More than any other Gospel writer, Matthew records how Jesus spent the last week before his Crucifixion. From the city-snarling Triumphal Entry, through the public scandal of clearing the Temple, through the Star Chamber councils of the public religious leaders, Matthew gives a historically rare, almost day-by-day record of how Jesus spent the last week of his public ministry.
As I’ve read through the chapters, a theme has emerged that threads through almost everything Jesus said and did in what we call the first Holy Week:
Readiness for the coming of the Lord.
The managers of the Temple, with their perverse preoccupation with commerce, aren’t ready to worship God or love his people.
The fig tree, with leaves but no fruit, is not ready to be harvested by the master of nature.
The wicked tenants aren’t ready to receive their master.
The scribes and Pharisees, who should of all people be most ready to welcome Yahweh into the world, are too obsessed with their own glory to see him.
If it shows up in modern Christian thought at all, the language of “readiness” has been co-opted by dispensationalists pointing at their Rapture calendars. To adapt Chesterton’s language, the worst possible fate has struck it: it’s been associated with the unfashionable.
But if Jesus made it the theme - in teaching, action, and story - of his last big, public week, then maybe we could take a breath and ask what it might mean.
What are we making ready for?
First, what are we supposed to be ready for?
Jesus builds the expectation around a few key images / metaphors:
1. A harvest
The Temple, the fig tree, the tenant parable, and the prophecy of the final judgment show God (represented by Jesus) collecting the “fruit” of his people’s work.
Many Old Testament offerings came after major “harvests,” either of vegetables or of animals in breeding season. The firstfruits of Israel’s produce were offered to God, showing Israel’s dependence on his provision, before the remaining bounty was enjoyed in fellowship with God and with one another. It was a physical reminder that Israel, like all humanity, were stewards of God’s creation.
Jesus’ parables do address the use of physical “fruit;” but, as his indictment of the Temple managers and religious leaders makes clear, God also expects a “spiritual harvest” in the worship, well-being, and care of his people’s souls. We’re to be prepared to offer fruit to God.
2. An evaluation
Related to the image of the harvest, Jesus tells us that the Master - God - will examine and evaluate the work of his people. All through this section, people are judged “prepared” or “not prepared” for God’s coming kingdom:
- The fruitless fig tree
- The “fruitless” Temple
- The sons who do (or do not do) the Father’s will
- The man not dressed for the wedding feast
- The sheep versus the goats
The combined force of teaching after teaching drives it home: we are to be ready to be evaluated by God. The next question leads us to what he’s looking for, but he’s looking.
3. A wedding feast
This may come as a surprise after the intensity of the second idea, but Jesus uses the language unmistakably often: there’s a party coming. In some ways, the end of history is going to look like a wedding feast thrown by God himself. There’s a joyful end coming, and everyone ready is going to be invited.
The rest of the Scriptures flesh out these pictures of the end of time: the moment when God blows the whistle on this season, and says it’s time to collect instead of work. When God judges the world, sorting the just and the unjust from one another. And when God throws a better-than-the-end-of-a-Harry Potter-movie feast for his people, swallowing up the shroud of death itself and celebrating the marriage of his Son to the Church, the Bride.
What does readiness mean?
So if this what we’re called to be ready for, who is and isn’t ready?
The God-glorifying versus the self-glorifying
One bright line is drawn between those who build their lives around God’s glory, and those who build around their own.
The parable of the tenants and the condemnation of the religious leaders makes this clear. Stewards, who didn’t own the property they worked and should have gladly offered it back to the owner, schemed instead to keep all the good for themselves. Leaders who should have been concerned first with God’s glory drew others’ praise to themselves instead.
A classical Christian definition of sinful man was incurvatus in se, “incurved on the self.” Those obsessed with their own praise or popularity literally cannot see God, because their eyes are too full of themselves.
By contrast, even the son who at first says “no” to his father, then changes his mind and does what he was asked, is declared obedient. The “tax collectors and prostitutes” (Matthew 21:31) receive the kingdom of God, if they turn from themselves and look to him instead. To be ready for the coming of the Lord is to be living for God’s glory rather than our own.
The others-serving versus the self-serving
Another bright line - maybe the starkest, in Jesus’ prophecy of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46) is between those who serve others and those who serve themselves.
The cursed in this prophecy aren’t cursed because of active sin: Jesus doesn’t say, “you starved me, imprisoned me,” etc. They’re cursed because they failed to care for others, because they did not take opportunities to do good that they could have.
By contrast, those welcomed into the kingdom - shocked as they are by Jesus’ words - are those who made time to serve the needy. Those who cared for the hungry, the poor, the stranger. Readiness for the coming of God is not a “heavenly-mindedness” that makes us step over the needs of others; heavenly-mindedness is giving our attention and our time to serve others.
The faithful versus the forgetful
This one may seem stranger than the others, but Jesus also draws a line between those who are simply willing to respond to God’s call, and those who get distracted. The parable of the wedding feast (22:1-14) contrasts people too preoccupied with their business to answer the king’s invitation, with the random people off the streets who accept it. A faithful servant keeps to his duties, even when his master is delayed; a faithless one abandons his post (24:25-51). The faithful bridesmaids prepared themselves to wait longer at their posts than they expected (25:1-13).
God has not told us when this coming will happen: Jesus himself said that even he didn’t (24:36). We’ve waited for 2000 years so far; it could happen tomorrow, or could happen ten or a hundred thousand years from now. It’s tempting as we get older to abandon our waiting: to start looking after concerns like our retirement, or those countries in Europe we haven’t visited, instead of God’s kingdom. But very clearly, God has said he wants to find his people waiting when he comes.
Waiting on this side of Easter
I was more sobered by this study than I thought I would be. The intensity of Jesus’ warnings feels more like a burden than a liberation. And maybe it should: Jesus had come into the city to die, and he’s told his followers they should expect the same. As we’ve studied in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has more often personalized and intensified the claims of God’s law than lightened them. We’re still called to readiness.
But Jesus’ death and resurrection give us two (they give us so many, but two big ones) tools to strengthen us in making ready for the coming of the Lord.
1. The assurance of God’s grace
The first tool is the assurance that God has buried all our sins, all our failures, and left them in the dirt. That anyone who turns their watchfulness - their faithful waiting - to Jesus receives a once-for-all victory over self-glory, self-serving, and existential distraction. That when we find ourselves in those things, we can confess them, grieve them, and know that they too were crucified with Christ.
2. The assurance of hope
We may wait our entire lives without seeing God return. Even in the few decades after all this happened, people were asking why God seemed so slow (2 Peter 3). With such a long delay, we can be tempted to give up hope.
But Jesus’ resurrection - his rising from the dead, into the seed-life of the new creation (1 Corinthians 15:42-45) - shows us that there is a new creation coming. There is a beautiful finish on the way. And as we make ready, we can know that the king is alive, and the king is coming again.
Image: He Qi, "The Women at the Tomb"