The Parable of the Thief in the Night (Matt 24:42-44)

After is conflict in the Temple, Jesus goes to the Mount of Olives and answers some questions about the end of the age.  Over the next few posts I will make some comments on the parables in Matthew 24-25, hopefully setting them more clearly in the world of the Second Temple.

This parable is often mis-applied to the Rapture of the church.  Likely as not this is a result of the use of verses 40-41 in the popular and oft-covered “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” by Larry Norman.  Two people are working in a field, one gets raptured and the other is left behind to the horrors of the Tribulation.  To my shame, I have played that song a hundred times and used it to illustrate the rapture. Sadly, Larry got this one mixed up.  Not that I am anti Larry Norman, nor am I anti-rapture, but this sort of muddled thinking about the Thief in the Night metaphor was popular in the late 1960’s, and it clearly is alive and well today.

This parable is consistent with the rest of Jesus’ parables of judgment.  Jesus is talking about the harvest of the day of the Lord, when people will be separated into the prepared and unprepared, the righteous and the wicked, those who are “in the kingdom” and “those who are not in the Kingdom.”

Jesus begins this short parable with two commands are in this paragraph: Watch and be ready.  The reason is that there is no one who knows when the Son of Man will come in judgment.  This is obvious from 24:36-38.  No one in the days of Noah knew the judgment of the flood was coming until the flood came.  They lived normal lives oblivious to the coming judgment.  The image of the “days of Noah” does not mean that the world will be wicked before the return of the Lord, but rather that people will be totally unaware of the coming judgment.  Noah was ready, he knew the judgment was coming and he prepared for it.  The rest of the world was unaware until it was too late.

The parable of the thief in the night makes this clear.  If the owner of the house knows a thief is coming, he stays awake to catch him (probably prepared with a weapon to defend his property!)  An unusual element of this mini-parable is that Jesus is represented by the Thief.  It is the thief that is coming suddenly and without warning, but the householder knows that he is coming sometime in the night so he is prepared.  The person who is unaware the thief is coming goes to be and is robbed.

Notice the householder is “awake” – a regular metaphor for spiritual alertness.  Those who will be “in the kingdom” are spiritual awake and alert, aware that the judgment is near.  The opposite of this would be people who are asleep, dreaming that they are awake.  My guess that in any American church of significant size, there are a good many people who are asleep, spiritually, dreaming that they are right with God and ready to meet the Son of Man.  Like an unprepared householder, they are in for a surprise on that glorious day!