Matthew 24: 32-52 Three Parables on Living in Readiness

Mountain Fig Tree in Zibad, By Maahmaah – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Matthew 24: 32-52

Parallel: Mark 13: 28-32; Luke 21: 29-33, 17:26-36, 12:39-40

32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that heis near, at the very gates. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner 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 unexpected hour.

45 “Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. 47 Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. 48 But if that wicked slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50 the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. 51 He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

These three parables, which Mark only shares the first and Luke has the remaining two scattered throughout the gospel, show Matthew’s careful organization of material in a memorable format using his typical pattern of three. These three parables prepare us for the final three parables in chapter twenty-five. Yet, most English readers wouldn’t think of these small images as parable. It is helpful to know that the original Greek of the opening verse of this section begins “But from the fig tree learn the parable (parabole).” We have already encountered a fig tree as an object lesson in Matthew 21: 18-22, and Jesus again uses a familiar image which is associated with Israel to make a point about living a life ready for the coming of the kingdom of heaven and the return of the Son of Man. Like much of Matthew, these phrases are exceptionally packed with meaning. Previously the fig tree did not produce fruit at the appointed time, but now the fig tree’s preparation for summer provides a metaphor for the nearness of the Son of Man, his presence at the door.[1] There is perhaps a double sense of fulfillment in these images, both at the crucifixion/resurrection and at the expected arrival of God’s kingdom, and perhaps the first sense is the fulfillment that this generation will experience.

Matthew’s weaving in of Jesus as ‘Emmanuel’ continues to appear throughout the gospel in unexpected ways. Even though both Mark and Luke share the sentence, Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away the boldness of this statement should cause us to ask who could make a statement like this and have it be true? The sense is heightened when one hears the echo from Isaiah:

The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass, The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40: 7-8)

As Richard B. Hays can insightfully state:

Christian interpreters lulled by familiarity with Matthew’s Gospel may not fully appreciate the theological boldness of the Christological assertations made at every turn by Matthew. But there can be no doubt that the word spoken by Jesus in Matthew 24:35 can be true only if it really is “the word of God,” only if the speaker who says “my words will not pass away” is in fact the God of Israel, God with us. (Hays 2016, 169-170)

Matthew has used a large number of titles, metaphors, narratives and teachings to help us discern with the eyes of faith who is near, at the very door, and whose words we are holding onto as we watch the seasons turn. Even in the midst of the impermanence of the individual disciples and the incompleteness of their faith stands the unending faithfulness of the words of the God who is ‘with them’ in Jesus.

Yet, even with being able to discern the nearness of the coming[2] Son of Man, the discernment of a day or hour remains not only outside the purview of the disciples but also the celestial beings that serve the heavenly Father and even Jesus does not know the time when the kingdom of heaven will arrive in its fullness. In contrast to many Christian groups throughout history who have attempted to divine from piecing together portions of scripture to provide a roadmap for the coming of the Son of Man and the advent of God’s kingdom, the second parable points to the sign of Noah.  The flood[3] had no signs of its coming which anyone, other than Noah and his family, had received. As David Garland can rightly state, “Unlike the ample warnings portending the destruction of Jerusalem, the final cataclysm will be as sudden and unforeseen as the one that overtook the generation of Noah.” (Garland 2001, 245) It is perhaps ironic that one of the verses taken out of context in many who expect a rapture comes in the midst of this parable where two are in a field or grinding meal and one is taken and one is left where, as mentioned earlier, in that theology to be ‘taken’ is a good things and to be ‘left’ is bad. The word for ‘taken’ [4] can have the connotation of taking into custody or arresting especially when contrasted with the word translated ‘left’[5] has the connotation of letting go or forgiving. Within both the imagery of the flood of Noah’s time and the image of the advancing kingdom of God and the imagery of a military advance the hope for any bystander would be to not be apprehended and imprisoned as an enemy of the new kingdom.

