"Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left." - Matthew 24:40-41
"I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left." - Luke 17:34-35
In my theological immaturity, I accepted Darby's dispensational interpretation of the "left behind" passage in light of I Thessalonians 4.
"For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever." - I Thessalonians 4:16-17
Accordingly, the "taken ones" are raptured away from impending judgment at Christ's second coming and the ones "left behind" face the horrors of the impending tribulation.
But now, a more literal reading of the "left behind" passage raises a simpler, but even more profound question. Are the "ones taken" escaping judgment and the ones "left behind" facing it? Or, is the opposite true - are some "taken" to judgment and those "left behind" avoiding a similar fate? Or, equally likely, do both those "taken" and those "left behind" face the same sure, swift, sudden, and complete judgment that Jesus has repeatedly pronounced. After all, the immediate context is that the entire generation goes on heedless of the looming judgment - eating, drinking, marrying, and giving in marriage.
The larger interpretational issue - at least as I see it - is: What is the guiding metaphor - the image in such common currency among Jesus' contemporaries - that provides the interpretive framework for this saying. There are two likely candidates: (1) the "division of souls" at the last day or (2) the military theme of the invading army and exiled people.
The "division of souls" is one of the most repeated themes of Jesus' kingdom teachings. Nations are divided right and left, the sheep from the goats. In the last day, some will experience a baptism of the Spirit - that great final eschatological outpouring foreseen by Joel - while others receive a baptism of fire (the fire of judgment, in context - "Now is the axe laid to the root of the tree. Every tree that does not bring forth good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire."). If this image stands behind the ones "taken" - the ones "left behind" dichotomy, someone is surely facing judgment, while others are escaping it.
The specter of the invading army and the brutal disruption of exile was one of the dominant collective memories of post-exilic Judaism - not unlike the Holocaust for contemporary Jews. The rumblings of military conquest - the military might of the Roman armies, enforcing the Pax Romana with the edge of the sword - is everywhere apparent in the collections of Jesus' apocalyptic sayings - Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, Luke 17 and especially Luke 21. If this image serves as the framework for the "left behind" passage, then those who are "taken" face the brutality of exile, while those "left behind" are spared this immediate indignity, but face the bitterness of defeat nevertheless.
What do you think? Is Jesus arguing that some will face judgment while others escape in this passage? Or do all face the certainty of military defeat and God's judgment alike?