“It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns.” Matthew 24:44
An account is given of a day in Connecticut, 19th May 1780, a day that became known as the Great Dark Day. The State legislature met in New Haven at 9.00 that morning, as the skies grew darker and darker. The story appeared in a Canadian newspaper, a century later, it includes:
“At eleven it was as dark as night itself and the chambers of the State house were wrapped in gloom. No one could see to read or write, even if he stood at a window. The unusual darkness filled the hearts of the assembled statesmen with fear. They thought the Day of Judgement was truly at hand, and a motion was made to adjourn. Only one man protested. This was the eccentric Colonel Abraham Davenport, who was State Councillor that year.
Said he, “Mr Speaker, I am against the adjournment. Either it is the Day of Judgement, or it is not. If it is not, there is no need of adjourning. If it is, I desire to be found doing my duty. I move that candles be brought and that we proceed to business. But no one seconded his motion and the house adjourned”.
Colonel Davenport understood what Jesus was teaching his disciples in the words of Saint Matthew Chapter 24 Verse 44. “It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns,” says Jesus. Jesus’ disciples are to be mindful of their duties in the present as well as their hopes for the future; they are to keep their eye on being among his people in the hereafter while being his people here.
There is much the church could learn from that verse.
Christians from more liberal traditions tend to give little thought to the return of Jesus. In some churches, the idea of Jesus coming again to judge the living and the dead has been discounted or discarded altogether; the life of the church and the life of the church members is about the here and now. As followers of Jesus, one’s duty is to do one’s best, but there will be no final account. Such verses of Scripture as those in Saint Matthew Chapter 24 are almost an embarrassment to someone whose idea of Jesus is that of a great teacher and reformer, judgement and condemnation are not part of the vocabulary. Traditional creeds are not part of Sunday worship.
Yet without a hope for the future, how can there be a sense of justice in the present. If there is an acknowledgement of the world as an unjust place, then how shall there be a hope for those who suffer if there is no belief in Jesus returning in glory to establish his Kingdom? A faith with no hope in a hereafter seems pointless; what meaning is there in a religion that has no belief in a world to come? To keep up with one’s duties in the present time with no confidence in a time to come seems eccentric, perverse, even. The logic of such thinking is not to seek to one’s duty but to eat, drink and be merry, for then comes death and nothingness. If everything Jesus says about judgement and the coming Kingdom is to be discounted, then what does one say to the hundreds of millions of people whose days are struggle for existence, who face constant oppression and violence, whose lives are short and sorrowful? Are they simply to be told that it is all without meaning?
If liberal Christians have emphasised the here, to the virtual exclusion of the hereafter, then evangelical Christians have done the reverse, so much concerned with the future that there has been a failure to recognize that Jesus taught his disciples to pray for the coming of his Kingdom on Earth as well as looking forward to a Kingdom in heaven.
Evangelical Christians have emphasised a personal salvation that has been about a relationship with God without demanding they be servants to those around. “Prosperity theology”, the idea that being rich is being blessed by God and that being blessed by God means being rich, has infected many churches. It is a contradiction of the way of the Cross, a contradiction of what Jesus teaches his disciples; it is an escape from accepting what the Gospel demands of people here and now.
What idea of God suggests that he would come in judgement and overlook the fact that people have not served their neighbour in this world? What understanding of Jesus would allow people to think that his story of the rich man and Lazarus, that his parable of the sheep and the goats, did not show them how the last judgement would be? Could Jesus have spoken any more clearly? What more could he have said to make it clear that there will be no hereafter for those who turn from their brothers and sisters here? Would a Christian faith in which one could do what one liked in this world, and expect a place in the world to come through knowing the right form of words, have anything to do with Jesus?
It will be good for servants whose master finds them doing their duty when he returns, Jesus teaches his followers. We are to be people of the present as well as the future, and to be people of the future as well as the present. Confident that he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, we try to serve him in this world; serving him in this world, we know we can be confident when he comes again as King. Without a faith in the hereafter, service here does not make sense; without service here, there will be no hereafter.