I am Special and You are Not!

Paul-Emile Colin, “People Working in Field”

Matt. 24:40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.
Matt. 24:41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

This text from Matthew speaks of what is commonly called the second coming, what would be better called “the Parousia.” The Greek word (παρουσία) was used to speak of visits from the emperor. Hence this text in Matthew speaks of the coming of Jesus in terms reminiscent of what might be said for Tiberius; Jesus is a coming emperor.

The coming of Jesus is understood as a cataclysmic event which changes, or perhaps even erases the very conditions of history. Christianity was born from this sort of fervent apocalyptic expectation. The ranting of a street preacher yelling “the end is near” is closer in many ways to this original vision than what is found in many churches today. Does this mean that only those churches which echo this radically discordant message are truly faithful to the New Testament vision? This depends upon how we think the Bible is to be taken and used. More about that later…

These verses speak of a radical and surprising separation between people. Two people are in a field working and only one is taken. Two women are grinding meal and only one is taken. While being taken could refer to being taken for judgment, it is more likely that it refers to being taken as part of the elect for salvation (see Matthew 24:31[1]).

In both examples, the one taken is doing exactly the same thing as the one who is left, and the activities are not sinful. What determines whether one is taken or not if it is not what one does? One might imagine previous non-narrated deeds. Those who are left for judgment may not be doing anything heinous at that particular moment, but previously they did. This corresponds to the Matthew’s overall demand for (extreme) right behavior (Matthew 5:17-7:27). A problem with this interpretation is that it requires us to supply ideas not immediately found in this passage.

Fortunately, another interpretive possibility can be found closer at hand. Perhaps what separates those taken from those left is that one has been chosen and the other has not. Being “chosen” (ἐκλεκτός) is spoken of nine verses earlier and is mentioned three times in this chapter (24:22, 24, 31). The theme of chosen-ness is not one that occurs often in Matthew. All of the instances in chapter 24 come from Mark.[2] The theme of chosen-ness is imported into Matthew from Mark.

If election stands behind Matthew 24:40-41, then the reason one person is taken, and one person is not is simply that God chose one and did not choose the other. While this might seem unfair, it has the benefit of staying pretty close to the text and context.

While election is not a central theme in Matthew, a distinction between “us” and “them” is. There are several places in this Gospel where there is a crucial difference between insiders and outsiders (5:20, 10:11-42, 13:24-30, 25:31-46). Making a clear distinction between insider and outsider is common with sectarian groups.[3] When one belongs to a marginalized “sect,” establishing a positive in-group identity is important. This is often achieved through comparison. Outsiders and insiders are contrasted with the outsider being represented as negative. This, in turn, provides a foil by which a positive understanding can be established for insiders.

Matthew realizes that insiders and outsiders share common space, and live similar lives. Matthew 24:40-41 speak of a sudden and surprising separation of people, who are separated while doing the typical sorts of things required to eke out a living. Insiders and outsiders share space together in the field or at the mill. Yet for Matthew, the differences are more important than the similarities. Matthew suggests there these differences that are not determined by how we spend our time and what we do – they run deeper.

Despite the “surface” similarities, one is taken and the other is left. Hence, despite the fact that I might live my life in a way that is profoundly similar to you, there remains a crucial and far more determinative difference between us. We might be together, but we are ultimately separate.

What are we to do with sort of text? There are a few different approaches one might take. One can assume that the text is normative. If the Bible is held to be “authoritative,” presumably this means that we should figure out how to “actualize” the Biblical text in our context. Beyond the demand this makes on us to accept the idea that Jesus is actually going to physically return, this means that Christians should adopt a “together-yet-separate” approach to non-Christian neighbors that parallels what is found in this text.

There are numerous Christian clichés that capture this. One is “being in the world but not of the world.” This locates Christians with and yet apart. The world is a foreign country, as it were. The Christians’ real home is elsewhere. Christians are not the world – the world is something outside of Christian identity. At best it is a mission field, or place to demonstrate God’s love, at worst it is a place to avoid as an irredeemable site of evil-doing.

I find the claim to be other than “world” to be convenient. It removes us from having to take responsibility for what is happening, or what has happened. It sets up an arbitrary separation from others and seems to me to be unaware of Christian complicity in the condition of the “world.” The world is a shared space, and we all make it what it is – every generation, taking what the previous generation gives it, reinvents what “world” is. We are all part of this project, for good or ill. It seems delusional to suggest that anyone is outside of this collective work of reality construction. Even those who retreat (such as monks and mountain men [or women]) have made their mark of this shared space we call “world.”

Another Christian cliché is the distinction between being “saved” and “not saved.” (Granted, this cliché emphasizes the “apartness” more than the “with-ness” of Christians with others.) This encourages a self-satisfied in-group condescension towards out-groupers. It creates an in-group feeling of specialness at the expense of the out-group. It makes meaningful relationships with out-groupers virtually impossible. This is the inevitable outcome of an in-group placing itself in a profoundly different “location” from out-groupers. If I am profoundly different from you in the ways that really matter, the fact that we are both in the field together doing exactly the same work cannot be taken to suggest equity between us: I am “in” and you are “out.” Given those conditions, how can a meaningful relationship be established? Any relationship would be unequal to its core.

There is also something is this separation between workers in a field that serves the imperial/capitalist agenda. What better way to keep the workers from discovering their united voice and their united power than by keeping them separate from each other? To discover that we are all in this together is to build room for the possibility of collective resistance to exploitation.

Hence, in this instance trying to replicate the values embedded in the text is something that would be harmful. A perspective that affirms we are all in this together would be more helpful in our present context. This text affirms the opposite.

It is possible to try to make it say something more “inclusive.” For example, it has been argued that this text encourages the reader to identify with those ones left, regardless of one’s in-group status. This means that this text is not to be taken as self-congratulatory. Because it does not encourage one to adopt the perspective of the one being taken, but the one who is left, it encourages an uncertainty for the reader to not be too self-assured.[4] While this interpretation moderates some of the harm, it still accepts the basic terms of the text – that there are two groups of people who only appear to be similar.

Another approach that could be taken in relationship to Matthew 24:40-41 might be to acknowledge its place in the social history of Christianity, but reject its implicit council as pertains to contemporary Christian living. Because I cannot say what is in God’s mind, I also cannot state with absolute certainty that for God there really are two different groups of people as suggested by this text. However, the opposite is also true- I cannot state that this is true for God either. The inaccessible nature of God’s thoughts suggests to me that thinking like God is not a viable goal. Perhaps the goal is simply to think better rather than to think like God? The Bible gives us a window into the thoughts coming from various historical contexts concerning God – but to suggest that it gives us a direct window into the mind of God is a dubious claim.

Rather than seeking to replicate the values embedded in the text, perhaps this text can be viewed as a means of critically analyzing the space carved out by religious people to make them feel special – over against other non-religious people. By reflecting upon this text, in all its historical otherness and strangeness, we might be able to reconsider our relationships with those who differ.

The Bible can be a vehicle of transformation, but this transformation may not always correspond to the intention of the human authors who penned the texts, or even to the communities who have embraced these texts as normative.

What do you think?

[1] “And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”

[2] There is a consensus among most scholars that Matthew used a copy of Mark to help him compose his own Gospel.

[3] It is also something regularly found in Apocalyptic literature.

[4] Ulrich Luz, & Helmut Koester, Matthew 21-28: A Commentary, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005) 215.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s