As a child, I was reading Matthew’s versions of these sayings (Luke 12.35-40 and the like…) and the natural reading was~ ‘Something really scary is going to drop out of the 20th (now 21st) Century sky, catch you just sitting there fooling around, and if you aren’t doing right, at that moment, are you ever going to be sorry!’ No telling when– or what to expect. I’d say people have been reading such passages in that sense from at least the time of Constantine, probably earlier. Certainly we’ve got Paul (& also the writer of Revelation) predicting that Jesus would come back, wake the dead, judge the Powers of the world (at least) and vindicate his followers “soon”. So that must have been an expectation of many early Christians, as well.
NT Wright makes better sense of the 1st Century context. Jesus comes to Jerusalem, to the Temple, as an embodiment of prophecies (explicit in Malachi 3.1->) that “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His Temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of Hosts. (etc.)
The “Little Apocalypse” in Mark, when the disciples are asking “When will these things be?”– and Jesus is near the Temple talking about Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, about “not one stone left on another”– That isn’t about “the end of the world” (though it will look like it to many Jews of the time); it’s a slightly later prediction, based on what he finds there, of the destruction of the Temple. Which happened,
The return of ‘the Master’? Wright says [about a similar parable]:
“The king who leaves his subjects tasks to perform, and who then returns to see how they have got on, has of course regularly been read as a code for Jesus going away and, in due course, returning. The servants are then Jesus’ followers, who will be judged on their performance, in his absence…. [but]
“First, in most parables about a king and subjects, or a master and servants, the king or master stands for Israel’s God and the subjects or servants for Israel and/or her leaders or prophets. This is so both in Jesus’ teaching and in some Jewish parables…
“Second, the idea of a king who returns after a long absence fits exactly into the context of the return of YHWH to Zion…. I suggest… that the best way to read the master/servant parables is in terms of their immediate context in all three synoptics, that is, of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.
“…although the idea of Jesus’ return (the so-called ‘second coming’ has a place in Luke’s writings, it is neither central nor major, and in any case occurs [there].. only in Acts. It looks more like a post-Easter innovation than a feature of Jesus’ own teaching.”
“It all depends on where, within the story, the hearer is supposed to be located. It has usually been assumed, quite gratuitously, that the story is told from the perspective of the beginning of the process, when the master is going away. But is far more likely, in view of the emphasis of the parable, that the ‘ideal hearer’ [of Jesus’ time] is located near the end of the story, when the master is about to return.
“the right way to take this whole kaleidoscopic sequence of parables is as further stories about the imminent return of YHWH to Zion, and the awesome consequences which will ensue if Israel is not ready.” [as in: judgment on the rulers of Jesus’ day, destruction of the land, the city, the Temple for example…]
The quote in Jesus’ trial, about “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of Heaven”?– The reference in Daniel is clearly to a symbolic event: the end of those human-man world-kingdoms symbolized there by the four beasts, the beginning of rule by a humane being. An outcome still in the future, alas!
Are we, then, to expect a Second Coming, of the sort I imagined?
Fireworks. Wailing, gnashing of teeth. A sudden realization of “Ooops, I really shouldn’t have been doing that a moment ago! Dammit, I’m on my way now– When do I get my accordion?”
It’s good to keep in mind that God has not gone away, that we should maintain an alert expectation that whatever we do may be On The Exam.
Or that, as Stephen Gaskin put it, “the operation of the Law of Karma is like a man taking a full swing at a golf ball in a small tiled bathroom.” God is not vindictive, is not sneaking up to catch us out– but any little character flaw will certainly need to be fixed, or it will make us sorry!
But if we begin alertly expecting the presence of God… not just omnipresence (which is always, logically speaking, with us) but the ongoing, recognized activity of God at work in and around us– Who knows what further miracles this world will see in the coming future?