Gospel: Matthew 24:37-44

The Big Surprise

What recent turn of events has taken you by surprise? Why were you caught off guard?

Why are we surprised at the sudden turn of events? Why do earthquakes, violent storms, or other natural disasters shock us? Why does the unexpected capture our collective imagination?

One piece of common wisdom floating around Hollywood these days refers to the sudden demise of so-called "reality" TV. According to this wisdom, real TV killed "reality" TV. News of the day has greatly overshadowed programing about survival games, travel competitions, and the "real life" of young people who live together. How can such shows compete against war, plane crashes, floods, and other disasters?

What will happen next? These days are filled with the unexpected. Jesus emphasized the unknown nature of the future when he predicted the end times.

Popular Translation

Jesus said to his followers:

37 "When the Son of Man comes, things will happen just like in the time of Noah. 38 Before the Great Flood, people got married and partied right up to the time Noah entered the Ark. 39 They didn't know what would happen until it was too late. The flood came and they drown. The same thing will happen when the Son of Man comes. 40 Two men will be working in the fields. One will be taken away. The other will be left behind. 41 Two women will be grinding grain at a hand mill. One will be taken away. The other will be left behind. 42 So, be ready! You don't know when your Lord will come!

43 Know this! If a homeowner knew when the thief came, he would stay up and protect his home. 44 Be like the homeowner. Be prepared! You don't know when the Son of Man comes!"

With three images, Jesus taught his followers about the sudden arrival of the Kingdom.

Literal Translation

Jesus said to his disciples:

37 "For, just as (it was) in the days of Noah, thus it will be in coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days, the ones before the flood, (people) were eating and drinking, marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark. 39 (The people) did not know (what would happen) until the flood came and swept all away. So it will be with the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two (men) will be in the field; one is taken up; one is left behind. 41 Two (women will be) grinding at the mill; one is taken up; one is left behind. 42 So, stay awake because you do not know what day your Lord comes. 43 But know this! If the homeowner had known on what watch the thief came, he (would) keep watch and not allow his house to be dug threw. 44 Because of this, you, be prepared because you do not know the hour in which the Son of Man comes!"

24:38 Notice Jesus did not criticism the evil nature of the people in the time of Noah (although that may have been understood). Instead, he compared the complacency of his audience with Noah's peers. They were so consumed with the problems of daily living, they did not see the coming troubles.

24:40-41 The end will come so suddenly, it will seem people would be taken without warning. Taken in context with 24:38, Jesus simply stressed the complacency of his audience vs. the swift nature of the coming Kingdom. One cannot read the so-called "rapture" into these verses, for the destination of those "taken" was unknown. With the Beatitudes in view (Matthew 5:1-12), those left behind could have been the blessed ("the meek shall inherit the land"), while the taken were condemned.

While not explicitly stated, the gender distinction between 24:40 and 24:41 lay in the Greek endings of the word "two." In 24:40 the ending was masculine; in 24:41 the ending was feminine.

The mill mentioned in 24:41 was a hand mill operated by two people.

24:42 Notice the interesting shift in titles. 24:37-39 and 24:44 spoke of the "Son of Man," while 24:42 spoke of "your Lord." The command to "stay awake" was for the follower.

24:43 "not allow his house to be dug threw" In the time of Jesus, common dwellings had mud caked walls. Thieves would break into a dwelling by digging through the walls. Hence, family members would take turns keeping a night watch of three or four hours at a time. If the homeowner could anticipate the time of attack, he would take that watch himself so he could coordinate a defense.

24:44 "you, be prepared " The word "you" was added by Jesus for emphasis.

When he spoke about the coming of the Lord, Jesus focused upon the element of surprise in three images: Noah and the Great Flood, co-workers, and thieves breaking into a house. The image of Noah and the Flood was a familiar one. But, Jesus turned the focus away from Noah to the pagans who lived in ignorance of the flood. While Noah prepared for the coming disaster, his contemporaries lived life as usual. So, they were surprised when the flood came. [24:38-39a] The same would happen with the coming of the Lord. [24:37, 39b]

Two men and two women work side-by-side. One would be taken, while the other was left (which one was saved, the one taken or the one who remained?). But both would be surprised by the sudden disappearance. Stay awake for the coming of the Lord! [24:40-42]

The thief that broke into the house was an especially disturbing image. Unlike our dwellings which have electronic access to the police, the houses in Jesus' time were individual rural dwellings that could be attacked without arousing suspicion from the neighbors. At night, the animals and anything of value was brought inside the house. The door was securely bolted until morning. Surprise was the only advantage the thief had. So be prepared! [24:43-44]

The three images of surprise brought a greater focus upon the unknown timing of the event. The Noah image introduced the coming of the Son of Man. [24:39b] The co-workers shifted the discussion to the day of the event. [24:42] And, the thief focused upon the hour (of dark night). [24:44]. While Jesus spoke of the great event, its timing would be a surprise. Even the dark times did not indicate the Lord was coming. The surprising nature of the Lord's coming demanded preparation, not speculation or hysteria.

America is obsessed with the future: the stock market, computers and electronic development, terrorism. We live in a culture of progress. But the contemporaries of Jesus did not; they viewed their world as unchanging. Indeed, change was regarded with suspicion. Faithful Jews saw the coming day of the Lord as a drastic, tragic change for the pagans, but only blessing for them. The faithful thought they would be in control of the situation with God's blessing. Image, then, the shock of Jesus' disciples when the Master preached the unknown and surprising nature of the Lord's coming. Only God would be in control; the faithful could only trust in the benevolent will of the Lord.

Events overtake us. Many times we do not seem to be in control; we feel helpless, and sometimes hopeless. The Lord's message is simple. Prepare for the unexpected through faith. Trust in the Lord daily and, when disaster strikes, you will have the where-with-all to survive.

Catechism Theme: Christ's Second Coming (CCC 673)

Since the Ascension, Christ's coming in glory has been imminent, even though "it is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority." This eschatological coming could be accomplished at any moment, even if both it and the final trial that will precede it are "delayed."

What images do you have of Christ's return in glory? What would happen if he arrived in a way unexpected?

As we prepare for Christmas, the Church reminds us of Jesus' coming at the end of the world. While this might seem contrary to the season, let us remember that whether Christ comes in glory or as a poor child, the results are the same. The Second Coming and Christmas invite us to come closer to the Lord. Both urge us to approach the Lord without delay, even through events of the world distract us.

Reflect on your anxieties this week. Bring them to the Lord. And pray for the peace to survive the unexpected.