As I mentioned back in September, the great Hans Walter Wolff was convinced that the role of a biblical prophet is to provide people with the future implications of their present actions. That’s why few prophets died with their sandals tucked snuggly under their beds. Most people choose not to be reminded of those implications. They were content to zero in only on the present, rarely letting their minds wander beyond the immediate situation in which they found themselves.
Our sacred authors often take us into the future. Even on those occasions when they bring up the past, their goal frequently is to make certain our future isn’t just a repeat of those former days.
First-Isaiah always has the threat of an Assyrian invasion before his eyes, yet he still paints a picture of a future world in which the military doesn’t even exist. In what would become some of his best-known words, he speaks about the day when “. . . they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.”
Of course, the prophet is convinced such an ideal world will come only when people actually walk “in the light of Yahweh.” Such a belief implies that all Jews will first have to be committed to Yahweh’s values and carry out Yahweh’s word. If they refuse to do either, Gentiles not only won’t flock to Yahweh’s mountain, they’ll do their best to destroy both the city built on top of Mt. Zion and the people who reside in it.
The earliest followers of Jesus also focused on the future. They believed Jesus’ return was just around the corner; an event which would completely transform the earth and its inhabitants. All our present problems would completely disappear. There was just one problem: his Parousia didn’t happen as quickly as they’d anticipated. That’s why Paul is compelled to remind the Christian community in Rome that their present actions aren’t mirroring the world they’re anticipating. “Let us live honorably,” the Apostle writes, “as in daylight; not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”
Paul’s reasoning is perfect. If we’re expecting to be one with the risen Jesus after the Parousia, why aren’t we doing those things which make us one with the risen Jesus right here and now? How can we look forward to a future without imaging that future in the present?
Matthew, who also seems convinced the Parousia will happen in his lifetime, reflects on the suddenness of that glorious day. He clearly states his thesis: “The Son of Man is coming at a time you least expect!”
To get his point across, the evangelist brings up the unexpectedness of the great Genesis flood. “The coming of the Son of Man will repeat what happened in Noah’s time.” But he then mentions something which could be confusing. “Two men will be out in the field . . . Two women will be grinding meal; one will be taken and one will be left.” Matthew doesn’t seem to referring here to being taken to heaven. Rather, he appears to be zeroing in on those who are “taken” by the faith, and those who aren’t - always a great mystery for early Christians. If this interpretation is correct, Matthew is warning his readers to make their faith the guiding point of their entire lives, the “awakeness” on which they ground their expectations of the future.
Some 5th-century Christians, instead of being awake with faith, must have fallen asleep. There’s no other way to explain how St. Augustine could have developed his criteria for waging a “just war:” a 1st century Christian oxymoron.