" salvation.

    As dreadful as Sola Fide is, Salvation by Works seems pretty nervewracking as well. "Did I do enough to avoid eternal burning" is quite a difficult challenge to answer. :)

  5. Thanks for the comment, Brian M. It is indeed a difficult situation! You would walk around being afraid that you may have accidentally (and vicariously) snubbed Jesus somewhere. :-)

    I would like to think that this was not meant to be taken as a "you must do X, and you must do it Y number of times to get into Heaven," but rather a perspective shift. What I mean by that is that, provided you have the means to provide help, you do not turn away from or ignore any needs that you see or know of. So I think it was a "qualitative" as opposed to a "quantitative" statement. Although, if you I am not sure if that is any less nerve-wracking. :-)

  6. That reminds me of a recent "this american life" where a guy talked about seeing some extremely poor people from Africa on the TV and feeling guilty that he wasn't doing anything to help. Technically he could have sold all of his stuff and flown down there to help them out and save some souls. Was he bad for not doing that?

  7. That is a great question, Hausdorff. (I love "this american life" by the way.) In the time when Jesus was allegedly speaking, the need would have been readily apparent and very localized, so (in my opinion) the scope would have been implicitly limited to those around you. Even following Jesus' example, He did not travel the world seeking out people to heal or enlighten. Instead He acted upon those in His immediate area for the most part.

    Yet I think that your question illustrates the "problem" of our globally connected world in trying to make any kind of practical application of those teachings. Jesus never considered that you could sit on a comfy couch, 5000 miles away from someone, learning about the plights and struggles they were enduring and the help that they needed. No such understanding of the world was conceived at that time, and so you have this rather awkward attempt to blend "primitive" instructions into modern understanding.

    1. "No such understanding of the world was conceived at that time, and so you have this rather awkward attempt to blend "primitive" instructions into modern understanding."

      This seems like a pretty good description of the problems of religion as a whole