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A judgment that saves

The language used in the gospel passage today can lead to extravagant interpretations (or even rants) on the end of the world and the punishment of God. It can also be reduced to the invitation to be always ready, because death can take us unprepared.

These interpretations stem from a lack of understanding of the apocalyptic literary genre that was widely used at the time of Jesus, but that is alien to our mentality and culture.

One principle we should always keep in mind is that the gospel is, by its nature, good news, the message of joy and hope. Whoever uses it to instill fear or anxiety is using it incorrectly and distancing it from the true meaning of the text. Let us recall the context in which today’s passage is given.

One day the disciples invite the master to admire the magnificent building of the temple. Instead of sharing their justifiable pride, Jesus surprises them with a prophecy.

“You see all these things? I assure you, not a stone will be left upon another here. All will be torn down” (Matthew 24:2). Jerusalem, which refuses to be converted, is decreeing its own downfall.

Amazed, the disciples ask him two questions: when will this happen and what are the warning signs?

Instead of satisfying their curiosity, Jesus responds by introducing a teaching that is valid for people of all times: it is necessary to remain vigilant. To better clarify this, he cites three examples.

The first is taken from a story in the Old Testament (Genesis 6−9). In the days of Noah, there were two categories of people: some thought only to eat, drink and be merry. They were unprepared and perished.

Others were vigilant, attentive to what might happen. They realised that the flood was approaching; they were saved and they began a new humanity (vv.37-39).

Jesus says that as the flood came suddenly so will the ruin of Jerusalem. As in the days of Noah many died, so also the Jews, who will not recognise him as God’s messenger and not listen to his word, will perish in the catastrophe of the city.

Those who have their eyes and hearts open to recognise and accept his message will be saved and will give birth to a new people.

The second is inspired by the activities that men and women do every day, working in the fields and preparing the flour to make bread. The deeds they do look identical: they engage in work, earn a living, eat, drink and marry.

How they do this is radically different. Some are careful, led by God’s light and then taken, or saved. Others are overwhelmed by the cares of this world. They do not keep in mind the judgments of God. They are left, meaning that they are not involved in the new reality of God’s kingdom.

The decision to be taken is urgent and dramatic; it comes down to choosing between life and death, which is why Jesus insists, “Keep watch because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (v.42).

It is worth repeating: Jesus is not coming to the showdown at the end of our lives. He comes today with his saving judgment.

The final conclusion takes up the theme of the passage and applies it to the disciples of every age. “So be alert, for the Son of Man will come at the hour you least expect.”

We know what it means to miss favourable opportunities. So many times we have had the experience. The more surprising and unexpected they are, the more they come out of our criteria of judgment, then the easier we let them pass by.

The visits of God in our lives are always difficult to grasp, because they do not conform to human wisdom. They are in contrast with the current mentality. 

And only the one who is vigilant knows how to recognise them and is saved here and now.


Father Fernando Armellini SCJ
Claretian Publications