Jesus and Noah

jesus and noah

 A reflection on the Gospel passage Matthew 24: 37-44, where Jesus uses the example of Noah and the Flood as a warning for people to be ready for the Lord's coming.

This is also the Gospel reading from the Lectionary for the 1st Sunday of Advent, Year A.

Matthew 24: 37-44

And as in the days of Noah, so shall be the coming of the Son of man. For, as in the days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, even till that day on which Noah entered into the ark: And they knew nothing till the flood came and took them all away:  so also shall be the coming of the Son of man. Then two shall be in the field.  One shall be taken and one shall be left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill.  One shall be taken and one shall be left. Watch therefore, because you do not know at what hour your Lord will come. But know this, that if the master of the house knew at what hour the thief would come, he would certainly watch and would not suffer his house to be broken into. Therefore you also should be ready, because you do not know at what hour the Son of man will come.

This is one of many passages in the Gospels that have the theme, 'Be ready!' Jesus uses different parables to highlight this message, and here he uses a reference to an Old Testament story. Let's take the opportunity to explore the significance of Noah and the Flood.

Jesus and Noah (37-41)

1. Jesus draws a parallel between the case of Noah and the Flood, and of himself, the Son of Man, coming in the fullness of time. Why did Jesus make this comparison between himself and Noah? What are we meant to learn from it?

2. To set the scene we need to go back and look at the story of Noah. Why did God decide to destroy the earth in a great flood? In the beginning of Genesis we hear how God created the man and the woman in perfect goodness and happiness, set to live in a paradise. But tragically they turned away from God. They lost paradise. God had created everything, and “indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31), but now it was all falling apart. By the time we get to the story of Noah we see God regretting he had ever created us.

And God, seeing that the wickedness of men was great on the earth, and that all the thought of their hearts was always bent upon evil, regretted that he had made man on the earth. (Genesis 6: 5-6)

The wonderful project for which God had such great hopes and plans was fatally compromised. So what were God’s options? What would we have done in God’s place?

God said: “I will destroy man, whom I have created, from the face of the earth, man and beasts as well, from the creeping things even to the birds of the air, for I regret that I have made them”. But Noah found grace before the Lord. (Genesis 6: 7-8)

We all know the feeling of seeing things in a hopeless mess and wanting to wipe the slate clean and start over.

It’s like sitting down to try and untangle a knot of string. At first you try to patiently tease out each tight knot, but you eventually despair, throw up your hands and go and get a pair of scissors!

So it seems as though God felt like that and decided to destroy everything on the earth. He had tried to get the human race off to a good start, with Adam and Eve, but that plan failed. Although everything seemed to have run off the rails, perhaps it was not all bad? Perhaps God could start over?

3. Indeed, right on cue, we hear that “Noah found grace before the Lord”. So the flood was not to be the end of everything. God had found one just man, Noah, someone who could be the founder of a ‘new humanity’. Where Adam failed, perhaps Noah would succeed? Once all the evil had been destroyed Noah could be the ‘new Adam’. So he commissioned Noah to build an ark for his family, to save them from the flood. Since everything else would also be destroyed on account of human sin, Noah would also need to take on the ark enough of the animals so that the rest of creation too could be re-established.

So, how did it all work out? At first, it seemed to work. Once the flood had subsided, and Noah and his family came off the ark, the first thing Noah did was to build an altar and offer a sacrifice to the Lord. God was pleased, and he said:

And the Lord smelled a sweet savour, and said:  “I will no more curse the earth for the sake of man:  for the imagination and thought of man's heart are prone to evil from his youth:  therefore I will no more destroy every living soul as I have done. All the days of the earth, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, night and day, shall not cease”. (Genesis 8: 21-22)

Then, just as he had said to Adam, God said to Noah: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1).

4. But almost straight away discord, pride and division returned. It seems that, having turned from God in the beginning, people now cannot help themselves, but unavoidably keep doing the wrong thing, and as God recognised, “…the imagination and thought of man's heart are prone to evil from his youth”. So what could God do? And why did he promise not to send another flood?

In the first place, it would be futile.

If God did start over, again, like with Noah, what would prevent things from going off the rails a third time? Or a fourth? Or a fifth? And on indefinitely. Where does that leave God’s plan?

Is God stuck, continually refounding Project Humanity, but with no ultimate solution that would ‘stick’. God realised that there was a deeper problem. It would need, not just a new plan, but a new kind of plan.

5. We have already seen the first part of God’s new plan.

Step One. God would not destroy everything and start over but would allow good and evil to ‘coexist’ until the time was right.

This theme is repeated, and developed, in the bible in different ways. For example, a bit later in Genesis we see the story of Abraham interceding with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah. God had decided to destroy them because of the great evil there.

And drawing nigh, he [Abraham] said:  "Will you destroy the just with the wicked? If there be fifty just men in the city, shall they perish with the rest?  And will you not spare that place for the sake of the fifty just, if there be any?" (Genesis 18: 23-24)

God had earlier promised not to destroy the whole of the earth on account of evil, but what about one or two places that were particularly evil? Did his new plan cover that? So we see Abraham ‘testing’ God, trying to find out what were the limits of God’s mercy. Eventually Abraham ‘bargains’ God down to a mere ten just people.

"I beseech you", [Abraham] said, "be not angry, Lord, if I speak once more:  What if only ten shall be found there?"  And God said:  "I will not destroy it for the sake of ten." (Genesis 18:32)

A Parable

As we can see, God’s mercy is being revealed as deeper than we might have thought. We can find this same message expressed in Matthew’s Gospel in another way.

