Jijo Kandamkulathy, CMF
Claretian Publications, Macau
1ST WEEK OF ADVENT, YEAR A
The language used in the Gospel passage today can lead to exaggerated interpretations (or even rants) on the end of the world and the punishment by God. It can also be reduced to an invitation to be always ready because death can come suddenly and take us unprepared. These interpretations stem from a lack of understanding of the apocalyptic literary genre that was widely used at the time of Jesus, and that is quite alien to our mentality and culture.
One principle we should always keep in mind: the gospel by its nature is good news, the message of joy and hope. Whoever uses it to instil fear and anxieties, is using it incorrectly and is distanced from the true meaning of the text. Let us recall the context in which today’s passage is given.
One day, the disciples invite the Master to admire the magnificent building of the Temple. Instead of sharing their justifiable pride, Jesus surprises them with a prophecy: “You see all these things? I assure you, not a stone will be left upon another here. All will be torn down” (Mt 24:2). Jerusalem refuses to be converted and is decreeing its downfall.
Amazed, the disciples ask him two questions: “When will this happen?” and “What are the warning signs?” Instead of satisfying their curiosity, Jesus responds by introducing a teaching that is valid for people of all times: it is necessary to remain vigilant. To better clarify, he cites three examples:
The first is taken from a story in the Bible (Gen 6−9). In the days of Noah, there were two categories of people: some thought of only eating, drinking and being merry. They were unprepared and perished. The others were vigilant, and attentive to what might happen. They realized that the flood was approaching; they were saved and they began a new humanity (vv. 37-39).
As the flood came suddenly, Jesus says, the ruin of Jerusalem will also suddenly come. As in the days of Noah many died, so also the Jews who will not recognize Him as God’s messenger and not listen to His word will perish in the catastrophe of the city. Those who have their eyes and hearts open to recognize and accept His message will be saved and will give birth to a new people.
The second is inspired by the activities that men and women do every day; working in the fields and preparing the dough to make bread. They engage in work, earn a living, eat, drink, and marry. The criteria to pick one of the two who do the same deed is a good subject for meditation. Jesus has mentioned about people performing the same task, and one of them is justified by God while the other is not. The Pharisee and the tax collector went to pray. The tax collector was justified because he realized that he was unworthy of the blessings of the Lord. Many people made offerings to the Temple treasury, but the offering of the widow was accepted because she had offered all she had.
Jesus speaks also about people who do charity. The ones who do not let the left hand know what the right hand is doing are accepted by the Lord. So the criteria of being accepted by God purely depends on the attitude and intention behind what one is doing, more than the action itself. The Lord invites us to set the intentions of our every deed right. Those who are overwhelmed by the cares of this world are left behind, meaning that they are not involved in the new reality of God’s kingdom.
The decision to be taken is urgent and dramatic; it comes down to choosing between life and death, which is why Jesus insists: “Keep watch because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (v. 42). It is worth repeating: Jesus is not coming to the showdown at the end of our lives. He comes today with His saving judgment.
The final conclusion takes up the theme of the passage and applies it to the disciples of every age: “So be alert, for the Son of Man will come at the hour you least expect.” We know what it means to miss favorable opportunities. So many times, we have had the experience. The more surprising and unexpected the opportunities are, the more they move away from our criteria of judgment, and then the easier we let them pass by. The visits of God in our lives are always difficult to grasp because they do not conform to human wisdom, with which they are incompatible. They are in contrast with the current mentality.
And only the one who is vigilant knows how to recognize them and is saved here and now.
(Indebted to Fr. Fernando Armellini SCJ for the textual analysis.)