Text Study for Matthew 24:36-44 (Part Two)

Our text has two different Greek words for “to know.” In verse thirty-six we read, “But concerning that day and hour, no one knows – neither the angels of the heavens nor the Son – none except for the Father” (my translation and emphasis). The verb here is “oida.” The verb appears again in verse forty-two. “Be on watch, therefore, because you (plural) do not know on what day the Lord is coming to you” (my translation and emphasis).

In verses thirty-nine and forty-two, the verb is “ginosko.” “And they did not know until the Deluge came and they were completely swept away; thus also shall be the coming of the Son of Man” (my translation and emphasis). Both verbs appear again in verse forty-three. “But know this (ginosko): that if the master of the household had known (oida) at what watch of the night the thief was coming, he would not have permitted his house to be broken into” (my translation and emphases).

This may seem a bit nerdy and in the weeds. But I think this matters for interpretation. Most of the time, I find out what I’m thinking by typing it here. And sometimes I’m as surprised as you may be by what comes out of the process. We could conclude that the Matthean author is just sloppy with vocabulary. Or we could conclude that in the Matthean community the verbs were relatively interchangeable. We could, but I don’t.

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I don’t think either conclusion is warranted in this text or in the Matthean account in general. Instead, this variation in verbs describes different responses to the events described in this section of the gospel story. And this variation in verbs can challenge us to reflect on the kind of “knowing” we bring to our lives as disciples, especially in challenging times.

“Oida” generally means to “know about” someone or something. It’s really the perfect form of the Greek stem, eid–. “Perfect” here refers to a verb tense, not a state of purity or completion. And the stem describes the action of seeing or observing. “Oida” describes knowing the externals of a person, thing, or event. Not knowing, in this context, means something like to be unacquainted with that person, thing, or event.

“Ginosko” generally means to “know” someone or something from the inside. In relational terms, it describes an intimate connection. Therefore, for example, the Matthean author uses this verb to describe the sexual relationship (or lack thereof) between Mary and Joseph prior to the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:25). In my final translations of Matthew 24:39 and 24:43, therefore, I use the English verb “to comprehend” to render “ginosko.”

“But no one knows about that day and hour,” Jesus tells the disciples in Matthew 24:36. That is, no one except for the Father knows about the details of the calendar or the actual events of that coming. This is quite remarkable since the day and hour in question refers to the coming of the Son of Man (see Matthew 24:29-31). The Son himself won’t know the details of that day and hour until things come to pass in the moment.

“For just as were the days of Noah,” Jesus continues, “likewise will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:37, my translation). In those days, life appeared to go on as normal. Then Noah entered the ark. Those outside the ark didn’t comprehend the significance of what was happening until it was too late for them. They clearly “knew about” Noah’s boarding of the boat. Otherwise, there would have been nothing to comprehend or understand.

The “knowing” that is at stake here is not “knowing about.” It’s not knowing the Divine timetable or charting the progress of events as the world moves toward some sort of “end.” That is precisely the knowing that is not available – not available even to the angels of heaven or the Son. If the people in Noah’s days are an accurate example, then many are likely to get it wrong if the focus is on knowing about the daily details.

In order to interpret our text accurately, I think we need to read closely the preceding “Lesson of the Fig Tree” (Matthew 24:32-35). “But from the fig tree learn this parable,” Jesus says, “whenever you observe (oida) its branch becomes tender and it puts forth leaves, you understand (ginosko) that summer is near…” (Matthew 24:32, my translation).

The two verbs show up in connection and contrast here. You “know” the condition of the branch and the presence of the foliage by observing. On the basis of that observation, you can get a deeper understanding of what’s happening – especially of what the season is. “Likewise, you also, whenever you see all these things,” Jesus continues, “you understand that he is drawing near, upon the gates” (Matthew 24:33, my translation and emphases).

In verse 33, we get a clear juxtaposition of oida and eidon, the verb for “to see.” Seeing events leads to an observation and awareness of those events. The wise observer will then understand more than meets the eye. The wise observer will conclude that the seasons are changing.

I think Jesus is quite intentional in the use of his imagery here. Some of the vocabulary in these verses shows up in the Matthean account of the Triumphal Entry in Matthew 21. We get images of trees and branches, like the branches laid on Jesus’ path as he draws near to the gates and enters the city. The coming of the Son of Man, Jesus tells his followers, has commenced with that triumphal entry. The tree branches are sprouting leaves, and the season is changing.

The lead-in for the Apocalyptic Discourse in the Matthew account comes in Matthew 23:39. Jesus pronounces woes upon the scribes and Pharisees. He declares in Matthew 23:36 that these messianic woes will come upon that current generation. Jesus then laments over the fate of Jerusalem, when the Temple (the “house” in Matthew 23:38) will be left desolate. And he connects “seeing” him with the declaration the crowds shouted in Matthew 21:9.

