45"Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. 47I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 48But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, 'My master is staying away a long time,' 49and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. 50The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. 51He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." _Matthew 24:45-51Jesus gets away from apocalyptic language here as he talks about the "wise servant" in sort of a pseudo-story. Jesus told other stories in Matthew with servants in them. Sometimes the servants represented Israel as in Matthew 18:21-35 and sometimes the servants are, more specifically, the Prophets of Israel as in Matthew 21:33-45 but just about every time a story is told by Jesus, as with most Rabbis of his time, it is a story of Yahweh and Israel. Interestingly enough, when Jesus told stories about Yahweh and Israel he was often simultaneously talking about his own mission as though Jesus understood his own vocation as so caught up with Yahweh's work of redemption and judgment that Jesus saw his own role as to do and be for Israel what Yahweh (and sometimes the Temple) did and was for Israel.
In this passage Jesus has previously been talking of readiness for the coming of the Son of Man--the ever enigmatic Parousia. What we have seen in the preceding passages is that there will be judgment for those who are not "ready" for the Parousia just as there was judgment for those oblivious to the flood in the days of Noah. They don't even see it coming and yet while they least expect it, since no one knows when it's coming, they will be swept away (which must be a bad thing). This language is not to be taken literally in the ways we post-enlightenment thinkers have been trained to think literally. It is symbolic language that pertains not only to a climactic eschatological event, although it most certainly does, but to any situation of judgment in the context of powers and systems. The question is yet to be answered, who is ready? How does one find themselves ready in the days ahead? What does that look like?
We know that readiness is to be constant since no one knows the day or the hour but readiness does not mean having calculated the day or the hour or even the century. The one who tries to figure out which world events match up with which Bible "prophesies" or who thinks they know which generation will see the day of the Parousia is not necessarily any more ready than the man who simply doesn't care when it's coming. What matters is not the when or even the what, it's the how. How do we be faithful in the midst of uncertainty? Who is the wise servant?
Jesus answers the question in the negative using a story. He tells us who is not ready using a sort of illustration of Israel. Israel is the servant placed in charge during the master's absence, very similar to the Tenants in Matthew 18 (which also represent the Jewish religious authorities). The servant's job is to feed the other servants until the Master returns. There's no question of readiness if the servant diligently sticks to his/her vocation, of course they'll be ready because they'll be found doing what they were asked to do. If the master's call and the servants need stays in the forefront of his or her priorities, then readiness will not even be a question. But if the servant loses sight of this vocation and dishonors the master's request, begins beating and oppressing their fellow servants for whom they are to care, the servant will find themselves unready, to say the least, when the master comes at an inopportune moment. They will find themselves in the judgement to which Jesus previously referred (the more detailed nature of which I will leave for some other time or for someone else to write about).
Israel had been placed in charge of it's fellows but Israel, as Jesus hints in some of his other stories not least in Matthew 21, has lost sight of its vocation. The Jewish leaders, even the Temple system itself, have found themselves beating the fellow servants. Israel is unready and "not one stone will be left upon another." In Matthew's context (remembering that Matthew was written after the events of 66-70AD) the Roman Empire has found itself beating the servants, eating and drinking not only the food of the oppressed but eating and drinking with the drunkards (and not with the Body of Christ... this is a thought for another post). Both of these systems, the system of the Temple and the system of Pax Romana, have devolved into systems of oppression, catering to the wealthy and the militant (read the first few passages of Matthew 5 to see that the Kingdom of God caters to a much different crowd).
To Jesus the ready person, the wise servant, is the one who feeds fellow servants (including if not especially the poor and the oppressed) and finds themselves feasting upon and drinking the body and blood of Christ (of course "body of Christ"/Eucharistic language is not explicitly in the passage but it makes sense to say this). The ready servant is not complicit with systems which live as though they are oblivious to the flood coming to liberate the oppressed.
The answer to the question of what it looks like to be ready--what is the task of the wise servant--is not answered in full until Matthew 25. In the final passages of Matthew 25, Jesus takes us back to what's truly important. It's not important when Jesus is coming back. It is supremely important, however, that the people of God find themselves feeding, clothing, visiting, healing and inviting the "least of these" who are indeed not merely other servants but they are those with whom Christ shares his identity. Anyone who studies Matthew 24 without finding the final passages of Matthew 25 at the center of Jesus' answer to eschatological questions has missed the point of Jesus' call to readiness.
Matthew 24 is a chapter of hope. Even though death rears its ugly head in the form of systems and oppressors, in wars and rumors of wars, resurrection is right around the corner. The best is yet to come. If we want to find ourselves "ready" for the day of Jesus' coming, we must find Jesus in the faces of the poor, the imprisoned, the sick, and in all who are oppressed. We must share our identity with the least of these. We must order our whole lives by the hope of resurrection, with the hope that another world beyond wars and rumors of wars is possible, living in the Kingdom of God in the reign of the God who defeated death, then we will be found ready, never to be mistaken for being complicit with the powers and systems which Christ is returning to judge.
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