We live in the era between Jesus’ resurrection and Jesus’ return. He left us with a vision of the future and told us to anticipate a future of shalom. However, Jesus did not leave us with an instructional manual for how to create a government, an economy or even a congregation. This presents a real challenge. Indeed, many of the apostle’s epistles are written to Christians struggling to apply Jesus’ teachings in their particular contexts.
Christianity, as religions go, is unique in this regard. Other religions are oriented toward rigid adherence to dictums or conformity to natural cycles. Christianity is oriented to a story. It is a story that is not yet complete. The ending of the story has been revealed to us by the author who assures us it will come to pass. The author invites us into the story to participate in its unfolding. But how do we do that? What did Jesus say about how to live life in this in between time?
The most extended discourse Jesus gave on eschatology is his discourse on the Mount of Olives in Matthew 24 and 25. Jesus tells of coming events, gives some warnings and then concludes with two parables and climatic story. (I am not include lengthy citations of these chapters so you may want to open a Bible to these chapters if you want to follow along.) Jesus tells of signs marking the end of the age in Matthew 24:1-28, he tells of his return in verses 29-31, and he exhorts the disciples in verses 32-35 to be observant of the signs around them just as they observe the signs of nature .
This portion of the discourse is followed by the highly controversial verses 36-44 upon which the “Left Behind” craze is built. Ironically, being “left behind” is exactly what we should want! Jesus uses the story of Noah in verses 37-39. He notes that all but Noah were unprepared and were swept away (taken) in the flood. In the end, only Noah and his family were “left behind.” Jesus then gives examples in verses 40-41 of one person being “taken” and the other “left behind.” After cautioning once again to be on our guard in verse 42, Jesus moves to verse 43 and an analogy of a homeowner who if knew a thief was coming would have stayed awake to protect his house. The imagery here is to prevent something from being taken and to make sure his possessions are “left behind” where they belong.
The “left behind” issue is not the only controversial issue. How much of what Jesus talked about was related to the coming destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem? What was Jesus referring to when he said this generation would not pass until these events had come to pass? While all this is important and interesting, it is beyond the scope of this series. The central teaching is that Jesus will return and that we are to be on our guard.
Jesus says in Matthew 24:45-51 (NRSV):
"45 Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. 47 Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. 48 But if that wicked slave says to himself, 'My master is delayed,' 49 and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50 the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. 51 He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
In a recent study about slavery called, Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions, scholar J. Albert Harrill offers some helpful insights into the institution of slavery in the Greco-Roman World. The Greeks believed slaves to be soulless bodies with no minds of their own. However, the Romans very much believed that slaves had minds and individual wills. The practice in Roman society was for the master to train and discipline slaves to be thoroughly in tune with the master’s thinking in decision-making. A slave could then actually represent his master as an extension of the master's person.
Harrill uses a farcical example from the Life of Aesop, a story about Greek characters written during the Roman era. Aesop is a slave to a philosopher named Xanthos. Aesop continues to evade difficult situations through ingenious “misunderstandings” of Xanthos commands. Xanthos finally becomes frustrated and orders Aesop to be an automaton, following only his explicit commands. The result is a series of antics where Aesop takes Xanthos commands absolutely literally, leading to humorous and disastrous consequences. The moral is that masters who don’t properly train their slaves and instead treat them as automatons get what they deserve. (1) Harrill also tells of the vilicus, an elite slave, that masters of rural estates would leave in charge of their holdings while the master was away for extended periods of time. The vilicus is the very antithesis of the automaton.
Another revelation from Harrill’s book is the existence of private slave prisons that were not part of the Roman penal system. “Especially in rural areas, apprehended runaway slaves and freeborn victims of kidnapping often found themselves thrown into the private slave prisons (ergastula) on the estates of wealthy landowners, never to be heard from again.” (2) Elsewhere Harrill explains that slaves were tortured and beaten to gain submission. He even mentions the discovery of a business in the ruins of a Roman city that specialized in torturing slaves for a fee. The private prisons were dark and desperate places where the torture of slaves produced weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Harrill’s work helps us see more clearly the powerful imagery Jesus is drawing on from everyday life. Jesus closes Matthew 24 with the above passage about the vilicus who fails to have his his master’s mind and mismanages the estate. The next chapter features three stories.
