Marley: “My spirit never walked beyond our counting house. In life, my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole.”
Scrooge: “No doubt of that. You always were a good man of business.”
Marley: “Business? Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business. Charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were all my business!”
From A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
Periodically, the earth greets us with a disaster of some sort. On each occasion–whether it be an earthquake, a flood, a severe tropical storm, or in the present times, the onset of a deadly virus–we hear a familiar response from the Christian community. Typically, it begins with the following declarations:
“The end times are near!”
“Jesus is coming soon!”
On each occasion, neither statement comes to pass. Arising out of the frenzy of the moment, though, eschatology becomes the order of the day. Paul’s words from 1 Thessalonians 4 often dominate the discourse among Christians, and a familiar debate breaks out between supporters of pre, mid and post-tribulation positions. The Book of Revelation becomes a matter of urgent study. Chapter 24 of the Book of Matthew is also frequently referenced, overwhelmingly those parts dealing with signs of the end times. The “western” Christian, and even those residing outside the west who were “westernized” into the faith through evangelism, reckon time in the following way. The past lies behind them whereas the future sits before or in front of them. Since our eyes are also placed in the front of our heads, it is supposed that we can discern future events if only we look hard enough, or perceptively enough.
The Hebrew notion of time is the opposite. If we adopt that mindset, the past lays in front of us, something we are able to see. The future, on the other hand, sits behind us, and since we do not have eyes in the back of our heads, it is not seeable.
Jesus was birthed into a Hebrew culture. Therefore, we should not find it surprising that he stated of the onset of the end of days that:
“But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” (Matthew 24:36, KJV)
Eight verses later, we detect a parallel statement of the Savior, mirroring the idea shared in verse 36:
“Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not, the Son of man cometh.” (Matthew 24:44, KJV)
Immediately after the second of these two parallel statements, Jesus expounded on the idea of being “ready.” To this end, he furnished three consecutive parables. All feature an authority figure of some sort. In the first and third parables, there was a “master”–and in the second parable, a bridegroom–who departed for a period of time, leaving those remaining with a duty to fulfill during his absence. In the first case, a servant left in charge of the master’s household had the duty to care for the well-being of his fellow servants–“to give their food at the proper time”–while the master was away. In the second case, ten bridesmaids had the duty to prepare their lamps, complete with oil, in order that they function as expected upon the arrival of the bridegroom. In the third case, three servants were entrusted with their master’s property and, as we later learn, had the duty to increase it, for the master, in his own words, was one who reaped where he had not personally sown.
In each parable, the one in authority arrived after an absence of some sort. In the first parable, Jesus made a point of saying that “ the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know”. (Matthew 24:50) This parallels Jesus’ earlier statement that one does not know the hour in which the Son of Man will come. (Matthew 25:44)
Doing the will of the master during his absence was what it meant to be “ready.” In no case did “readiness” equate to staring off into the distance to spot the master emerging over the horizon. The returning or arriving authority figure found those who did their duty while he was away, as well as those who neglected theirs. The former were rewarded whereas the latter were punished. A shared pattern between these parables emerges:
- The authority figure leaves or is absent
- Those remaining have a duty to discharge during the authority figure’s absence
- The authority figure returns or arrives
- The authority figure rewards those who successfully discharge the duty given to them
- The authority figure punishes those neglecting the duty expected of them
The three parables and their repeating pattern feed directly into the final narrative of Matthew 25:31-46. This passage of Scripture is rarely referenced by those Christians anxiously anticipating the beginning of the end times and Jesus’ second coming. When they claim to see “signs”, they rarely, if ever, connect it to this passage.
These verses depict a scene of judgment. The authority figure is not a fictional master or bridegroom, but rather the “Son of Man,” an explicit, messianic reference to the person of Jesus Himself. Though there are metaphoric references to categories of people in this narrative, such as sheep and goats, the tone of the passage strongly suggests that what we read is a coming reality, not a make-believe story. And, in terms of its literary structure, it shares the same “pattern” as the three parables that precede it.
Jesus opened the narrative thusly: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.” (Matthew 25:31-33, ESV) Based on the pattern of the three parables preceding this, it can be strongly inferred that the Son of Man has returned after an absence of some duration. He arrives in glory, surrounded by angels and sits upon a throne as befits a king. He exercises His authority, gathering “all the nations” (panta ta ethne) before Him. What follows, therefore, applies to all “people groups” on the Earth.
And what was the duty of all men while their master, the Son of Man, was away? To tend to those in need. To the sheep, a metaphorical reference to those who fulfilled this duty, Jesus stated:
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:35-40, ESV)
Dickens was right when he put the following words in the mouth of the ghost of Jacob Marley: “Mankind was my business!” According to Jesus, when we care for the “least” among us–the poor, those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick or incarcerated–we serve God, doing His will. This is the duty of all men who await the return of their Messiah.
According to Jesus, the sheep who devote themselves to serving others, especially the poor, receive a reward, along the same lines as the faithful servants and bridesmaids in the preceding parables. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34, ESV) In verse 46, they who serve the needs of others are described as “righteous” and are rewarded with eternal life. The word used for “righteous” is the Greek, dikaios, meaning one whose behavior conforms to God’s standard, that is, one who aligns his behavior with the will of his Heavenly Father. The Hebrew for righteous, tsaddik, is not simply one who does God’s will, but more specifically, one who practices tsedakah, meaning one who is generous to the poor. This Hebraic understanding of what it is to be righteous nicely fits the context of Matthew 25:31-46.
Those who stray from their duty to serve others during the Son of Man’s absence, the goats, receive punishment. To them, the Son of Man said: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. . . Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment.” (Matthew 25:41b-46a)
The words of Jesus are clear. Pending His glorious return, we have a duty to do. It is not to sit around looking for “signs” of His return. Rather, we are to actively serve others who are in need. Those who anxiously await Him, but who are not engaged in discharging this duty, may wish for Him to delay a little bit longer.