Sunday, November 28, 2010

"One will be taken, the other left"


The Gospel reading today on this first Sunday of Advent was taken from Luke 17:26-35

And as it came to pass in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. They did eat and drink, they married wives and were given in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise as it came to pass in the days of Lot. They did eat and drink, they bought and sold, they planted and built. And in the day that Lot went out of Sodom, it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man shall be revealed. In that hour, he that shall be on the housetop, and his goods  Two women shall be grinding together. The one shall be taken and the other shall be left. Two men shall be in the field. The one shall be taken and the other shall be left in the house, let him not go down to take them away: and he that shall be in the field, in like manner, let him not return back. Remember Lot's wife. Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose it shall preserve it. I say to you: In that night there shall be two men in one bed. The one shall be taken and the other shall be left (Douay).

Anyone who has dealt with pre-millennialist evangelicals before knows that these verses are cited in support of the Rapture doctrine, which is adhered to by a large number of American evangelical Protestants. Specifically, verses about one being taken and another left. The implication as that this "taking" refers to the Rapture. Those who are "taken" are the faithful who are raptured away, while those who are "left" are the unfortunate reprobate who are "left behind" at the time of the Tribulation.

There was a time in my life, as a teenager, when I subscribed to this interpretation of Luke 17, of course never realizing that I was reading Scripture through a particular evangelical lens, one that was foreign to the Fathers and the Saints. A quick survey of some of the Fathers on this verse will cast some light on how it was interpreted.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem suggests that the verse speaks of the Lord's rewarding of even the smallest good deed at the time of the Judgment, following our Lord's teaching in Matthew 10:42 ("And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward"), that He will not overlook the good deeds of the righteous on the Day of Judgment be they ever so lowly. St. Cyril says:
But some one present will say, “I am a poor man,” or again, “I shall perhaps be found at that time sick in bed;” or, “I am but a woman, and I shall be taken at the mill: shall we then be despised?” Be of good courage, O man; the Judge is no respecter of persons; He will not judge according to a man’s appearance, nor reprove according to his speech. He honours not the learned before the simple, nor the rich before the needy. Though thou be in the field, the Angels shall take thee; think not that He will take the landowners, and leave thee the husbandman. Though thou be a slave, though thou be poor, be not any whir distressed; He who took the form of a servant despises not servants. Though thou be lying sick in bed, yet it is written, Then shall two be in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Though thou be of compulsion put to grind, whether thou be man or woman; though thou be in fetters , and sit beside the mill, yet He who by His might bringeth out them that are bound, will not overlook thee (Catechetical Lectures, XV:23).
Thus, those who are "taken" are taken in the sense that the Angels confess their good deeds before the Father, those whose "works follow them" (Rev. 14:13) while those who are "left" are those who are passed over because, despite their great titles or impressive speech, "had not charity" and thus have no reward from God. St. John Chrysostom seems to be in agreement with St. Cyril here. He says:
When these things then are done, then also will be the voice of the Archangel shouting and commanding the Angels, and the trumpets, or rather the sound of the trumpet. What trembling then, what fear will possess those that remain upon the earth. For one woman is caught up and another is left behind, and one man is taken, and another is passed over. What will be the state of their souls, when they see some indeed taken up, but themselves left behind? Will not these things be able to shake their souls more terribly than any hell? (Homily VIII).
Notice, however, that Chrysostom and Cyril both apply this verse to the very end of time, the Second Coming of Christ and the General Resurrection, not at some time prior to the Second Coming, as the advocates of the Rapture doctrine would have us believe. Chrysostom, just prior to the verse cited, places this "taking" at the same moment as the Resurrection. He says of this "taking":
For when they see the earth agitated, the dust mingling, the bodies rising perchance on every side, no one ministering to this, but the “shout” being sufficient, the whole earth filled (for consider how great a thing it is that all the men from Adam unto His coming shall then stand with wives and children),—when they see so great a tumult upon the earth,—then they shall know. As therefore in the Dispensation that was in the Flesh, they had foreseen nothing of it, so also will it then be (ibid).
The important distinction to understand is that, for Chrysostom, Cyril, and the majority of the Fathers who interpret these verses from Luke in an eschatological sense, the "taking" of the elect is a metahistorical event that occurs at the very close of history, concurrent with the Second Coming of Christ and the Resurrection. This is opposed to the modern Rapture doctrine which sees this "taking" as an event that occurs within history and prior to the Second Coming.