Another parable [Jesus] proposed to them, saying: "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while all were asleep, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went his way. And when the blade was sprung up, and had brought forth fruit, then appeared also the weeds. And the servants of the good man of the house coming said to him. 'Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field?  Where then have these weeds come from?' And he said to them: 'An enemy has done this.' And the servants said to him: 'Do you want us to go and gather it up?' And he said: 'No, lest perhaps gathering up the weeds, you root up the wheat also together with it. Let them both grow until the harvest, and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers: Gather up first the weeds, and bind them into bundles to burn, but the wheat gather into my barn'." (Mt 13: 24-30)

Now we see how thorough-going is God’s intention not to destroy anything good for the sake of punishing evil. But is there no limit? We now need to look towards the second part of God’s new plan. There was no point washing everything away over and over again in a futile series of floods. But there still needed to be at least one more flood, because there was still sin needing to be cleansed from the earth. The flood is the symbol of the consequences of sin. Even God cannot set all that at nought, because love cannot be forced. If some people choose to reject God then God is ultimately powerless to stop them.

So God postponed this necessary flood, the Final Judgement, until the end, instead of trying to punish every wrong-doing as it was happening. This would allow the maximum possible time for people to be saved. However, simply postponing judgement does not solve the problem. It opens up the space for the solution, but it is not the solution itself.

Step Two. So how exactly will the just be saved from the Final Flood? There would need to be a New Noah and a New Ark.

But who could be sent as the new Noah? After all, there was no human being God could count on with certainty to get it right, to be truly just. So God sent his own divine Son, one who could not possibly fail in righteousness. But he could be human. So now there is a human being who could be the new Noah and get it right once and for all.

So God commissioned Jesus to build a new ark, indeed to be the new Ark. Just as God once recognised Noah as a just man, and commissioned him to build an ark, God has recognised Jesus as the truly just man. And just as Noah could bring his family onto the ark, so Jesus can bring his family – the whole human race. Jesus is our brother, who urges us all to come with him.

If we are open, we hear Jesus’ words as a warning of danger, concerned only for our safety. If we are closed, we hear Jesus’ words as a threat.

Insofar as the Church is an effective sign of Jesus’ saving mission, we can also call the Church the ark of our salvation. Jesus commissioned his disciples to be the crew.

Q. For people who are ‘drowning’ in the troubles of life, how will they recognise in the Church something that looks like a rescue boat?

Q. For people enjoying sunny days, how do we persuade them a flood is coming?

6. The urgency of Jesus’ warning is because he sees signs that there are people who are not coming on board the ark, that is, not believing in him. This is the great danger. There might still be people left in the fields when it is too late!

7. Now the Church is the sign of God’s Kingdom, and through faith we know that everybody in the ark of the Church is being saved. Others may be saved too, but the Church is the way of certain salvation. How can Christians ensure they will be on board at the end? You could almost say that the condition for entry onto the ark is to bring someone else with you. Like the animals, we are not meant to board alone! We should at least be two by two.

Do we have to save ourselves?

When we first hear this gospel, we might start to worry that we have to build our own ark, and save ourselves. This is not our task. Only Jesus can build the new ark, and has already done so. We are the ‘dumb creatures’ he is trying to round up and bring on board! But if I am with another in the field, I should be the one trying to persuade him or her to get on the ark. Otherwise, who will be taken and who will be left?

In any case, it’s fun on the ark. We are among friends. We sing and we laugh. It is not a grim place. Sure, it’s a bit leaky and we sometimes have to spend too much time bailing out. But people should see the lights on and hear the good cheer. At times we might have to scare people onto the ark, but it is much better if they come looking for a good time, and stay to find out more. ‘Is this a cruise ship then?’ ‘Well … yes and no.’

8. If we knew a dangerous flood was coming, would we try to save only ourselves? Would we try to save only our friends? Or would we try to get everyone on the last boat out? In a natural disaster we see how many people rally round and help strangers, even putting themselves in danger for people they do not know. This is the spirit needed by Jesus’ friends, day in, day out.

Perhaps you no longer really believe in a Final Flood. But Jesus did. And who is more likely to be right? I heard a great comedy sketch one time about Noah. People ridiculed Noah preparing for a flood on a bright sunny day. They poked fun at him and had a good laugh. When God told Noah to build an ark, Noah replied, ‘Right … What’s an ark?’ He didn’t really know what he was getting himself in for, and nor do we. Anyway, maybe life is sunny now. But that is precisely the time to get ready, because once you are being taken away by the current it might be too late. The measure of our belief is Jesus’ words, not the fashionable ideas of the day.

If Jesus says there is a flood coming – it’s coming. If Jesus says, get on the ark – get on the ark!

If someone insists on staying out in the fields, what can we do? Persuade, beg, plead, stay with them till the last minute. Keep some life buoys handy. And always leave a rope trailing over the side. The sign of belief in Jesus is to love your neighbour as you love yourself. In other words, make sure your neighbour is on the ark. There will be a final end. Once God’s plan has run its course, that will be it. No more chances.

Think of the one person you most deeply desire to bring onto the ark.

Q. How exactly are you trying to do that?

The Need for Warnings

We can see now why Jesus often warned people to 'Be ready!'

It was because God had bent over backwards so far to give us all the maximum time possible to repent and believe the Gospel.

But God's mercy makes so much time available that we become complacent. Jesus gave these warnings, not because God's mercy was about to run out, but because our time is about to run out.