Left Behind?

A great sermon in church yesterday for the 1st Sunday in Advent, on Matthew 24.36-44.  At its heart was an interpretretation of Matt. 24.40-41 that I confess I had never properly encountered before.  Here is the text

Matthew 24.40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

Matthew 24.40 τότε δύο ἔσονται ἐν τῷ ἀγρῷ, εἷς παραλαμβάνεται καὶ εἷς ἀφίεται·  41 δύο ἀλήθουσαι ἐν τῷ μύλῳ, μία παραλαμβάνεται καὶ μία ἀφίεται.

Robert suggested (this is my memory of his words) almost in passing that the contrast with the Noah story in the preceding verses (drawn explicitly by means of the οὕτως in 24.39) implies that those left behind are the ones who are saved, whereas those ‘taken away’ are the equivalent of those destroyed in the flood.  On this reading the righteous are left behind on the earth (perhaps to inherit it, as Robert helpfully put it).

Why have I never noticed this way of reading the text before?  I initially assumed it was because there is overwhelming evidence in support of the traditional reading.  But checking this morning, Luz can only support it by saying that 24.31 suggests that the Son of Man will gather his chosen to a heavenly location (something which over-literalizes the visions of 24.29-31) and that there are // texts for this idea in apocalyptic literature and of course 1 Thess 4.17.  Of these texts, only John 14.3 contains the same verb as Matt 24.40-41 – but should this trump the clear parallel that exists in the Matthean context?

Davies and Allison at least mention this alternative reading, but favour the traditional interpretation for the same reasons as Luz, noting additionally that Matthew uses the language of ‘leaving’ to mean abandon (e.g. 4.20, 22) and the language of ‘taking’ to imply being taken to safety (e.g. several times in the birth stories of Matt. 2).  They also state that "those ‘taken’ (into the ark) are saved while those left behind perish" (volume 3, p.383) – an argument from silence in so far as Matthew does not use paralambano in 24.37-39.  Nolland adds nothing to these arguments.

But R. T. France in his new NICNT volume suggests that the ‘left behind = salvation’ reading is ‘probably the more likely sense here’  (p.941) – noting how 24.17-18 imply threat rather than rescue (as does the Noah comparison in 24.37-39) and that paralambano is used in 27.27 in a negative sense.  He also mentioned GThom 61.  The same footnote mentions that N. T. Wright also holds this view (so, why didn’t I ever pick this up from him – duh!) and there is a good discussion in Alistair I. Wilson’s monograph, When Will These Things Happen?.

Anyway, for what it is worth, I am persuaded for the time being that Matthew intends those who are left behind are those who are saved.  That puts the kibosh on a whole section of the contemporary church scene, not to mention a multi-million dollar publishing industry.  At the very least, the debate illustrates something of the reality of textual ambiguity and indeterminacy in the Bible that too many people are too happy to ignore.

I now wait for the Google searches that will, hopefully, bring thousands to visit this post before they get to this nonsense.