For freedom, Christ has set us free

First Sunday of Advent A
Gospel Commentary
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Gospel
Matt 24:37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Initial observations

Advent 1 dovetails with the themes which closed the previous liturgical year—the end of the world, judgement and preparation. Advent 2 and 3 take us to two moments in the career of John the Baptist, that iconic Advent figure—his proclamation (Advent 2) and his questions about Jesus’ identity (Advent 3). For Advent 4, we go backwards in time to the story of the conception of Jesus. Naturally, the theme of Matt 1:18-24 is most suitable on the Sunday nearest Christmas.


Kind of writing
This and similar passages belong to a category of hortatory texts (parenesis) in the New Testament. Our passage finds itself in Matthew 24-25, which is that gospel’s reception of Mark 13. Matthew includes many parables here—parables of watchfulness—and our passage is “incipiently parabolic”.
The fig tree as a parable of the coming of the Son of Man
  1. As in the days of Noah
  2. As when a burglar comes
  3. As with a faithful servant when his master returns
  4. As with bridesmaids awaiting the bridegroom
  5. As with talents given to servants to work with
  6. As with sheep and goats separated by the shepherd

Old Testament background

Son of Man
As the visions during the night continued, I saw coming with the clouds of heaven one like a son of man. When he reached the Ancient of Days and was presented before him, He received dominion, splendour, and kingship; all nations, peoples and tongues will serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, his kingship, one that shall not be destroyed. (Dan 7:13–14 NABRe)
Noah and the flood
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. (Gen 6:11–17)

New Testament foreground

(i) Within Matthew 24-25, the themes arise as follows:
  1. Watch therefore 24:42; 25:13
  2. Unexpected returns or arrivals 24:37, 42-44, 50; 25:10,19
  3. Delays in arrival 24:48; 25:5,19
  4. Return of the Son of Man 24:27, 30, 37, 44; 25:31
  5. Praises of faithful servants 24:46; 25:21, 23, 25, 34
  6. The use of “Lord” 25:11, 24, 37, 44
  7. Exclusions from the presence 24:51; 25:10, 30, 46
For our passage, Matthew may have in mind catastrophes which preceded the Jewish revolt of 66-70, which led to the destruction of Jerusalem.
(ii) The unexpected image of the thief is likewise found across the New Testament:
For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thess 5:2)
But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief. (1 Thess 5:4)
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. (2 Pet 3:10)
Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. (Rev 3:3)
See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed, not going about naked and exposed to shame. (Rev 16:15)

St Paul
So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. (1 Thess 5:6–8)

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Rom 13:11–14)

Brief commentary

Verse 37 Something is lost by leaving out the preceding verse: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matt 24:36) Noah is not much mentioned in the New Testament (Matt 24:37–38; Luke 3:36; 17:26–27; Heb 11:7; 1 Pet 3:20; 2 Pet 2:5). The present mention is to illustrate unawareness, the feeling of business as usual. Coming is lit. parousia, a technical used in the New Testament. Son of Man is Jesus’ self-designation and it has two meanings: a human being and an agent of end-time salvation (Daniel).
Verse 38 The point of comparison is the un-mindfulness of Noah’s contemporaries. The Greek word for flood is the evocative kataklysmos. The rhythmic description conveys the sleepy effect of the habitual and the usual.
Verse 39 The people did not know. Cf. 24:36, 39, 42, 43, 44, 48, 50; 25:13. The verb to know has no object, perhaps indicating a state of general unawareness.
Verse 40 “Taken” means to be gathered and to enter the community of the saved at the end, just as the animals were gathered into the ark. Now invisible, the second coming will make plain who is “in” and who is “out.”
Verse 41 The first pair of men is matched by a pair of women. Matthew is probably not thinking of gender balance. Rather, the repetition is a form of insistence or emphasis. As in the surrounding parables, the evangelist is saying that there will definitely be a time of sorting. Our choices now, therefore, will have an effect on our status then.
Verse 42
An exhortation, drawing out the consequences of the previous teaching. Keeping awake is frequent in Mark (6) and Matthew (6). It is, understandably, absent in John and infrequent in Luke (1) and the Acts (1). By the time of Luke-Acts, the tension of the imminent end had relaxed.
Verse 43 A second parabolic element is introduced. Householders are not normally informed beforehand (!), another way of underlining lack of information. However there is an implied a fortiori argument: if a householder had this much sense to protect himself and his home, how much more the believer...
Verse 44 A repetition of v. 36 thus forming a frame or inclusion. The theme of being ready is a feature of these parables in Matthew: Matt 22:4, 8; 24:44; 25:10. Unexpected renders a blunter, more direct expression in Greek: in the hour you do not know, the Son of Man is coming.


Pointers for prayer

1. The ‘coming of the Son of Man’ can be applied to the end of the world, to the moment of death, or to any moment of grace. We are not given advance notice as to when any of these will happen, so the message is to be alert and ready. When have you found that your alertness meant that you were able to receive an unexpected grace (e.g. take an opportunity which presented itself, or respond to a hint from another person that you might easily have missed, etc.).
2. One of the enemies of alert living is constant busyness. Have you ever found that being caught up in your own agenda makes you less sensitive to what is happening around you? Recall times when you paused in your relentless busyness and were rewarded by a significant interchange with another person, a moment of grace.
3. You probably know the difference between being ready for a visitor and the unannounced caller who catches you unprepared. Let the memory of the discomfort of being caught off guard spur you on to a constant readiness for the coming of the Lord.


Prayer

God of majesty and power, amid the clamour of our violence your Word of truth resounds; upon a world made dark by sin the Sun of Justice casts his dawning rays.
Keep your household watchful and aware of the hour in which we live.
Hasten the advent of that day when the sounds of war will be for ever stilled, the darkness of evil scattered, and all your children gathered into one.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain, whose day draws near: your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

Thought for the day

The liturgical cycle helps us not only by telling once more the story of salvation but also by underlining movements of the heart appropriate for each season. Thus, Lent invites us to conversion and Easter promotes joy in believing. What of Advent? The season encourages us and takes us back to our original longing and quest which brought us to God in the first place. Especially in the readings from the prophets, the lectionary explores again that restlessness of heart and helps us name our desire for the One who alone fills our hearts with his peace “which surpasses all understanding.”

Prayer

Stir up our hearts Lord, with a great longing for you in our lives. Let us feel again that deep restlessness of heart, the royal road to you. Amen.