42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. 45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. (Matthew 24)
12 Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, 14 to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Timothy 6)
Dear fellow members of our Lord’s household: When you reach the point that your children are old enough to leave home alone while you go on holidays, both parents and children experience a certain amount of euphoric freedom. The children have the run of the house. No longer hounded to wash up the dishes after every meal, pick up dirty laundry, or make the bed, the kids just might let things slide until the last minute, when they hurriedly clean up before the tired travellers walk back in through the front door. Occasionally, though, they get it wrong, and cry out in panic, “I thought you were coming home tomorrow!” For, of course, when deadlines are fixed and known, it’s quite impossible to be caught unprepared. Like the end of term. How is it that the date the essay is due has been known for four months, and yet the panicked student finds himself completely caught out when the last week of classes arrives? Is it laziness? Incompetence? Is it a spirit of entitlement that suggests deadlines don’t apply to me or that the professor is just unfair? Or do we encourage it with a culture of leniency that leads students to believe the prof will always give them more time? Whatever the reason, the sense of urgency has come too late to be of any use.
Both of today’s readings speak of our Lord’s return not with complacency or apathy, but with urgent expectation. “Stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Mt. 24:42). Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a homeowner who fails to defend his household because he’s asleep upstairs when a burglar breaks in. He has a responsibility not only to defend his property but to protect his family and servants. Given fair warning, if he’d known precisely when the burglar was coming, he would surely have been alert and on watch! So Jesus says to His disciples, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Mt. 24:44). And then a second example. The master goes away on a long journey and leaves a trusted steward in charge of his household. He has the cash and the keys and is expected to feed the family and servants while his master is away. But woe to that servant who takes advantage of his master’s delay by squandering the money and supplies on drinking parties with his lousy mates. For it’s not his household. He holds it in trust. Like the steward of Gondor, he’s simply to be faithful in caring for the kingdom until the king’s return.
These parabolic words of Jesus are aimed at His apostles on the eve of His passion. For, of course, He is that master who is going away and leaving them in charge of His ecclesial household. He has given His apostolic servants stewardship of the kingdom’s goods, which they’re to use not for their own enrichment but for the nourishment of those placed under their care. They’re like the three servants in Matthew 25, entrusted with the master’s wealth (the talents) and expected to put it to use while he’s gone. And it’s all of this that St Paul packs into the word ἐντολή when he writes to Timothy, “I charge you in the presence of God … to keep what has been entrusted to you [ἐντολή] unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Tim. 6:13-14). There’s a deep eschatological urgency to these words that’s at the very heart of the apostolic office to which Timothy was called. His calling was to be on watch for the Lord’s return, as the father of the household, so that those entrusted to his care are safe. Like the steward in the Lord’s parable, Timothy was to feed the household with the gifts entrusted to him, faithfully teaching the Word of God and caring for them in body and soul through sacramental nourishment. And unlike the mundane example in Jesus’ parable, this feeding isn’t merely daily bread to keep them alive and healthy. This feeding is itself a preparation for the master’s return. Timothy feeds the flock so they’re ready at any time for His appearing. He needs to make a clear and uncompromising confession of the faith. He needs to keep it spotless and deliver it faithfully to his people. It’s a matter of life and death for them, because Christ could return at any moment.
Over the years, I’ve tried to solve the panic problem in my classes by having students deliver progress reports on their major essays throughout the term, thus forcing them to work steadily towards their educational eschaton, to live in their end times. St Paul urges us likewise not to leave the proverbial washing up until the evening of our parents’ return, but to devote ourselves continually to being ready. He urges three things upon us. Firstly, he warns us to “flee” from false teaching, a conceited love of quarrelling, and attachment to the wealth of this world (I Tim. 6:3-10). Any one of the these can derail our journey towards God’s eternal kingdom. Secondly, Paul encourages us to aim instead at six divine virtues: “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” (I Tim. 6:11). If we’re continually occupied with these things, there will be no room for worldly attachments. Thirdly, Paul urges, “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession before many witnesses” (I Tim. 6:12). This is a remarkable description of the Christian life. Paul says that the way to be prepared for eternal life is … to take hold of eternal life. If this isn’t an absurdity, it means that eternal life has somehow already been placed into our grasp. And indeed it was, when we were “called”, when God’s Word grasped hold of us with the waters of Baptism in the presence of many witnesses, when we died with Christ and rose again so that eternal life has already sprung up in us.
I think this perspective completely changes the meaning of “eschatological urgency”. It doesn’t mean fretting and worrying about being caught unprepared, failing the heavenly final, getting caught out by an angry father who expected better from us. No, we find the return of Christ urgent and compelling because we’re already with Him, already enjoying (if only in part) the gifts He brings. One way of saying this is that we’re already living in the end times, the “end of the ages has [already] come” on us (I Cor. 10:11). So we don’t have to stand and watch as if Christ’s coming were far distant and perhaps still a bit doubtful, maybe even losing hope. For He comes to us and feeds us even now in the meal of the eternal kingdom that we’re about to receive. And so the best way to be prepared for His coming is to meet Him here, to grasp hold of the eternal life held out to us in His living body and blood. Here we can never be caught unawares, for we’re already with Him and He with us, “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (I Tim. 6:15-16)—and yet who condescends to draw us near to Him. “To him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen.”