Discipleship in an apocalyptic framework (Matt 23–25)

This coming Sunday, the Gospel passage in our lectionary jumps a chapter and plunges into the very last section of the teachings of Jesus that are collected in the book of origins, which we know as we the Gospel according to Matthew. For this Sunday, and following Sundays, Jesus speaks parables which contain instructions on the form of discipleship in a situation of anxiety, expectation, and waiting.

Last Sunday we were reading the teachings of Jesus in chapter 23, about following the Law in all of life. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/26/sitting-on-the-seat-of-moses-teaching-the-law-but-they-do-not-practice-what-they-teach-matt-23/

That passage (23:1-10) begins the fifth of five teaching blocks in this Gospel: the Sermon on the Mount (5–7), instructions on mission (10), parables of the kingdom (13), guidance for life in community (18), and this teaching block, which focuses on the imminent future—the coming kingdom of heaven, which was expected to come very soon (23–25).

The lectionary jumps over chapter 24; although, to be fair, we read an excerpt from this chapter right back at the beginning of the year in which we read through Matthew’s Gospel. This chapter is often labelled as the “apocalyptic discourse” in which Jesus tells his followers what is soon to take place. By tradition, the “apocalyptic discourse” is read on the First Sunday in Advent, which is when the new year begins in the Christian calendar.

So, you can think back to what you read, heard, or said back on Sunday 1st December 2019 … or you can read on and see my take.

Matthew sets out the teachings of Jesus concerning discipleship in chapter 25, within the context of an apocalyptic view of reality that is outlined in chapter 24. This view locates the present time in relation to the ultimate end of time, when God will reveal God’s ultimate will for the world (that’s what apocalyptic is), and calls for a way of living that will ultimately show responsibility for decisions made.

What ultimate end does Matthew have in view? Each Gospel writer tends to emphasis something slightly different as the climax for the story they narrate. In Mark, the focus is on the resurrection of Jesus (Mark 14:28; 16:7). In Luke-Acts, carrying the good news throughout the Roman Empire fulfils the story of the universal Gospel (Luke 24:47–48; Acts 1:8). In John, it is eternal life which is emphasised (John 20:31).

Matthew’s Jesus has in mind the coming eschatological deliverance, a deliverance which is expected imminently and that will vindicate the community as faithful and righteous to the will of God.

Apocalyptic hope

In this way, the community of faith reflected in this Gospel is typical of one type of Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple; that of apocalyptic hope. Most of the post-70 sectarian groups express hope that God will remember his covenant with them, the faithful few of Israel, and save them; for example, 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra write that God will provide consolation for their suffering and vindicate them, whilst also punishing their enemies on the Day of Judgement (2 Baruch 6:21; 82:1–2; 4 Ezra 8:51–59; 12:34).

In these sectarian documents, the kingdom of God is eschatological is nature; it has not yet arrived on earth, though signs telling of its coming can be detected. These communities also agree that much of Israel no longer truly follows the Law of God, and that the dominant Jewish leadership is unfaithful and wicked, and that they are the ones alone representing the true Israel. Therefore, entry to the kingdom is dependent upon faithfulness to the Law as interpreted by the community.

Much of this opinion can also be found in this book of origins. In fact, the evangelist redacts his sources and shapes his material so that this eschatological end is prominent, and the author makes it clear that there are two ages: the first is the current time for the evangelist, and the second is the age to come (Matt 12:32, from Mark 3:29).

The nearness of the second age

In this book of origins, the first indication that we have of the nearness of the second age is the announcement of John the Baptist, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (3:2). This sets the tone for the rest of the Gospel, where Jesus calls people to repent and be obedient to God’s Law, as the end-time of God’s judgement is fast approaching.

In the teachings of Jesus in this Gospel, the kingdom is imminent, but not yet arrived; however, signs of its imminence break in to the present times as a demonstration and proof of its nearness. The ministry of Jesus is set at the end of the first age; the second age will commence very shortly with the triumphant return of Jesus after his death, within the lifetime of his disciples (10:23; 16:28; 24:34).

There is no real sense in this Gospel of the notion that the kingdom had already arrived and was present on the earth, though it can be seen in the ministry of Jesus (12:28), and in the continuation of his ministry by his followers after his death. Jesus and the disciples both preach that the kingdom of heaven is near, or at hand (4:17; 7:21–22; 9:35; 10:7), but it has not yet established itself on earth.

