Ever ready: context

1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, 4 but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 Since the bridegroom was long delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. 6 At midnight, there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ 7 Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise ones replied, ‘No, for there may not be enough for us and you. Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 While they went off to buy it, the bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked. 11 Afterwards the other virgins came and said, ‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’ 12 But he said in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

For the final three Sundays of this church year, the gospel readings come from Matthew 25:

  • The Wise and Foolish Maidens (vv. 1-13)
  • The Parable of the Three Servants (vv. 14-30)
  • The Great Judgment (vv. 31-46) – Christ the King Sunday

Liturgically it is a movement towards Christ the King, the solemnity which celebrates the “end” when all things are brought to a good end, reconciled in Christ, King of the Universe. In Matthew’s schema of the gospel, this is the conclusion of Jesus’ fifth discourse (Mt 24:3-25:46) which R.T. France (2007, p.889) calls, “The End of the Old Order and the Reign of the Son of Man: The Discourse on the Future.” While 24:1 is clearly a transitional verse which includes v.2 to reveal what is on the mind of the disciples and Jesus’ ominous reply:  1 Jesus left the temple area and was going away, when his disciples approached him to point out the temple buildings. 2 He said to them in reply, “You see all these things, do you not? Amen, I say to you, there will not be left here a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”

Once the destination is reached, it is clear how the disciples have understood Jesus in v.2: 3 As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples approached him privately and said, “Tell us, when will this happen, and what sign will there be of your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Mt 24:1-3)

This final Matthean discourse is about the future, with emphasis especially on the theme of judgment. It takes its cue from the disciples’ question in 24:3, which combines two aspects of the future, the predicted destruction of the temple (v.2) and Jesus’ “coming and of the end of the age”.

Scholars tend to agree as regards the destruction of the Temple since it is a known historical event, but there is disagreement about the transition of discussion to a more ultimate future. Is the Temple destruction a harbinger of the immediacy of the end of the age that includes the coming back (parousia) of Jesus? It would seem the disciples think so. But does Jesus answer their questions? The only mention of Jesus’ parousia within the first section of the discourse (24:27) is precisely to state that when it happens it will be universally clear, and quite unlike the confusion which will characterize the days leading up to .. to what? And here is the disagreement. Is Jesus speaking of the days leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem or to the end of the age? Are these two events the same?

The calamities leading up to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple and city are vividly described by the Jewish historian Josephus. In this text The Jewish Wars he is most description about the siege conditions within Jerusalem as the city was encircled by the Roman army. Josephus describes scene amidst a virtual civil war within the city, extended starvation, and a hellish nightmare as the capital reached its end: “for at that time there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will be.” (Mt 24:21) The following verses (vv. 29-31) are often referred to as “the little apocalypse.” But again, is this necessarily connected to the destruction of Jerusalem.  Verse 29 simply says, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days.”

Historically, we would say that the Christian tradition does not record “the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” Most would conclude that coming lies somewhere in our future. But when? But then that has always been the question. One needs to be always prepared; ever ready.

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