In the previous post, A Reflection On Parousia, a part of the commentary text was left untouched on purpose. The uncommented part is quite important and deserves special attention. You can consider this post a continuation of that commentary. Please know that by no means is this a complete consideration of Matthew 24. That part of the Gospel has been analyzed by hundreds of faithful Christian writers of all times and it keeps giving good fruit. That abundance in itself is the imprint of its divine origin, the thing is almost infinite.
In that post we said:
“Jesus gives the last and more important sign: the appearance of a disgusting abomination standing where it ought not: in the place of God. Our Lord reminds us of the prophet Daniel. Here we find a stunning parenthetical phrase “let the reader understand” that feels like Christ turning his face and speaking through the centuries to us, the readers who will see the abomination arise. He asks us to “understand” to have the intelligence and perspicuity to dive deep into his words. When you or I read this part of the Gospel, Jesus is talking to us personally .”
Let the reader understand
Jesus presents us the type and antitype at the same time. Surely he does not want to confuse us but to express something important, something that we have to understand in its full depth. This is my personal and very limited attempt. We have two events to consider: First, the last days of the Hasmonean order in Judea before the invasion by Rome and second, the future cataclysm represented by that event. This last part occurs in the future but the type is not completely separated from the antitype but seems to be its reflection. To use the ingenious method of Andrea Cionci, let us see these two elements as one thing. The ancient reality is reflected in the fulfillment of the prophecy but it is also part of it. One can compare that to an object reflected in a mirror. Both the object and the reflection in the mirror are part of a larger reality. If the object is removed, its reflection disappears as well and the larger reality composed of object and reflection is altered.
I believe Jesus is presenting us with a reality that extends from the days of the first century A.D. to our days, “let the reader use discernment” because this is not an ordinary parable. Besides, this is a parable we must understand to save our lives. We are “in it” and action is required of us.
‘So when you see the desolating abomination [or sacrilege] standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; someone on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath. (Matthew 24:15-20)
The warning is addressed to the remnant of Israel, the inhabitants of Judea. We can reasonably infer that firstly, because the prophet Daniel is quoted and, because the advise is to “flee to the mountains”. That is a clear local and contemporary warning. For those who believe in Jesus there is instruction to pray that their flight won’t happen in the sabbath or in winter. Pregnant women and families with small children must be particularly alert because groups moving slowly must be ready to gain time when time is of the essence. Workers afield, travelers far from home must be alert also. They are asked not to mind their possessions at home and flee for their lives from the spot where the sudden tribulation finds them. This is advice to preserve life. The whole paragraph shouts: “Save your soul!”
For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. (Matthew 24: 21-22)
The great suffering described here truly came to pass for those in Judea. The siege of Jerusalem was terrible and there are some that report the besieged resorting to cannibalism for survival. The utter destruction of the Temple, a great building, a national glory must have been a devastating blow to the nation’s pride. Nearly a million were sold as slaves regardless of their position in society. When Romans wanted to set an example they were notorious for the humiliations inflicted on the conquered.
The second part of the Roman invasion, led by Titus Vespasianus mirrored the Babylonian invasion of 588 B.C. One can imagine the horror of the people of Judea when the Romans breached the wall on the 17th day of the month of Tamuz. That was the exact date, the anniversary of the first breaching of the wall by the Babylonian troops 658 years earlier. The coincidence confirmed that the nation was at fault before God. The invisible hand of God was orchestrating their punishment. When the Temple fell on the 9th day of Av there was no need to seek further confirmation: the despised Romans, “the pigs” were God’s weapon of choice to chastise His people. The lucky ones fell, some committed suicide like those guarding the garrison of Masada. For those left there was only the expectation of slavery and exile. The land will be left desolated for twenty centuries until Jews return to Judea after going through yet another awful experience: the Shoah.
The suffering was indeed great for Israel and the days were cut short for the sake of those Christians living in Jerusalem and surrounding areas. Jerusalem was surrounded by the legions of Cestius Gallus in 66 A.D. but those legions left after a short siege. They were needed in Rome where great political changes required their intervention. When Cestius Gallus left, the Jewish nationalists believed a miracle had happened. But Christians knew better. They remembered Christ’s warning.
‘When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. (Luke 21:20)
The Christians heeded Christ’s instructions and left the city for good. That is why there were no followers of Christ living in Jerusalem when the Romans returned in 70 A.D. This may very well be a lesson for us. The great tribulations coming upon this world may be eased or interrupted at one point to allow Christians to take refuge, perhaps far from cities, or in some hiding place providentially provided.
Then if anyone says to you, “Look! Here is the Messiah!” or “There he is!”—do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. Take note, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, “Look! He is in the wilderness”, do not go out. If they say, “Look! He is in the inner rooms”, do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. (Matthew 24: 23-28)
Apostasy, false doctrines, idolatry, etc. appeared throughout the history of Israel. Jesus warns the disciples that such distractions will happen and must be avoided. The objective of the enemy is to mislead the elect and lead them into perdition. We have to be careful not to be too enthusiastic when it comes to believing the promises of charismatic politicians or any other solution to human problems that involve a form of cult of personality, etc. Our party, our ultimate solution is Christ and we know He has come to us already.
The points Jesus mentions in his warning are suggestive: from “the wilderness” to “the inner rooms” is the first set of extremes. Misleading options may come from plain people or from those in the inner circles of power but Christ compares his parousia to the lightning that goes from east to west illuminating the landscape. Like a corpse attracts the vultures, Christ will attract the elect who can rise, those who have no fear of the heights of truth. Perhaps the “gory allegory” is meant to call our attention to the Eucharist. To both sides of the world , east and west, and then from the heights where vultures fly to the depths where corpses are laid Christ will be with us no matter where we are when the time comes.
The parable begins with what appears to be a type or model: the end of the Mosaic order. The Temple falls but Christ rises from the dead and a new age begins. The battle however continues. The New Israel, the Church enters history and fulfills the universal destiny that Jerusalem declined to accept when rejecting Christ. The drama presented to us extends beyond the model seen in the first century until our days. Today, the parable is about to close, the conclusion is at hand. Soon we will understand it completely by experiencing an even more terrible tribulation. A new age with a New Jerusalem comes for those who dare to follow Christ no matter where He goes.