Text Study for Luke 21:1-37 (Pt. 1); November 28, 2021

More Than a Rerun

Haven’t we seen this movie before? Like, two weeks ago? Yes, indeed, we are back in Apocalyptic Discourse territory as we begin the season of Advent and our year-long journey through the Gospel of Luke. We have a sort of “liturgical sandwich” at this time every year, the bread being two versions of the Synoptic Apocalyptic Discourse and the filling being some version of the Christ the King lection. But this is much more than a rerun.

My first exegetical course at Wartburg Theological Seminary in the fall of 1979 was “Luke’s Revision of Mark,” taught by Dr. Ray Martin. My experience of detailed textual analysis was love at first sight. In that class, we began this exploration of Luke’s “revision” by comparing the Markan Apocalyptic Discourse with Luke’s version and discerning the differences. A bit of that will be useful for our conversation as well.

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I will use the NRSV translation for the sake of simplicity except where translation details are critical. I’ll put some of the relevant verses here to illustrate our conversation.

“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. ‘As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations.” (Mark 13:8-10)

“Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. ‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify.” (Luke 21:10-13)

The Markan account declares that the political upheaval, social chaos, and natural disasters will take place in the experience of the audience. This experience is, therefore, “but the beginning of the birth pangs.” The Lukan account offers a similar inventory of upheaval, chaos, and disaster. However, “before all this occurs,” the various persecutions will take place along with the opportunities for testimony. This is not a subtle distinction but is, rather, a major difference.

This attention to detail reveals that the Markan account and the Lukan account speak to very different locations in history. The Markan account was performed, perhaps, during the Jewish War of 66 to 70 CE. It was transcribed into written form at that time or shortly after. The Markan audiences likely expected that the End of the Age would follow soon after that traumatic and terrorizing destruction. The Markan script is composed accordingly.

The expected End of the Age, however, did not arrive immediately. The Lukan account is written (and it is very clearly a written document) some twenty to twenty-five years after Jerusalem was reduced to rubble and hundreds of thousands of Judean residents were killed – either by the Romans or by one another.

This historical lapse has often been referred to as “The Delay of the Parousia.” Whether that’s the real problem for the Lukan account or not is an issue that will occupy us off and on for the next year. But evidence regarding the concern over this delay shows up in Luke’s editing of the Markan Little Apocalypse.

The questions facing the Lukan communities may sound eerily similar to our contemporary ears. When will this all be over? When can we “get back to normal?” When can we stop thinking about all this pain and sadness? Why aren’t things working out the way we expected they would? What do we do with all of this grief and sadness, this terror and trauma?

In other words, one of the Lukan questions is “Now what?”

Eleven years ago yesterday (as I write this post), I gave permission for the life-supporting equipment to be removed from my first wife. After an unexpected, devastating, and brief illness, she demonstrated no brain activity and no possibility of improvement. Her other systems were beginning to shut down, and I told the physicians and nurses to do what needed doing. We had a service of prayer during the removal, and I felt some measure of “closure.”

Nothing much happened after the removal except for the breathing pattern that indicated my wife of thirty-one years was in the process now of dying on her own. I was certainly naïve in my perceptions of what was happening. I was surprised the next morning when the clinical director on the ICU unit tracked me down and rather unceremoniously demanded of me, “What do you plan to do now?”

At first, I didn’t understand the question. She tried it again. “Your wife is no longer receiving care. This is an ICU, not a nursing home or hospice unit. So, what do you plan to do now?” I stepped back and took a breath. “I plan for my wife to die,” I said with both pain and anger. To flip to the end of the story, we arranged for my wife to be brought home under hospice care where she died two days later.

What do you plan to do now? I think that is a nearly impossible question for traumatized people, especially when we haven’t really processed the trauma in any way. And yet, the answer is critical to survival and moving forward. I do wish the clinical professional had simply taken the time to lay out my options without the implied accusation of irresponsibility. And I did share that both with that professional and the unit manager. Perhaps that part of the process improved a bit.

But despite the somewhat ham-fisted approach I experienced, the question was critical. And someone needed to both raise and address the question. The writer of Luke’s gospel is trying to answer that question for people who thought the end was near and that things would just unfold. When they didn’t just unfold, the trauma remained without any clear direction for managing it.

We might think that twenty-five years is a long time to hang on to such trauma. Why didn’t they just “get over it” and move on? Let’s think for a few moments about historic traumas in our own experience. In the United States we recently memorialized the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers. I know that for many people, those memories seem nearly as fresh and as painful as they did on the first anniversary of those attacks.

Twenty years is a relatively short time as historical trauma memory goes. The Massacre at Wounded Knee in South Dakota took place in 1890. But the horror and outrage that go with that event are as fresh as ever for Native Americans across the United States. The Tulsa Race Riot took place a hundred years ago. But only in the last few years have White Americans even begun to notice the reality of that abomination.

We continue to live through the trauma of the Covid-19 pandemic. I wonder how long it will take us to begin to process the trauma of this time in American history, or if we ever will.

What do we do now? More to the point, how do we get through it all? The answers we find in the Markan and Lukan accounts differ in this regard as well. “[A]nd you will be hated by all because of my name,” the Markan composer writes, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13). The Lukan differences are significant: “You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls” (Luke 21:17-19).

In the Markan composition, the one who patiently endures to the conclusion or goal or purpose of the upheavals will be “saved” (or “healed,” depending on how you might read the verb). The Markan composer offers us a fairly simple, “Hang in there, there end is in sight!”). The writer of Luke’s gospel doesn’t have that luxury. The “end” is no longer in sight.

Instead, by your patience endurance you will gain your souls (or lives, again depending on how you want to translate the noun). The Lukan author is certainly concerned about physical survival. But there is more going on here. It is the discipline of patient endurance that will give “soul” or “life” to the faithful. And what is to be endured is the persecution described in the previous paragraph.

“To suffer from a traumatic stress disorder is to live in a mental world where the usual landmarks of meaning have fallen down,” Serene Jones writes. “The most familiar path to reordering this disordered world is to repeat the event,” she continues, “but such repetition does not deal with the root cause: the memory that has nowhere to go” (page 30). The question of trauma is “what do we do now?”

How can the Church answer that question? “Let me try one answer to that difficult question,” Jones offers, “The church is called, as it exists in this space of trauma, to engage in the crucial task of reordering the collective imagination of its people and to be wise and passionate in this task” (page 31). Perhaps, this week, we can wrestle some more with that difficult question and some of the responses the Lukan author seeks to present.

References and Resources

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

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