Jesus as Final Judge

The readings for Sunday, November 27, 2016, First Sunday of Advent, Cycle A, are
Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; and Matthew 24:37-44.

The gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent in any of the three Cycles of Readings is always taken from the last discourse of Jesus in Matthew, or Mark, or Luke. The readings for the current liturgical year, YEAR A, are taken from the final sermon of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. The selected gospel reading is brief. In words attributed to Jesus, though written some fifty years after Jesus’ departure, Matthew recalls the easy-going, light hearted concerns of the people in the time of Noah, “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.” Then he adds an ominous note, “until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away.” Now the headline warning for Matthew’s own Christians about the year 85, “So will be the coming of the Son of man.”

Who is this “son of man”? The basic meaning of the term is simple, “a human being.” But who is the human being? The reference is to the seventh chapter of the Book of Daniel. In this chapter a young Hebrew named Daniel is living among his fellow-exiles in Babylon. He experiences a prolonged vision. A series of four grotesque beasts emerge from the sea. The sea is a symbol of chaos. The four beasts symbolize four empires of history, empires that oppressed God’s chosen people.

In the next part of the vision Daniel sees the “Ancient of Days,” obviously God, seated on a throne. As Daniel’s vision continues, the fourth beast, the big-mouthed one, is quickly disposed of, “its body destroyed and given over to be burned.” Thus the authors of Daniel, speaking for the oppressed minority, the Jews of Jerusalem, symbolically express their hope that God will destroy their persecutor. Thus already in the mid-second century B.C. we see the foundation of the song of the oppressed minorities of mid-twentieth century A.D., “We shall overcome!”

The climactic moment of the vision follows. The chaos of the sea and four beasts is left behind, as Daniel sees in his vision riding “on the clouds of heaven … one like a son of man,” (a human being). The human approaches the Ancient of Days and is presented to him. To this human being the Ancient of Days grants “dominion, glory, kingdom, that all peoples, nations, languages must serve him. His kingdom will never pass away, will never be destroyed.” All of this gives young Daniel a severe headache, until a heavenly being interprets the vision for him. The human being is a symbol of “the Saints of the Most High,” who “shall receive the kingdom, and possess it forever and ever and ever.” Again we see distant echoes of “We Shall Overcome.”

As time went on, the human being, “one like a son of man” evolved in interpretation from a symbol of the faithful Jews of the mid-second century B.C. into an awaited individual rescuer. The Son of man would drive out Roman occupation and oppression. It was not a major step for an oppressed minority of the first century A.D. to latch on to the victorious figure of the Son of man in Daniel and apply his attributes to their oppression and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. A legitimate move it was, and is done in all four Gospels.  The attribute of universal judgment is emphasized in all four Gospels as an attribute of Jesus Christ.

Matthew’s emphasis in this part of Jesus’ last discourse is on the suddenness of what could be a disaster for the unprepared. He describes, “two women grinding at the mill,” (today, two women shopping for flour), one taken, the other left behind.” There will  be “two men in the field,” (today, in air conditioned tractors or combines),  “one will be taken, another left behind.” Another warning, “Watch therefore, for you do not know what day your Lord is coming.”

Matthew’s concern is the impending arrival of Jesus as universal judge. He will express this concern more forcefully in Matthew 25, the last judgment scene presided over by Jesus as Son, Lord, King, Shepherd. Matthew, like most New Testament authors, expected the final judgment soon. Thus the author of our Book of Revelation, about the year 95 A.D., attributes to the Alpha and the Omega (Jesus) these words, “Behold, I am coming soon.” Since billions of human beings and two millennia have passed without the arrival of the Son of man, it is better to apply Matthew’s warnings to the time of our death and our personal meeting with Jesus, “You must be ready, for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”