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.