St. Augustine takes a different approach to the verse. He applies the concept of "one taken the other left" to the current age, that is, after the Lord's Ascension when the Gospel is preached and the elect from the nations. The "one taken one left" verses are to be understood in the sense of the calling of the elect out of the nations, as our Lord meant when He said in Luke 12:52-53: "
From now on there will be five members in a family, each one against the other. There will be three against two and two against three. They will be separated. Father will turn against son and son against father. Mother will turn against daughter and daughter against mother. Mother-in-law will turn against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law." Hence, those who are "taken" are those who repent of their sins and leave the world, even as Abraham left Ur or Lot left Sodom. He says in De Doctrina Christiana:
[O]ur Lord says in the gospel: “The same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire from heaven, and destroyed them all. Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed. In that day, he which shall be upon the house-top, and his stuff in the house, let him not come down to take it away; and he back. Remember Lot’s wife.” Is it when our Lord shall have been revealed that men are to give heed to these sayings, and not to look behind them, that is, not to long after the past life which they have renounced? (De Doctrina Christiana, Chap. XXXVI).
So we see that while St. Cyril adopts an eschatological reading of the verse, Augustine takes a more ecclesiological approach. I think, however, that these verses ought to be interpreted in a more eschatological light - a good argument in favor of this, regardless of what the Fathers say, is their placement  in the  liturgical cycle during Advent, during the time of year when eschatological readings are typically done.

Chrysostom, in the same homily quoted earlier, offers another take on the verse when he seems to connect those who are "taken" not with the elect, but with those under judgment; just as those in Noah's day were "taken" by the Flood, so the wicked will be "taken" by the "deluge of hell" that comes upon the wicked:
You have heard of the deluge. And were those things also said by way of threat? Did they not actually happen? Those men too said many such things, and for a hundred years while the ark was building, and the wood was being wrought, and the righteous man was calling aloud, there was no one who believed. But because they did not believe the threat in words, they suffered the punishment in very deed. And this will be our fate too, if we shall not have believed. On this account it is that He compares His coming with the days of Noah, because as some disbelieved in that deluge, so will they in the deluge of hell. Were these things a threat? were they not a fact? Then will not He, who then brought punishment upon them so suddenly, much more inflict it now also? For the things that are committed now are not less than the offenses of that time (Homily VIII).
This makes sense, too. After all, in the Flood it was the wicked, not the righteous, who were "taken." Also in the Exodus - the Egyptian army was "taken away" in the Red Sea while the Hebrews were left. At the time of the Babylonian captivity, the Jews were punished by being "taken"; only the humble and the poor were left in the land. Therefore, it seems not unreasonable to see those who are "taken" as being those who are under judgment.

Suffice it to say there is no real patristic consensus on the precise meaning of these verses, as far as I can tell. However, St. Thomas in his Catena Aurea on Luke 17 quotes extensively from Bede, Ambrose, Eusebius, Theophylact and Augustine, who all are in general agreement that those who are taken are the righteous, while those who are left are the unrighteous. However, intepretations on this verse differed wildly, some tending towards a more allegorical approach (Augustine, Ambrose, Cyril) and others a more literal, eschatological intepretation (Theophylact, Eusebius, Bede). You can read the Catena Aurea for Luke 17 here

Despite the variation of opinion on these verses, those Fathers who do ascribe an eschatological meaning to them do not do so in the spirit of the pre-millennialists, who place this "taking away" in history as the beginning of a seven year Tribulation. Rather, this "taking" occurs at the eschatological culmination of history - it is at the end of time, when the mountains fly away and the sky has been rolled up like a scroll (Isa. 34:4, Rev. 6:14); it is a metahistorical event that takes place concurrently with the Second Coming of Christ and the General Resurrection. The Fathers knew nothing of any idea of a Rapture in the manner that the pre-millennialists of today hold.

As we begin this season of Advent, it behooves us to meditate on the Church's eschatological tradition, that in reflecting upon and expressing gratitude for Christ's first coming, we might find our souls in a greater state of preparation for His Second.

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2 comments:

Ben said...

All respect to the Fathers, but I can't for the life of me see how someone would connect "the taken" with the elect, when the context clearly connects "the taken" with those taken by the flood, i.e. the damned.

BONIFACE said...

Ben-

I don't think it is that out of context...there are two ways of reading it. Either "taken" pertains to judgment, as you and others suggest, or it pertains to deliverance, as some of the Fathers suggest. If it pertains to judgment, then we ought to read "taken" in the same sense as in Luke 17:27, when the Flood came and "took" the unrighteous away, which is the immediate context of the verse. If we say it pertains to deliverance, it is in the same context as used by St. Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 when he says the elect are "caught up", or taken up, to be with the Lord at the Second Coming. This is a taking of deliverance.

The context of Luke 17 seems to be as you say - although you could also say, with regards to the Flood, that it was Noah who was "taken" and the sinners who were "left behind," depending on how you view it. The view of the Fathers is far from unanimous; I only gave a few quotes.