The Gospel texts assigned as Sunday readings in the Common Lectionary of many churches for October and November all come from the final speech of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (chaps. 22–25). Most of these texts are concerned with the Second Coming, and all are difficult and uncomfortable. The parable of the great banquet, also called the marriage feast” (Matthew 22:1–14), of which the more original version is preserved in Luke 14:16–24, has been reformulated by Matthew into an allegory that condemns Israel.
The reader is told that Israel did not accept the invitation to the marriage feast and beat and killed some of the messengers; in response, the king sends his army to destroy the murderers and to burn their city. Israel is thus accused of the killing of some of the prophets; the destruction of Jerusalem is presented as the punishment. Harsh polemic occurs again in the speech against the Pharisees” (Matthew 23:1–12). It is acknowledged that the scribes and the Pharisees sit on the throne of Moses and everything they teach should be followed (Matthew 23:2–3), but they are accused of not doing themselves what they demand, of laying heavy burdens on the shoulders of others and of acting only in order to be greeted with respect in the marketplace (Matthew 23:4–7).
All this, however, is not the polemic of an outsider, but part of a controversy that still takes place within Judaism, between those Jews who follow Jesus (Matthew’s church) and those who do not (the rabbinic court at Yavneh). Matthew not only claims that the followers of Jesus are the rightful heirs of Israel’s tradition, he also demands that they are obligated to follow the law of Moses (see Matthew 5:17–20). Moreover, Matthew adds a special appendix to the parable (Matthew 22:11–14) that tells of the man who appears at the marriage feast without the proper robe—the followers of Jesus are thus warned that they also may prove to be unworthy of participating in the king’s feast. Again, in his words against the Pharisees, Jesus demands that his own followers should reject all titles of rank and honor, like “teacher” and “father”—a request that Christian churches have woefully disregarded for centuries. In our world, where achievement, success, public recognition, winning the lottery and lording it over other people (“we are the greatest”) is the dominant message, it may well be worth considering Jesus’ words, “that the greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11), and that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).
Even more problematic are the Gospel readings that speak of the Second Coming and the Final Judgment. Preparedness in case of possible delay is underlined in the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1–13). Endurance to the very end is demanded in the speech of Jesus known as the synoptic apocalypse (Matthew 24:1–14). These texts could be understood as designed to enhance the expectation of the return of the Messiah in the near future and to predict that the end of the world is near. All that, however, is simply part of the prevailing mythological worldview of that time, which Jews and Christians shared.
It is indispensable that today’s interpreter demythologize these ancient concepts. Political and natural events of our own times should not be understood in the light of an expected mythical event of the future. Indeed, the words of Jesus in this chapter are already initiating this demythologizing. Rumors of wars, the rising of nation against nation, famines and earthquakes are not the signs of the end (Matthew 24:6–7). Later in the same chapter, Jesus warns that “neither the angels of heaven nor the Son” knows that day and hour (Matthew 24:36). Also note the many warnings of false prophets in the same chapter (Matthew 24:5, 11, 23–26). Our counting of centuries and millennia is but a secular device for dating, not a mythical symbol. For Jesus as the judge at the end of this world, all that is important is the Gospel. What will actually precede the end of this world is the preaching of the good news to everyone, to the entire world (Matthew 24:14).
One might think that this preaching of the good news is identical with telling all people that they must be converted and accept Jesus as their personal savior. The parable of the last judgment (Matthew 25:31–46), however, tells a different story. If we who have committed ourselves to Jesus as our personal savior expect that we will be judged worthy of the kingdom, we will be in for a big surprise. “All the nations” will be gathered before the Son of Man when he returns to sit on the throne of his glory. But who are the sheep and the goats? The meaning of this parable is very clear. There is no mention of believing in Jesus or of fulfilling the law of Moses. There is no longer any concern with being a faithful Christian or a devout 051Jew. Rather, the judge will ask some very different questions. Did you clothe those who were naked? Did you visit those who were dying of AIDS? Did you write letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience? Did you cast your vote in favor of illegal immigrants? Did you support a shelter for homeless people? Demythologizing the Second Coming and the last judgment allows us to realize that the good news of Jesus’ message will have run its course and accomplished its purpose when all people in all the nations—regardless of their religious persuasion—feed the hungry, give a drink to those who are thirsty, welcome the stranger and visit those who are sick or in prison, even if they do not know that they are doing this for Jesus, whose Second Coming has already happened in our midst, among all his poor and hungry and imprisoned brothers and sisters throughout the world.
The Gospel texts assigned as Sunday readings in the Common Lectionary of many churches for October and November all come from the final speech of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (chaps. 22–25). Most of these texts are concerned with the Second Coming, and all are difficult and uncomfortable. The parable of the great banquet, also called the marriage feast” (Matthew 22:1–14), of which the more original version is preserved in Luke 14:16–24, has been reformulated by Matthew into an allegory that condemns Israel. The reader is told that Israel did not accept the invitation to the marriage feast […]