This generation has “seen” Jesus as he approaches the gates of Jerusalem. They have not comprehended that the season is changing for them. But that won’t keep things from happening to them. “Truly I am telling you,” Jesus solemnly declares in Matthew 24:34, “that this generation shall not come to an end until all these things have happened” (my translation). I think there’s no question that Jesus is speaking, albeit in veiled terms, to those around him at that moment.

Jesus makes clear the meaning of his actions. The season is changing for the Jerusalem establishment. Nothing can change that fact. “Heaven and earth shall come to an end,” Jesus concludes, “but my words shall certainly not come to an end” (Matthew 24:35, my translation). This is the introduction to our text.

The conclusion is equally as stark. In the parable of the faithful slave and the wicked slave, Jesus describes the incomprehension of the wicked slave: “the Lord of that slave will come on a day when he is not on watch, and in an hour which he does not comprehend (ginosko)” (Matthew 24:50, my translation). The pragmatically wise and reliable slave is blessed. The Lord finds that slave engaged in the ongoing work of the household. The wicked slave is cut up and cast out.

The pragmatically wise and reliable slave is in a position to see what’s happening. That slave comprehends that the Lord’s delay is not a sign of the Lord’s faithlessness. Rather, that delay is a call for greater faithfulness on the part of the slave. That faithfulness consists of continuing to do the work in which the slave has been employed all along. That will put the faithful slave in the best position to comprehend what the Lord is doing.

This may all have been cryptic and to some degree unfulfilled for Jesus’ listeners. The Matthean audience, however, is in a different position. So are we. Stanley Saunders offers helpful words in this regard in his workingpreacher.org commentary.

“We can, however, lift up the defeat of death in the cross and resurrection, which dramatically alters how we approach ‘the end’ of the biblical story: the defining moment is not Jesus’ triumphal advent at the end of history, whenever that might be, but the moment of his revelation of God’s true power on the cross. The point, for those who know this much, is to live in the light of this transformed reality.”

We Jesus followers trust that Jesus is coming. We look for that coming in our daily lives and experience. We look for that coming as the culmination of God’s Creation/New Creation project. We can observe the events of our lives. We can regard them as more of just one damn thing after another. Or we can comprehend these events as opportunities to meet Jesus as wise and faithful servants, part of the fulfillment of God’s project.

For those in liturgical traditions, it’s a change of seasons. It’s also a change of seasons in the natural world, toward winter or toward summer – depending on our hemisphere. Is it a change in the season of my life? Is it a change in the season of our congregation? Is it a change in the season for our tradition or denomination? This first Advent text raises those questions for us. And it challenges us to comprehend the depth of what we see.

Text Study for Matthew 24:36-44 (Part One)

1 Advent A; November 27, 2022

“Be on watch, therefore, because you don’t know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42, my translation). The verb in Greek is “grehgoreo.” The BAGD lexicon (page 167) gives us two meanings for the verb. The first is the “literal” meaning – to be or keep awake. The lexicon attaches that meaning to Matthew 24:43. The second is the “figurative” meaning – to be on the alert, to be watchful, to keep one’s eyes open. The lexicon attaches those meanings to Matthew 24:42.

I’m hard pressed to discern why the lexicon makes this distinction between two verses in our text. In fact, the TDNT entry reverses these applications. That discussion makes the verb in verse 42 the “figurative” meaning and the usage in verse 43 the “literal” meaning. The TDNT entry suggests that there is some linguistic slippage between the meanings in those two verses.

That makes sense to me. I think it’s more helpful to allow the Matthew author to use both meanings in both verses. The Matthew author takes advantage of this range of meaning to slide back and forth between the idea of “being awake” and the idea of being “on the watch.” Given the imagery in our text of the householder whose home security system failed, I think the imagery of being “on the watch” is the more central word picture in the text.

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Stanley Saunders has a helpful discussion of these images in his workingpreacher.org commentary. This is not advice for crisis moments,” Saunders writes, “but a call to perpetual, normative readiness, regardless of circumstance.” Being awake to and alert for the presence and power of God in Christ is the normal state for Jesus followers. This is not an emergency posture. This is not a personal stance that’s just dialed up in crisis moments. This alertness to the presence and power of God in Christ is standard operating procedure for those of us who claim the name of “disciple.”

“Watchfulness or wakefulness is here not a defensive or preventive posture, but heightened attentiveness,” Saunders writes, “attuned both to the signs of God’s presence and power, as well as the signs that the powers of this world are doubling down.” Like the audience for the Matthean account, we know how the story turns out. We’re not like the disciples in the story. We’ve read to the end already.

We have no business being surprised by the presence and power of God in Christ – unless, for some reason we’ve fallen asleep at our posts. This is where the sense of “being on watch” is important in our understanding of the verb and of the text. We have moved from the eschatological discourse in Luke on Christ the King Sunday to the Matthean version of that discourse.

