on watchfulness

I’ve wanted to write about Jesus’ command to “be watchful” (Mark 13:32-37 and parallel passages) for some time now. I originally thought it could be a whole article, but for now we’ll start with just a blog post.

What I was thinking about today was how the two contemporary responses to Jesus’ promise to return (the so-called “Second Coming”) basically do the same thing to this command: shirk it.

On the one hand, you have fundamentalism. Fundamentalism (I suppose it’s more accurate to say “dispensationalism,” but I think the characterization applies to most manifestations of fundamentalism in America) shirks Jesus’ command to be watchful by presuming to have all the details of the Second Coming worked out. In other words, they know what to expect; accordingly, “watchfulness” becomes a way to confirm what they already believe about how things are to pan out.

For example, if you already believe certain things about the necessity to the Second Coming of Jewish political autonomy in the region of Palestine, then you’re going to give a lot of interpretive weight to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Furthermore, you’re going to support the continued U.S. involvement in the political welfare of Israel because this condition is necessary to your beliefs about the end times. To be more precise, this condition is necessary to your belief that the end times are upon us. In fact, the current status of Israel is logically independent from the belief in its necessity to the Second Coming unless one also believe that the Second Coming is temporally imminent.

But wasn’t the whole point of Jesus’ command to (in a sense) take our minds off the question of imminence? 

(The gravity of this offense becomes clearer when we juxtapose texts such as Acts 1:6-7 with the efforts of some to discern the exact “times or periods” of specific events associated with the Second Coming–efforts spawned in some cases by the popular “Apocalyptic fiction” series Left Behind.)

If the fundamentalists are neglecting Jesus’ exhortation to “be watchful” by thinking they’re being watchful when they’re not, the liberals are neglecting the command by pretending it never issued. 

As many have noticed, the Episcopal Church gathered recently to make some important decisions. I’m not going to comment on the nature of the decisions, but on the rhetoric that framed the stated mission of the Episcopal Church at that gathering. Comparing Episcopalian Christians to “Boy Scouts,” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said

We like to be ready, with prayer book, hymnal, and bulletin in hand, and a Swiss army knife in our back pocket to open the wine bottle… This very convention is a testimony to our love for order, our desire to process and organize and structure our lives together.

Prayer book? Bulletin? Wine bottle? Could the self-conceptualization of the Episcopal Church be any more bourgeois?

(Not to mention the curious absence of the Bible…)

More than this catalogue, the phrases “love for order” and “organize and structure our lives together” betray the Episcopalian conviction that it’s going to be a long time before Jesus comes back–if you believe that sort of thing. This is not a church waiting patiently for Her Savior to return, working to manifest in new contexts the sort of countercultural community he initiated.

Rather, this is a church that has become complacent. This is a church that has struck a midnight deal with the reigning culture and taken its seat at the right hand of secular values. 

These are harsh words, I admit. I do not use them lightly.

OK, then. These responses to Jesus’ call to watchfulness are inadequate. But what does the proper response look like?

I think the Bible offers correctives to the flaws of both fundamentalism and liberalism.

One clue to correcting the flaw of fundamentalism may be found in the Acts passage mentioned above. Let me quote it in full.

So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

(Acts 1:6-8)

Instead of focusing on knowledge (specifically, knowledge about the last days), Jesus directs his disciples to the power they will receive in the Spirit. This is not merely power per se, power for any purpose, but power to be living witnesses of Jesus.

There is a brand of fundamentalism that focuses on knowledge about the last times as well as the power of the Holy Spirit. (This brand is usually called “pentecostalism.”) But there are a lot of fundamentalists who take the arrogance and complacency this knowledge seems to bestow and forget about the exhortation to be witnesses to Jesus’ radical Gospel. In the end, their lives end up looking just like the lives of the liberals: mere imitations of the dominant culture.

Secondly, the Matthean version of the watchfulness pericope offers some revisionary hope to the liberal response. 

The point of the Matthean discourse, like the Markan, is on not knowing when Jesus will return. Except, in the Matthean case, the alternative to watchfulness is more pronounced. Jesus compares unwatchful followers to folks in the “days of Noah.”

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, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.

(Matt. 24:38-39)

The people of Noah lacked a soberness (in both senses of that word) that might have mitigated against their condemnation. So too the liberal movement in the modern church seems to take the issues too lightly–even fashioning pet spiritualities and faux theologies to bolster their intuitions about how the church ought to behave. 

It’s interesting that Jesus emphasizes that the people in the time of Noah “knew nothing.” That emphasis seems to point out that, although Jesus’ disciples do not know “about that day and hour” (Matt. 24:36), they do know what Noah’s contemporaries seem to have been ignorant of: God’s reign (and for Matthew’s crowd, tack on “in Jesus” here) is imminent. 

That insight dovetails nicely with the Lucan passage in Acts 1. The proper response to Jesus’ exhortation to watchfulness will incorporate some (but not complete) knowledge (in Jesus) of God’s kingdom as well as the power (by the Holy Spirit) to witness to that kingdom. In that way, the proper response is thoroughly Trinitarian. 

“So, Scott. You criticized two segments of the modern church that fail to live up to the call to watchfulness. If you could point out a segment that is following Jesus’ command to ‘be watchful,’ who would it be?”

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One response to “on watchfulness

  1. here’s what i do with your blogs. i read the title, the first three lines, skip to the last and then think AMEN. and then a couple days later i actually read the blog. i agree one hundred and five percent. that is why i am becoming a nun. goodbye

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