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The Second Coming: You Do Not Know Know When the Master of the House Will Come

by Brant Pitre November 13, 2020 0 Comments

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So for this year we are going to begin the first Sunday of Advent with a new gospel, the gospel of St. Mark.  And we are going to start in a place that might be a little surprising to you. 

You might think, “well it is the beginning of a new year, so we are going to start at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark.”  But that's not the case, because for Advent what the Church wants us to do is to make two acts of preparation.  First, the obvious one would be the preparation for the celebration of Christmas, which is to come immediately after the Advent season.  But the second act of preparation is preparation for the second coming of Christ, or preparation for the second advent of Christ.  So because those two themes are at the heart of the season of Advent, the Church begins this liturgical year with a reading from the Gospel of Mark.  Not the beginning of Mark, but actually toward the end of Mark's gospel in Mark 13:33-37.  This is from the Olivet discourse of Jesus.  You might recall, toward the end of his public ministry, right before his passion begins, Jesus takes the disciples out to the Mount of Olives and he gives them this famous sermon where he talks about the future.  He talks about what is going to happen after his passion and death, and he prophesies wars, rumors of war, tribulation, strife breaking out, and then ultimately the destruction of Jerusalem and then the end of the world, the passing away of heaven and earth in the final coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven.  This is what we would call the second advent, the second coming of Christ.  So because it's the Advent season, the Church starts with the very ending of Jesus’ olivet discourse, where Jesus is teaching the disciples, giving them his final prophecy about his second advent, his second coming.  This is what the gospel says for the First Sunday of Advent:

Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come.

It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.  Watch therefore -- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning -- lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.  And what I say to you I say to all: Watch."

That's the end of the Gospel, and significantly that's also the end basically of Jesus’ public ministry. It's the last words on his lips before Mark will begin his passion narrative in Mark 14, 15 and 16, which is the end of the Gospel.  So Jesus’ last words to his disciples, and in a sense to all of us, is watch or keep awake.  So let’s walk through this gospel text here and just try to break it down.  It is a very brief text.  That is one of the things you will notice in Year B with the Gospel of Mark is that there will often be some shorter passages, but they are still very rich.  In this case there are a couple points we want to make.  Number one, just to reiterate, the context of this Gospel reading is Jesus' prophecies about the parousia.  The Greek word parousia is frequently translated as coming, the coming of the Son of Man, his final coming in glory at the end of human history, at the end of time.  So Jesus' words here are really about that prophecy of his final coming.  Why does the Church give us that?  Again, it's his second advent, it is the same word, the Latin word adventus, which means coming.  It is a translation of the Greek word parousia, that means coming as well.  So that's one reason the Church chose this passage.  It is because in the Latin translation of the Bible you actually would have the word adventus right here.  So it is an advent teaching.

Second, Jesus doesn't just speak about his second coming, he gives the disciples a warning; and the warning is that they need to take heed, they need to watch and they need to pray.  So the language here of watch literally in Greek is grēgoreōso and it means to keep alert or to stay awake.  In other words, to be vigilant.  So he recognizes that what is going to happen after these moments is that he's going to end up being handed over, arrested, go through his passion and die; and so one of his last admonitions to his disciples is not to lose their sense of vigilance and their sense of expectation for him to return, not to begin to be sluggish and doubtful about whether he's going to come back.  He is saying “no, you need to keep awake, you need to watch and you need to pray — to be prayerful in your preparation.”  Why?  What is the reason to watch and take heed and pray?  Well he says because “you do not know when the time will come.”  This is one of the standard teachings of Jesus in the Gospel.  You see this over and over and over again.  In contrast to lots of other prophets and apocalyptic figures who would arise in Judaism, and then also in Christianity throughout the centuries, Jesus does not set a deadline or a date for the end of the world.  He doesn't give a timeline.  He tells the disciples over and over again that you do not know the day or the hour, you don't know the time when the Son of Man is going to come.  It's one of the things I stress over and over again whenever I'm talking about end times teaching, or what theologians call eschatology, the doctrine of the end.  Your first clue that someone is not teaching what the Church teaches about the end times is the second they give you a timetable or the second they set a date for it, because our Lord Jesus himself was very clear that no one knows the day or the hour.

In order to illustrate that basic doctrine that we don't know when Christ is going to come back, we know that he will come back but we don't know the hour, Jesus gives here a parable.  It's a short parable.  It's the parable of the master going on a journey.  It is a very brief parable that basically says that the time of the coming of Christ, of the second Advent, is like a man who goes on a journey.  When he leaves home, he puts his servants in charge and each of them has their work to do.  He commands the doorkeeper to watch the gate and they have to be on guard because they don't know when the Master is going to come back.  So in this parable the master is very clearly here a symbol for Christ himself.  So Christ is the master.  His disciples are the servants who are going to watch over the house.  And one in particular is singled out, which is the doorkeeper.  He's commanded to particularly be on the watch.  Why?  Well because he would be the guard of the house.  He's the one who is going to keep thieves from breaking in the house at night.  But he would also be the one, as the one manning the gate, who would welcome the master back.  So whenever the master comes over the hill and comes into view of his home, it's going to be the gatekeeper who is the first to see him and the first to welcome him home. 

So what Jesus is doing here is he's laying out this analogy for the disciples in which they are servants whose master is going to go away, and they don't know how long he's going to be.  Which again, think about this in a first century Jewish context.  In our day and time, if someone goes on a journey, whether it's by plane or train or automobile, we have ways of communicating with each other about exactly how long we are going to be gone and exactly when we are going to get back.  We can text one another, we can call one another, we can read itineraries and schedules; but that's not how travel was in the ancient world.  In the ancient world, especially if you were going on a long journey, whether by foot or by boat, all kinds of factors would play into when you got home.  In particular, weather.  So if you got caught at a port when storms or winter came in early that year, guess what?  You are going to spend the winter in that city and you are not going to move again until spring comes and the boats can actually go out and be at sea again safely.  We actually see this in the book of Acts for example with the travels of St. Paul.  Frequently they will experience delays of up to six months or even a year before they can get back to traveling and reach their desired destination.  So that's what traveling was like in the ancient world.  When someone left and you wave to them goodbye, you might have a guess as to when they are going to get back, but you don’t know for certain.  Months and even years could pass.

So what Jesus is saying is that's what my second coming is going to be like.  I'm like a master who is going to go away on a journey and you don't know when I'm going to come back.  Now you know that I'll come back, but as for the day or the hour, whether it is going to be in the morning or at night, or as he says here whether it will be at midnight or evening or cockcrow or in the morning — those are basically like the hours of watch.  There would be different hours that people would trade off to watch and guard at night, whether it would be evening (like at sunset), or midnight (the middle of the night), cockcrow (which would be early morning but not yet daylight), or the morning itself (dawn).  Any one of those hours he might come back and you need to be ready.  Although notice that it does suggest that he comes back when?  At night.  The idea is that he comes at an unexpected time, one that we won't necessarily be ready for, one that we might be inclined to be asleep for.  So his exhortation to the disciples is you need to stay awake, “lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.”

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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