Readiness, Poverty and Jesus’ Return

Let’s talk about this kerfuffle. Apparently Jesus was supposed to return today, according to the Bible–well, that and some inventiveness and poor math skills. We could be done with this by simply quoting Jesus’ own words, such as, “But about that day or hour no one knows” (Matt. 24:36), or “The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him” (Matt. 24:50). But let’s make this an occasion for some fruitful reflection, because I think that the reactions of both sides show us something.

In a way, we’ve already dealt with the first side, the side ready to believe that if you get your math straight, you can pinpoint when Jesus is going to return, because the Bible is after all an elaborate code book. This side should take some time to meditate on Matt. 24-25. But the other side, the side which is all too ready to ridicule the first side–I have to include myself here–should be careful not to fall into an opposite error, an error more pernicious because it is more respectable: going about life as if Jesus certainly won’t return on May 21st, 2011. (Even though as I write this it’s already May 22nd in Britain.) This may just be a failure of readiness.

If there’s a lesson we should take from this, it’s what is contained in the first word of Jesus’ address in Matt. 24-25, “Watch!” (Although the verb is just that for “look!” or “see!” Blepō. Maybe “keep your eyes open!” would do.) This idea shows up all over this discourse: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (24:42; here “keep watch” is a different verb which means just that). “So you also must be ready” (24:44). “Therefore keep watch” (25:13).

The question that interests me is whether we are a people who are “ready,” a people who “watch.” And further, whether the kinds of lives we live disable our readiness. Let’s take a detour. A few chapters earlier, Jesus tells his disciples that “others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven” (19:12). How does someone remain single–“celibacy” is the fancy term–“because” of the kingdom of heaven? Because it is a sign, an image of what that kingdom will be like. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (20:34-35). Those few God calls to celibacy now look odd just because they’re ahead of their time: they are living how we all will when the kingdom comes.

In the same way, voluntary poverty is a sign of the kingdom of God. Paul writes, “What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who… buy something, should live as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:29-31). For this reason, Paul could consider it all “crap” in comparison to knowing Jesus and his resurrection power (Phil. 3:8; a gentle translation of the word here). Because living in poverty is a sign of what the kingdom will be like, as odd as it looks now. What need will there be to buy and sell when we will already possess Everything we desire?

I fear that a Church which cannot be poor, a Church which shares the same affections as the world cannot see that this world is being gotten rid of in order for a new world to be born. Isn’t this half the point of the parable Jesus uses to close his discourse in Matt. 24-25? “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”