Did the butler do it? Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 13:33–37:

Jesus said to his disciples: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch. Watch, therefore; you do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”

Not long ago, I took part in a discussion among friends about book reading as a pastime, an avocation I enjoyed more fully in my pre-blogging days but to which I’ve tried to return. We discussed non-fiction and fiction genres and the topic turned to mysteries. I used to read Ellery Queen novels and novellas, along with some Agatha Christie books, but later moved into the true-crime genre. More than one of the people in the discussion talked about other friends who had the habit of reading the endings to mystery novels first in order to decide whether they wanted to bother with reading the whole book.

We all laughed, and I asked, “Why would anyone do that? It ruins the suspense.” The general consensus was that removing the suspense was part of the point. In an odd way, the readers didn’t trust the authors to deliver on their promise. They didn’t want to spend a great deal of time on a book just to get let down in the end.

This came to mind when going through today’s Gospel reading. The era of mass communication has prompted a steady stream of ersatz prophets declaring the end of the world to be nigh. They claim to have insight that everyone else misses in spotting the signs of the apocalypse and in some cases pull together a cult that — if they’re lucky — walk away with egg on their faces when the supposed day of doom comes and goes. They do what these mystery readers do: they take the ending and work backwards to force the conditions to fit the clues left in scripture.

We could call this a modern form of gnosticism, or maybe not even all that modern of a form. Gnosticism arose in the early days of Christian practice, tied to both Christianity and Judaism, and it was more complex than we can get into here, but at its heart was the reliance on internal knowledge more than the divine Word. It tended toward belief in the discernment of secret meanings rather than publicly proclaimed Gospel, or more commonly the notion that the publicly proclaimed Gospel was a vehicle for secret knowledge attained elsewhere. Around the time of the Council of Nicea, the early church finally pushed back against gnosticism as a heresy.

It’s not tough to understand why, either. The Gospels all agree on the mission of Jesus during His ministry and after His resurrection: to save the entire world. The Great Commission of which Matthew writes makes this explicit, as Jesus instructs His apostles:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

The model of gnosticism suggests that salvation would only be for the few, and for those specifically chosen to receive it. That would be the purpose of a secret system of revelation — to keep those not chosen from unlocking the secret. The model shown in the Great Commission and pursued by the apostles demonstrates just the opposite. Not only do they openly proclaim Jesus’ Word at great personal risk to themselves, the Holy Spirit descends upon them on Pentecost to give them the power of speech in all languages to ensure that everyone in Jerusalem for the festival hears the Word.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus makes it clear that His disciples won’t have any particular secret knowledge — and shouldn’t rely on the hope of it, either. Instead, Jesus teaches that we are to prepare ourselves through the Word itself, just as Isaiah lamented in our first reading today. In chapters 63 and 64, the prophet tells Israel that they know exactly who the Lord is, what He wants, and what He expects from them. “No ear has ever heard,” he proclaims, “no eye has ever seen any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him.” And yet the Lord is justifiably angry, Isaiah warns, because “all of us have become like unclean people” — a reference to either pagans or lepers, unfit for association in either case, because of the choices they have made. Those choices, Isaiah makes clear, were made with full knowledge of the Lord’s precepts to Israel. If those had been secret, how could Isaiah have indicted the Israelites for their sins against those precepts?

Rather than seek out any divine knowledge, Jesus instead tells His disciples to put their trust and faith in the Lord by living by Jesus’ Word. “Be watchful! Be alert!” is His advice, because we “do not know when the time will come.” We should not attempt to seek out this knowledge; rather, we should demonstrate faith in the Lord and His Word by living as though the end could happen anytime. There could not be any clearer instruction on the folly of attempts to divine the end, especially because of what it hints at — an effort to garner an advantage over others, and perhaps even a rationale for infidelity.

Besides, we already know the true ending. Christ’s resurrection and ascension mean He has triumphed over our sinfulness and delivered eternal life to those who trust in His way. The rest is just scene-setting and our own free will decision to follow Him. If we truly trust in Jesus — which is the active form of faith — we don’t need to know anything more. It will make no difference when the Master returns, because we will have already worked to remain in fidelity to Him.

As Paul writes in his first letter to the fractious Corinthians, this is the entire point of faith. The Holy Spirit has already bestowed all of the necessary spiritual gifts to the church in Corinth for their salvation. If they trust in Christ, the Holy Spirit “will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We do not need to read to the end of the book to find out that specific date. We are not called to know the day or the hour, because we do not need to know that for our salvation. In a way, we have already read the back of the book, and know that the Lord prevails. All we need to do now is read the rest of it and live by it, asking for His grace to allow us to persevere, and to trust in the Lord until our time comes.


The front page image is a detail from Christ and His Disciples on Their Way to Emmaus, by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, 16th century.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.