Jesus offers surprising counsel on how to behave as we face the coming end of history or of our personal lives.
Several years ago, when I was working as a pastor, a young man who was attending our church asked to meet with me. He needed some guidance, he said, on a serious question that troubled him.
When we met, I asked what question was agitating him so much. He had apparently been exposed to some dispensational theology on the End Times, possibly the Left Behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. If Jesus would be returning to earth at any moment and usher in the end of history, what should he as a Christian do to prepare for that momentous event?, he asked with some clear anxiety.
I suggested that the best answer to that question could be found in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 24, we find Matthew’s version of what scholars call the Little Apocalypse.
In this passage Jesus offers a description of what will happen just before the end of history. The description has many confusing and alarming features, typical of an apocalyptic vision in the Jewish tradition. It culminates in the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven. This mysterious figure sends out his angels into all the world to gather the chosen ones into his kingdom. (Mark has a version of this vision in Mark 13, and Luke in Luke 21.)
Jesus ends his teaching with an admonition to his disciples: Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming (Matthew 24:42).
This admonition immediately raises another question. What does it mean to keep awake. This is the same question the young man was asking me, except in different words.
Matthew does not keep us hanging. He answers the question immediately as he recounts four parables that Jesus taught. They all focus on what we need to be doing to keep awake as we await the end. (When I use the word the end, I understand those words in two ways. One can be the end of history; the other our personal end at the moment of our death. What Jesus says applies equally to both.)
The Parable of the Faithful Steward
The first parable (Matthew 24:45-51) is not really a story so much as an extended metaphor. Jesus uses the analogy of the steward an estate owner appoints to manage the estate and its personnel as the master goes on a long journey. The servant’s particular responsibility is to provide for the feeding of the other servants.
Jesus then remarks, Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives [home] (Matthew 24:46). The point of the parable is to caution his disciples not to become lax, complacent, and indulgent in their duties, especially their duties in carrying for others for whom they are responsible. They are to always provide responsible and faithful care.
The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids
The second parable (Matthew 25:1-13) tells the story of ten bridesmaids who await the arrival of the bridegroom’s wedding procession to pick up his bride. As the bridegroom delays, the girls fall asleep, but have oil lamps burning.
When the bridegroom approaches, five of the girls, called the wise ones, have extra oil with which to trim their lamps and keep them burning. The other five, the foolish ones, did not bring extra oil. They rush to buy more, but while they are gone, the bridegroom arrives. The five foolish girls are left out of the wedding banquet.
As I read this parable, I interpret the oil lamps as the traditional disciplines of Christian spirituality–disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, participation in the sacraments, meditation, contemplative prayer, etc. These disciplines pour spiritual oil, we might say, to our spiritual lives, keeping them burning.
The Parable of the Talents
In the third parable (Matthew 25:14-30), Jesus tells a story of a master who departs on a journey but before he goes, he hands over varying amounts of money (called talents) to three servants. He expects them to invest it. Two do, with extraordinary returns–100% over the invested capital. But the third servant, fearing a loss, buries the money in the ground, keeping it safe for his master’s return.
When the master returns, the first two servants receive extravagant commendations from their master for their return on their investment. But the third one receives utter condemnation. By abiding to his spirit of fear, the third servant not only loses the original principal the master gave, but he is banished from his master’s service and presence.
The point of this parable, as I read it, is that we have all been given talents and abilities, some more than others. Yet all of us are accountable for using those talents and abilities in service to God, the world, and our own lives. The call is to take risks with what we have been given rather than going through our lives cowering in fear and apprehension.
The Parable of the Last Judgment
Finally we come to the fourth parable (Matthew 25:31-46). This final parable provides a vision of the Last Judgment. The nations (notice not just individuals, but also nations) are called before the Son of Man for judgment.
Admittance into his kingdom, however, does not rest upon believing correct doctrines or upon the depth of their piety. Rather their admittance depends how they have treated the disadvantaged in the world. Have they fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the sick and those in prison?
This parable remains a sober reminder that how we treat our neighbor, especially our neighbor in need, has eternal consequences. And so as we live our lives, we need to be taking our responsibilities to the needy and disadvantaged with utmost seriousness.
The Point of the Parables
Now when we look at these four parables, we find Jesus counseling behavior that looks remarkably like living responsible lives in the world. It is not advocating anxious behavior to withdraw from the world and live in spiritual isolation, as we see sometimes in apocalyptic groups like the Branch Dividians or the Jonestown community.
Nor do these parables sanction alarmist behavior like the 19th century Millerites who abandoned jobs and sold all their property in anticipation of the return of Christ on March 21, 1844.
Rather what comes across in these two chapters of Matthew is wholesome living in this life and world, balancing a life of simultaneous inner cultivation of the spirit and outer service to others, especially others in need. This is true preparation for the End, whether that be the end of history or our own personal death. Alarm and panic over the approaching end of history is not fully warranted, though emotional sobriety, calmness, and alertness about our responsibilities in life are.
This is what I tried to share with this young man who came to see me. But I guess it was not the answer he was looking for. We never saw him in our church again.