Within each of these three parables (the fig tree, the flood/cataclysm, and the slave put in charge by the house master) there is the theme of delay, and this theme will carry over into the upcoming parables of Matthew 25. Ultimately the followers of Christ in both Matthew’s time and our own have to navigate living between the times and between competing kingdoms. Their life in the present is to reflect their hope for the future. They trust that the Herods and the Caesars will not reign forever. There is a common tale about Martin Luther’s response when asked what he would do if Christ returned tomorrow, Luther in this story reportedly responded, “I would plant a tree.” Although it is likely that Luther never said this, it points to an orientation towards living life the right way today with the probability that Christ will not return tomorrow but the hope that Christ does.

I think the NRSV and other translations miss the proper breaks of these parables, and there is a sense that they flow one from another, but I believe that it makes sense to group verses 43-51 as the final parable dealing with the ‘housemaster’[6] and his slave put in charge of the household. Admittedly the metaphor changes from a thief breaking into he ‘housemaster’s’ property to the master returning to find the slave responsible for overseeing the household abusing the property, but the central focus on the household remains consistent. Just as the ‘housemaster’ does not know the time[7] the thief is coming, nor do the disciples or the slave in the parable know[8] the hour or day of the coming of the Son of Man. Those hearing this parable are to choose the path of the wise and faithful slave who manage ‘the household’[9] rather than the path of the wicked slave who ‘says to himself’[10]my master is delayed and then abuses the household and abides with drunkards. Matthew is not afraid to use the threat of punishment and the loss of one’s position as a motivation for ethical behavior.

Sometimes fiction can help illuminate a parable. Professor Alan Jacobs in an August 13, 2020 Trinity Forum Conversation proposed an illustration using the character of Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings as the “Gandalf option” for thinking about one’s role as a follower of Christ. He points to a scene in The Return of the King where Gandalf confronts Denethor, the steward of Gondor. Denethor, thinking in terms of control, believe Gandalf is coming to claim power from him, and Gandalf after much patience responds:

Denethor, my lord steward, you need to understand something. The rule of no realm is mine, neither Gondor nor anywhere else. It’s not what I do. I’m not here to rule. I am here to try to nourish and to care for all the good things I find in the world…When I come across something that is alive and capable of bearing beauty, then I want to nurture that, and that is my call…If anything survives that can flower and bear fruit in the days after, then my work will not have been in vain. For I am also a steward.

I searched the Lord of the Rings for this, and although Gandalf does touch on some of these points this may be like the Luther quote above, illustrative even if not from the source mentioned. Like Alan Jacobs, I l find these insightful to the slave’s role when they are placed in charge of the household awaiting the master’s return. They are not to rule over, but to serve, to nurture beauty and life and try to keep the household fruitful to hand over to the rightful king. They pay attention to the season they work in, but they go about their work waiting for their master’s return but not being discouraged when the master is delayed. They are too busy caring for the master’s household in the interim.

[1] The Greek thura, it is helpful to translate this door or opening, especially since its other use in Matthew will be at the tomb (27:60)

[2] Greek parousia

[3] Literally cataclysm, Greek kataklusmos

[4] Greek paralambano

[5] Greek aphimi

[6] This is the Greek oikodespotes which links us to the parables in 20:1-16 and 21:33-46, also used in 10:25

[7] Literally which watch in the night (phulake)

[8] The disciples in 44 find the Son of Man coming at an hour ‘that they are not thinking’ (ou dokeite) while the slave’s master returns ‘in a day which they did not look for (prosdoka-same verb with preposition pros added to the front)

[9] Translating this ‘other slaves’ as many translations do misses the connection to the housemaster and the larger responsibility than merely caring for the other ‘slaves.’ This ‘slave’ is charged with caring for the property, the animals, and perhaps even children in the ‘housemasters’ absence.

[10] Literally ‘being in the heart of him’ the heart in Hebrew thought is the organ of will

2 thoughts on “Matthew 24: 32-52 Three Parables on Living in Readiness

  1. Pingback: Matthew 25: 14-30: Two Wise and One Unwise Slaves | Sign of the Rose

  2. Pingback: Gospel of Matthew | Sign of the Rose

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.