I tend to be a procrastinator. (I should have said that a long time ago, but you know how it is.) It’s not that I don’t get things done. I do. Lots. It’s just that I have enough things on my list that the ones I don’t want to do can be avoided until the last minute. There are a number of possible reasons for this. None of them are particularly good.
When people say “I work best against a deadline,” it sometimes means, “I need to know when things are due so I can make a plan; I want to reverse engineer my work schedule accordingly.” But more often, I think, it’s a euphemism for, “I need the threat of a deadline to get me off my, um, chair.”
So what does that have to do with being ready for the return of Jesus?
Delay is a common element in the parables. In the parable of the wise and the wicked servant, the latter thought to himself, “My master is staying away a long time” (24:48). In the parable of the bridesmaids, Jesus says, “The bridegroom was a long time in coming” (25:5). And in the parable of the talents, we read, “After a long time the master of those servants returned” (25:19).
The theme of delay is reminiscent of Israel waiting for the Messiah; how long, O Lord? And the bitter irony of Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem was that the city would be destroyed because they failed to recognize the coming of the Messiah when it finally happened (Luke 19:44).
And now again, another delay. It’s been nearly 2,000 years since Jesus returned to the Father and sent the Holy Spirit in his place. We know Jesus will return at some point, but it’s been a long time already. Do we have any sense of expectancy?
Look at the days of Noah, Jesus says; people just carried on with life as normal until the flood came on them and carried them all away–and that’s how it will be when he returns (Matt 24:38-39). “Therefore,” he commands, “keep watch” (24:42; 25:13).
And the question we’ve been wrestling with throughout this series is, what does that mean? What is watchfulness? What is readiness?
What makes Jesus’ teaching a little disturbing is that–with the exception of the wicked servant in the first parable–those who were cast out, locked out, or consigned to the King’s left hand, seem to have received their fate less for what they had done than for what they had failed to do. Isn’t hell supposed to be for people who do bad things?
We’ve struggled with this throughout the series. But perhaps we can say it this way. The ones who were condemned had no sense of urgency. That was their folly: they failed to discern the time. None of them lived in the present in a way that was appropriate to the future they knew was coming, even if they didn’t know when.
The wise and faithful servant, the wise bridesmaids, the servants who were faithful with their master’s money: they had a sense of urgency.
But not the urgency of a procrastinator working against a looming deadline. Not the anxiety of a criminal listening for the sound of police sirens. It’s the intrinsic urgency of fully appreciating the importance of their responsibilities. Present and future are all of a piece: the desire to do their part well and rightly now anticipates their future part in the parade, the banquet, and the master’s happiness.
And perhaps we can also say this: only the watchful will see what they should see. Too late, those on the left ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” (Matt 25:44). One can almost hear the gears whirring in their heads: It’s not fair, Lord. You should make it more obvious. Drop a big neon sign down over this person that says, “Pay attention. Here, this one. Give this one something to eat.”
The wise and faithful keep watch, not because the Lord is absent, but also because he is present. They keep watch for the ways in which they can be doing what he has given them to do. In the process, they learn to see as he sees.
And they wait, in joyous rather than anxious expectancy, for the Master’s return.