We can find the particular Matthean emphasis in that discourse in Matthew 24:12-14. “And through the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who is patiently enduring toward the End, that one will be saved. And this good news of the Kingdom shall be proclaimed in the whole inhabited world, for the purpose of testimony to all the nations, and then the End shall come” (my translation).

It’s not that the Matthean community is lazy or lackadaisical. Instead, they’ve endured some real hardship over the past generation. They’ve lived through the Year of the Four Emperors that nearly destroyed the Roman regime. They’ve survived famines and earthquakes (and probably disease as well). They’ve experienced persecution that has divided the community and driven some to betray their own family members. They’ve witnessed the horrors of the Judean war and the destruction of Jerusalem. They’ve had to sort through the false prophets and religious opportunists that such crises always produce.

The Matthean disciples aren’t lazy or lackadaisical. They’re tired. They’ve been through a lot.

What they’d like more than anything is some rest. Just a little bit of normalcy would be most welcome for them, I imagine. They’re not in danger of sloth. They’re on the verge of a kind of spiritual anomie. That’s the Greek root of the word translated as “lawlessness” in Matthew 24:12. The English equivalent of that word these days means something like the social instability that comes from a breakdown of norms, rules, standards, and values.

The Matthean disciples aren’t really in danger of an “eat, drink, and be merry” sort of ignorance. They’re much more in danger of just no longer giving a shit about anything. That’s what long-term suffering and struggle can do to a person or a community. We can put so much emotional, social, and spiritual energy into just getting from one day to the next, that after a while we have nothing left. Perhaps in the Matthean account, the opposite of being awake isn’t sloth. Perhaps the opposite of being awake is being numb.

That description resonates, I think, with life over the last few years. As we’ve lived with and through Covid-tide, we know what it means to be awake and alert. We’ve worn masks. We’ve been tested. We’ve lived through lockdowns. We’ve gotten vaccinated (or not). We’ve stayed away from family and social gatherings (nor not). We’ve wondered who will give us the virus, or who we’ve infected. We’ve worried (at least some of us) about every sniffle, sneeze, and cough. We’ve been hyper-vigilant for so long that it doesn’t seem all that “hyper” anymore.

And now we’re tired. We’re tired of being awake and alert. We’re tired of being on guard. We may not all have Covid, but we’ve all got some degree of Covid fatigue. We’re done with the virus, as Michael Osterholm notes, even if the virus isn’t done with us. I don’t wear a mask much at all, even though I know the threat continues and is real. I don’t wash my hands or disinfect as much as I did. We don’t stay home from restaurants or church or other gatherings. We’ve had enough. We’re moving on with life.

I wonder how much of this describes the Matthean community in the last twenty years of that first century. Apparently, their love had grown “cold.” Were they just getting on with life? This is the same sort of description we get in the Book of Revelation. In chapter three, the writer describes the Laodicean community as “neither hot nor cold.” They, too, had been subject to pressure and persecution. They, too, must have been tired. They, too, perhaps had just simply had enough and wanted to get on with some semblance of life.

The Matthean author responds to this anomic crisis by reporting a series of “keep awake” parables. “Blessed is that slave,” Jesus says in Matthew 24:46, “who, when his Lord comes, will find that one working” (my translation). In contrast is the wicked slave who gives up on his Lord and just gets numb. (I now hear “Tequila Sunrise” playing in my head). Then we get the parables of the bridesmaids, the talents, and the judgement of the nations.

Now is no time to be low on supplies, to be risk averse for the kingdom, or to ignore the needy for the sake of self-preservation. Those are all signs of being asleep.

No one can be alert all the time. It’s just too exhausting. If we try to be alert to threats all the time, we will become physically and mentally ill. We have to take breaks from watching. But taking a break is different from quitting the job. One of the functions of the liturgical year is to remind us of the need to be alert and prepared. We may have gone to sleep at our posts, but it’s Advent. We can wake up and return to duty.

“The vocation of modern disciples is still to watch for the signs of God’s presence in power,” Stanley Saunders concludes, “especially as revealed through the cross and the resurrection, in healing the sick, standing with the broken and suffering, bringing sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf.” It’s no accident that this section of the Matthean account concludes with a parable that declares precisely that vocation.

Spiritual numbness leads me to draw into myself, to pull down the curtains, to ignore the world around me. Those behaviors are not effective treatments for such numbness. Instead, they are further symptoms of the condition and make things far worse. The antidote for my numbness is to make my world bigger and brighter, not smaller and darker. The same antidote is prescribed in both the context of and the companion texts for our reading.

The Matthean account always has “the nations” in view. That begins with the Magi coming to the manger, the nations seeing the Lord in Matthew 25, and the gospel being proclaimed to all nations in Matthew 28. We get that antidote in Matthew 24:15 as well. We can see it clearly in Isaiah 2, as the nations stream toward Mount Zion to learn the Torah of God. We can see that in Romans 13 as well.

The opposite of numbness is expansiveness in love. That’s a message that matters in Advent 2022.