The Parable of Ten Bridesmaids, Matthew 25:1-13. A typical New Testament era wedding featured days of feasting and celebrating. Eventually the groom and his bride would be escorted to the groom's home, usually around sunset. Traditionally, young women dressed in attire specifically for the occasion, would meet the wedding party. They would carry torches and sing as they processed to the groom's home. Every one would enter the groom's home where there would be more feasting and celebrations. Only the couple and their entourage would be allowed into the celebration. Once they were inside, the doors were closed and no one was allowed in. (3) The problem is that these young women wouldn’t know exactly when to expect the wedding party’s arrival. In Jesus’ parable, five women had thought ahead and brought sufficient oil to keep their torches lit for hours. The other five did not plan well and had to go in search of more oil. While they were gone, the wedding party arrived and sequestered themselves inside. They missed the celebration. Clearly Jesus was telling them to be prepared and cautioning them that no one knows the exact time of events to come.
A side note to this parable and the parable following is that Jesus constructed one story from the world of women and one from the world of men before going on to his climactic ending story. In Matthew 24:40-41, he used the example of two men in a field and two women grinding meal. We see this pattern even more pronounced in Luke. In Luke 15, Jesus told about the shepherd looking for the lost sheep and a woman looking for a lost coin before getting to his clincher parable of the compassionate father and his lost sons. Jesus seems to very intentional about drawing women into the story.
The Parable of the Talents – Matthew 25:14-30. Jesus returned to the idea of masters and slaves in this parable. Three slaves were given talents to invest while their master was away for an unspecified length of time. The master gave one slave five talents, another two talents, and a third slave one talent, each according to their ability. The first two slaves doubled their talents and were commended for it. The third hid his talent and simply returned it upon his master’s arrival.
The typical moral taken from this story is that third slave lacked diligence. Certainly that is true but there is something more profound here. The slave acknowledges his awareness of the master’s character and ambition yet the slave is unproductively cautious. The master explicitly cites the slave’s knowledge of the master’s character in his indictment of the slave. The slave’s mind was not conformed to his master’s mind. He substituted his own priorities in his actions, instead of using his master’s priorities, making him useless to his master. Jesus wants us not only to be prepared but to have God's mind in all we do.
The Sheep and the Goats - Matthew 25:31-46. Jesus closes his discourse on the Mount of Olives with the story of separating the sheep from the goats. Sheep and goats were taken out to pasture together but when they returned, the shepherd separated the two. Sheep were valued more and received special care. What criteria are used to separate the two? Whether or not they took care of the hungry, thirsty, alien, naked, sick and imprisoned. This list of actions is traditional Jewish formula for describing good works.
What is surprising is that neither the sheep nor the goats had any clue that they were (or were not) ministering to Christ. Had the sheep known it was Christ they ministered to, would their motives for service have been different? If the goats had known that it was Christ, might they have ministered to Christ to earn his favor? What is commendable about the sheep is that they acted as Christ acted toward those in need. They weren't acting in anticipation of a reward. The sheep had the mind and heart of God. The goats called Jesus “Lord,” just like we would expect that the slave with the one talent called his master “Lord” when he was in his master’s presence. Yet when the goats were out of the Lord’s presence, they did not have the Lord's mind and heart.
Being hungry, thirsty, an alien, naked, sick or imprisoned are earmarks of living in a world without shalom. The ministry the sheep do for those most afflicted by the lack of shalom does not reverse the curse upon the human race but it does give witness to the mind and heart of God, and it gives witness of an age of shalom that is coming. There is no hint of the church as community in retreat from society or consumed in the performance of pious rituals saying “Lord! Lord!” Jesus asks, “As my servants, did you conform your mind and heart to my mind and heart? Even as you watched and prayed, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,’ did you invest yourself in the realization of that kingdom of shalom?” God wants us to be his eikons, animated images of himself, giving witness of his authority in the world.
(1) J. Albert Harrill. Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, And Moral Dimensions. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006. pp. 23-24.
(2) Ibid, p. 12
(3) Hultgren, Arland J. The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002. pp. 170-173.