36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But 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. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Translation: "But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not the angels of heaven, not the Son, but the Father alone, for just as the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Humanity, for as it was in those days before the deluge, eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until that day Noah entered into the ark and they did not know until the deluge came and raised all, and so will be the coming of the Son of Humanity. Then two will be in the field; one is taken near, and one is being released--two grinding at the millstone; one is taken near, and one is being released. Watch therefore, for you do not know what kind of day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what watch the thief is coming, he would have watched and would not have permitted his house to be broken up. For this reason, you also must become ready, for you do not know what hour the Son of Humanity is coming."
Background and situation: Matthew 24; 36 has a parallel in Mark 13: 32. Matthew 24: 37-39 is parallel in Luke 17: 26-27 and 24: 40-44 is parallel with Luke 17:34-40. The text is part of what is called the Olivet discourse.
Text: These texts are not about trying to get a leg up on the so-called "second coming." They are about how to live as a followers of Jesus in the midst of chaos, and the challenge of living as faithful people in cataclysmic situations. (The Greek word, translated in NRSV as "flood" in verses 38 and 39 is kataklusmou--indeed, cataclysm.)
At the time of Matthew's writing, c. AD 80, and for all of the New Testament writers for that matter, the situation was dire. Christianity was small and fragile. In the time of Matthew, there were, perhaps, a few thousand people who would have identified themselves as followers of Jesus. They were beset, on one side, by an oppressive government, and on the other by a Jewish majority which no longer wanted anything to do with them.
Moreover, the vast majority of the people continued to live in abject poverty under the domination of Rome, a nation which had recently devastated the country during the Roman-Jewish War, AD 66-70, and destroyed the Temple.
People knew all about "cataclysm," in other words. They lived in "cataclysm" every day. So do we. We are deluged with dire predictions, our imaginations stoked with images of disaster, and our minds inundated with this-or-that appeal to save ourselves from this-or-that catastrophe.
That's not even the worst of it. People live daily in situations of "quiet apocalypse"--domestic violence, job loss, disease, addictions. The unravelling of the world spoken about in apocalyptic texts matches the unravelling that people feel in their own lives. Moreover, no one is immune. Even that exceedingly rare person who has managed to skate through life without much (seeming) difficulty faces an apocalypse at the end.
Unfortunately, the most common interpretations of these apocalyptic texts range from utterly bogus rapture theology to the more benign, but also wrong-headed, speculations about Jesus' second coming. For some reason, in opposition to repeated scriptural injunctions to the contrary, we can't stop fussing about "when will this be, and what will be the sign of (his) coming."
"The rapture," as seminary professor Barbara Rossing says, "is a racket." There is no such thing as the rapture. Nor is popular "second coming theology" much better. It basically says that Jesus wasn't here, then he was, then he left, but he's coming back. That makes Jesus an outsider to his own world. He's not really a part of the world, but only drops in from time to time to straighten things out--basically, a gnostic view. (The phrase "second coming" never appears in the New Testament.)
The most plausible interpretation of verse 36 is that, in Matthew's world, there were people who not only wanted to predict the future, but claimed to be able to do it. Earlier in chapter 24, the disciples had asked Jesus when all these things would happen and "what will be the sign of your coming?" In response, Jesus said that "many will come" and proclaim themselves the Messiah (24:4-5). "They will lead many astray."
In verse 36, Jesus not only undermines (again) this kind of prophetic speculation, but underlines it with a three-fold negative--no one, not angels, not the son. "Only the Father" knows. Note that Jesus does not use the phrase "God Almighty," or some such superlative honorific, but rather "Father," the same "Our Father" to whom we pray in the Lord's Prayer (6:9). (Matthew's version of the Lord's Prayer has "Our Father," while Luke's has simply "Father.") In his use of the word "Father," Matthew underlines God's loving care for his world, even in the face of "cataclysm."
...for as it was in those days before the deluge, eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until that day Noah entered into the ark and they did not know until the deluge came and raised all, and so will be the coming of the Son of Humanity. Then two will be in the field; one is taken near, and one is being released--two grinding at the millstone; one is taken near, and one is being released.
Matthew is recalling the image of Daniel 7:13 when Daniel saw "one like a son of humanity, coming with the clouds of heaven." For Matthew, the "coming of the son of man" will be sudden, immediate, personal, total, and universal. It will be like a flood, like sudden death, like a thief in the night.
This is not bad news, but good news. Parousia--"coming"--is formed from para and ousia. Literally, the word means "being alongside." Also, the verb translated as "coming" (erxetai) is in the present tense, not future. You might say that the "second coming" of Christ is any time when he is present in the midst of our own apocalypses.
The two men in the field are gender-balanced by two women grinding meal. In each case, one is "taken"--paralambano--and the other "released"--aphiami. Frankly, it's hard to know which one is the better condition. "Taken" has the sense of being "taken in" to something--presumably, a "good" thing. But aphiami is not necessarily a negative condition. Yes, it can mean "sent away" or even "divorced," but it can also mean "forgiven" or "released."
The clear over-all sense of verses 37-41 is that life seems to be going on as normal. In the case of Noah, there were warnings of cataclysm, but they were ignored, and people went about their daily business. They "knew nothing" until they were all swept away. (Indeed, "knowing"--or better, not knowing--is a prominent sub-theme in this text. There are six references to knowledge in these eight verses, employing three different Greek words--oida, ginosko, and dokeo.)
The phrase translated as "swept away" in NRSV is heren apantas. It could mean "swept them all away," but the normal translation of that phrase would be "all were raised" or "all were taken up." Will the "flood" of Christ sweep "all" away into him? Or, to put it another way, can life follow catastrophe? Will resurrection follow death?
Watch therefore, for you do not know what kind of day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what watch the thief is coming, he would have watched and would not have permitted his house to be broken up. For this reason, you also must become ready, for you do not know what hour the Son of Humanity is coming.
The little word poios appears in verse 42. It means what kind of day more than which one. You won't be able to find the day on the calendar. But "watch therefore," because, with a certain spiritual apperception, you might be able to discern it by the feel of the air and proper discernment of the times. To all outward appearances, it will be a day like any other. Whether we are able to "watch" properly or not, he's here.
Not only do you not know the day--and don't believe anyone who says they do--but "your Lord" is coming. From verse 36, know that you are in the care of your loving Father. From verse 42, know that "your Lord" is the one in charge.
The thief image shows up also in Paul--"the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night" (1 Th 5:2) On the one hand, Jesus seems to be encouraging watchfulness. Guard your house, and don't let the thief in. On the other hand, it's not going to make much difference, since "you do not know what hour the Son of Humanity is coming."
He's not going to come with trumpets blaring, in other words. If he did that, we'd protect ourselves. He's going to come when he's least expected, when our guard is down, and he's going to come quietly, with stealth and subtlety. You can try to put up some kind of defense, and you undoubtedly will, but it won't make any difference. He going to get in, but he doesn't want your stereo or your credit cards. He wants you. What's more, he's going to get you.