January 2, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Matthew 24:32-35.
“Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all these things, know that he is near, at the gates. Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
Both the New American Bible notes and the New Jerome Biblical Commentary admit that this statement — “this generation will not pass away until all these things [tribulations] have taken place” — is troublesome. How are we to understand what Jesus is saying?
Barclay believes that this saying doesn’t refer to Jesus’ second coming. He thinks that it is in reference to the destruction of the temple, which is the subject of the beginning of this chapter. The early Jewish Christians fervently hoped for and believed that Jesus was coming again soon — within their lifetimes. Matthew (and Mark) may have read into Jesus’ words something to strengthen their hope in this time of calamity in Israel’s history. There are numerous examples in Matthew’s gospel of references to the Hebrew scriptures foretelling the coming of Jesus that are stretched or misquoted to fit his frame of view. Maybe the same process was at work here.
What I actually find more interesting is the next sentence — “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Jesus was the Word, the Logos, who was with God from the beginning of time and through whom all things were made according to the beginning of John’s gospel that we read the other day. He and his embodiment in his words will never pass away.
But what about heaven and earth passing away? Maybe it means the full restoration of the kingdom of God, that the spiritual and material worlds will no longer be separate. That’s a difficult concept for me to grasp. It’s a limitation of our human way of thinking, understanding our world, our existence, from a dualistic frame. Seeing the world in terms of opposites. Spiritual versus material, good versus evil, light versus darkness, male versus female, independent versus communal, health versus illness — even heaven and earth. These contrasting states inherently produce conflict.
It seems that the kingdom of God that Jesus spoke about is a way of living without conflict and without opposition. He taught us to accept and love one another. He didn’t tell us that we all had to be the same. God created us all to be different, to be used for different purposes. If we live his words, which will not pass away, we will succeed in bringing about the kingdom of God and heaven and earth will pass away. That’s the only way I can wrap my head around these words of Jesus. Sometimes I wish I could have walked with him and explored all these questions with him. That’s what I imagine the disciples did and still he boggled their minds.
I am left to hold his words that have been handed down to us, to hold them in my head and my heart. Then to sit in silence and hope that he will speak to me, both my head and my heart.