What does Jesus mean when he says that, when the “Son of man” comes, “two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left” (Mt 24:40-41)?
Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind books popularized the notion that this passage is a reference to “the rapture,” the taking up into the air of all true Christians before the tribulation takes place so that they can dwell in a parallel kingdom in heaven while the rest of us hapless souls struggle against the anti-Christ on earth. But, this is not Catholic teaching, and I think there is another interpretation that fits better.
Immediately before the passage cited above, Jesus makes a reference to Noah and what took place when God drowned the whole world with a flood. In many ways, that was an end-times event for everyone alive at that time. Jesus compares that event to what will take place upon the Second Coming. He says:
“As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man.” (Mt 24: 37-39)
These words of Jesus provide the context for what he says next, when he says, “two men will be the field, one is taken and one is left,” and so on. This means that, just as the wicked in Noah’s time were “swept away,” one will be “taken,” and just as Noah’s family was spared, the other will be “left.” This passage we are investigating does not refer to some being raptured and others being “left behind.” Instead, it means that, when Jesus comes, some will have their life taken from them, and others will live. This is the effect of the General Judgment, which the Church says all men will experience when the Son of Man finally comes again.
This passage also means that our "day", the end of our time here, does not always come when we expect it. God may call us home even amid the mundane chores of every day life (working in the field, grinding at the mill, etc.). Jesus’ words remind us that we must always be ready, for “of that day and hour no one knows” (Mt 24:36).
As with every difficult Scripture passage, it is important to utilize the context of the passage, and to always read Scripture with the mind of the Church. During this season of Advent, let’s make sure that we are making ourselves ready so that on “the day of Christ Jesus,” we will be found fit to live forever with Him.