Those unfortunate chapters in Matthew

Posted: June 9, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

Why is Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24-25 so hard to make sense of? Why do commentators wrestle with it and come away licking their wounds? Why isn’t it more helpful? What’s it doing there anyway? Couldn’t Matthew just have left it out, and got on with his story? These two whole chapters of talk seem to function as a regrettable distraction from the urgency of the narrative, clogging up the space, dragging on the momentum.

Here is the basic problem: Jesus seems to be talking about events soon to occur: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (24:34). “You must be ready!”

And yet he also seems to be describing the end of the age, the final judgement etc. It all has a very ‘eschatological’ feel to it. Those parables!

So which is it? Is Jesus describing contemporary events or eschatological ones? Or is he somehow blending the two together in a way which we find pretty confusing and hard to unravel? If so, why couldn’t he have been clearer, talked about one and then the other, like sensible people do when they have two different things to talk about? The people I know who mix different subjects together in their talk, without appearing to notice, are not generally considered to enjoy good mental health.

So these seem to be our three options:

1. Jesus was talking about contemporary, not eschatological events. He chose to describe them in massively overblown terms, which have confused his followers ever since. The teaching isn’t really for us.

OR

2. Jesus was talking eschatology. What he said wasn’t strictly relevant for the first disciples, but only for those who, reading the accounts later, were actually going to have to face those end times. Which is probably not us, so this teaching, once again, isn’t directly for us.

Or maybe Jesus thought the end of the world would come soon – but he was wrong. Despite all this, later when he looked back Matthew chose this particular  teaching, out of all Jesus’ teaching, to include at the climax of his gospel story. It basically holds up the action for a couple of chapters, until finally we are able to get back to the story in ch.26. Very strange editorial decision from Matthew, a strange departure from his normal practice of connecting teaching passages with related narrative passages, so that the teaching sheds light on the narrative.

OR

3. Jesus blended two different matters – contemporary and eschatological – because he sensed analogies between them, and discussed them both at once. None of us has been quite sure which bits of the blend are which.  It didn’t turn out to be a very helpful approach to communication. In any case, neither of the loci relate directly to us.

Different commentators have preferred different options. No one has seemed very happy about it all. No one seems to be jumping up and down saying, ‘I’m so glad Jesus said all this, it just scratches where we have been itching!’ That’s because, you probably noticed, none of the 3 options above is any good.

None of these options makes good sense of Jesus’ teaching. That’s a pretty big clue that we haven’t managed to get in Jesus’ headspace. Or Matthew’s. Not even close.

I’m betting Jesus’ teaching in these chapters made at least medium-grade sense to the disciples he said it to. That they ‘got’ the gist of what he was on about. I’m also guessing they felt it was directly relevant to them. And I’m guessing that in the light of Jesus’ resurrection, they got to see exactly what he meant, and why it was so urgently important. Matthew thinks this teaching is needed at this point in his story to make sense of the events surrounding it: probably the events about to occur in Jerusalem. I’m betting Matthew was on Jesus’ wavelength here.

So can we get back into their headspace? Can we hear it as they heard it? Could we develop a new reading of Matthew 24-25 where it all made good sense, and was all about something? Where it helped along the narrative?

I think we can. But we may not like it.

Tomorrow: a different view of Matthew 24-25.

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