The kingdom of heaven will be established “at the end of the age”, when the final judgement of righteous and unrighteous will take place (13:39–40, 49; 24:3). Before the coming of the Son of Man, it remains hidden and mysterious (13:31–33, 44–45), too small to be observed, but the day is coming when it will grow and become the “greatest of all things”, and the righteousness of God will triumph.

The promise of the coming age

On Jesus’ return as the Son of Man, the promised kingdom will be established for the faithful people of God. At this time, God will cleanse the earth of evil; Matthew’s Gospel emphasises the fate of the unrighteous as being the place of eternal punishment (25:46), where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:42, 49; 22:14; 25:30). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/06/darkness-weeping-and-gnashing-of-teeth-the-scene-of-judgement-matt-22/

Much of the view of the eschaton and the judgement it entails reflected in this Gospel is dependent on prophetic texts such as Ezek 32:7; Joel 2:10–11; Zeph 1:14–15; Dan 7:13; as well as parts of Trito-Isaiah (Isa 56–66) and 1 Enoch.

Matthew’s Jesus states that the exact day of these events is not known (24:42), but its arrival will be heralded by cosmic tribulations (24:7), and the Son of Man will be the judge on that day (7:21; 13:41; 16:27; 24:30–31, 44; 25:31–46), separating the righteous from the unrighteous. The righteous shall enter the kingdom with God, the unrighteous will be cast into outer darkness and fire (5:20–22; 13:40–42; 25:30, 41).

The reference to the resurrection of the saints (found only at Matt 27:52–54) strengthens the eschatological interpretation of the crucifixion of Jesus as the revelation of God’s Son. Though the kingdom has not been established in its fullness, nonetheless God has broken in to the world in a way that can only be equated with the end of time.

Matthew here has Jesus drawing on the tradition of Ezekiel, a text which assumed importance in Jewish apocalyptic literature, with references to an earthquake (Matt 27:52; Ezek 37:12), the opening of graves occurs (Matt 27:52; Ezek 37:12), a resurrection (Matt 27:52; Ezek 37:12) after which the risen saints enter into the Holy city, or Israel (Matt 27:53; Ezek 37:12). This reworking of the ancient prophecy underlines the sense of hope in God, even in the face of death.

Discipleship as active waiting

The form of discipleship that is required in such an apocalyptic context is to remain faithful, awaiting the return of Jesus (the parousia). There is some evidence of concern within the community that the delay of the return of Jesus may have given rise to tension, especially if those who actually knew Jesus were dead or few in number.

The text indicates that at least some of the community expected the parousia to arrive and vindicate them very soon; its non-appearance may have affected the faith of members or influenced others to leave the community. That is the issue which undergirds the chapter of the Gospel that appears in our lectionary this Sunday, and on the two following Sundays. The parables are told to foster a sense of active waiting.

Two parables contain specific warnings about this delay (24:45–51; 25:1–13); the second of these is unique to Matthew, and we encounter it in the lectionary this coming Sunday. It indicates that active waiting involves making wise decisions, persisting tenaciously in hope for what lies in the future. The wise virgins are commended: “those who were ready went with him [the bridegroom] into the wedding banquet” (25:10). The foolish virgins are rejected by Jesus: “truly I tell you, I do not know you” (25:12).

Similar warnings occur in other parables drawn from the Q tradition: the parable of the banquet (22:1–14), which we have read some weeks back; and the well-known parable of the talents (25:14–30), which appears next Sunday, in which the master commends his two “good and trustworthy slaves” with the words, “you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” (25:21,23). By contrast, the third slave is condemned as worthless: “throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (25:30).

These parables all advocate active waiting as the desired form of discipleship. Being faithful to the way of Jesus means being ready for his coming, prepared for the kingdom. The message is driven home by the contrasting pairs: wise virgins, foolish virgins; trustworthy slaves, worthless slave”.

Chapter 25 comes to a rousing conclusion with perhaps the most famous parable of Jesus from this Gospel, the parable of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46). The parable uses the same contrasting pair: the sheep are the righteous, the goats are the wicked, those without law.

Faithful discipleship is following the teachings of Jesus in the time of active waiting–adhering to righteous-justice in all of life. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

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This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)