Text Study for Matthew 24:36-44 (Part Two)

Our text has two different Greek words for “to know.” In verse thirty-six we read, “But concerning that day and hour, no one knows – neither the angels of the heavens nor the Son – none except for the Father” (my translation and emphasis). The verb here is “oida.” The verb appears again in verse forty-two. “Be on watch, therefore, because you (plural) do not know on what day the Lord is coming to you” (my translation and emphasis).

In verses thirty-nine and forty-two, the verb is “ginosko.” “And they did not know until the Deluge came and they were completely swept away; thus also shall be the coming of the Son of Man” (my translation and emphasis). Both verbs appear again in verse forty-three. “But know this (ginosko): that if the master of the household had known (oida) at what watch of the night the thief was coming, he would not have permitted his house to be broken into” (my translation and emphases).

This may seem a bit nerdy and in the weeds. But I think this matters for interpretation. Most of the time, I find out what I’m thinking by typing it here. And sometimes I’m as surprised as you may be by what comes out of the process. We could conclude that the Matthean author is just sloppy with vocabulary. Or we could conclude that in the Matthean community the verbs were relatively interchangeable. We could, but I don’t.

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I don’t think either conclusion is warranted in this text or in the Matthean account in general. Instead, this variation in verbs describes different responses to the events described in this section of the gospel story. And this variation in verbs can challenge us to reflect on the kind of “knowing” we bring to our lives as disciples, especially in challenging times.

“Oida” generally means to “know about” someone or something. It’s really the perfect form of the Greek stem, eid–. “Perfect” here refers to a verb tense, not a state of purity or completion. And the stem describes the action of seeing or observing. “Oida” describes knowing the externals of a person, thing, or event. Not knowing, in this context, means something like to be unacquainted with that person, thing, or event.

“Ginosko” generally means to “know” someone or something from the inside. In relational terms, it describes an intimate connection. Therefore, for example, the Matthean author uses this verb to describe the sexual relationship (or lack thereof) between Mary and Joseph prior to the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:25). In my final translations of Matthew 24:39 and 24:43, therefore, I use the English verb “to comprehend” to render “ginosko.”

“But no one knows about that day and hour,” Jesus tells the disciples in Matthew 24:36. That is, no one except for the Father knows about the details of the calendar or the actual events of that coming. This is quite remarkable since the day and hour in question refers to the coming of the Son of Man (see Matthew 24:29-31). The Son himself won’t know the details of that day and hour until things come to pass in the moment.

“For just as were the days of Noah,” Jesus continues, “likewise will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:37, my translation). In those days, life appeared to go on as normal. Then Noah entered the ark. Those outside the ark didn’t comprehend the significance of what was happening until it was too late for them. They clearly “knew about” Noah’s boarding of the boat. Otherwise, there would have been nothing to comprehend or understand.

The “knowing” that is at stake here is not “knowing about.” It’s not knowing the Divine timetable or charting the progress of events as the world moves toward some sort of “end.” That is precisely the knowing that is not available – not available even to the angels of heaven or the Son. If the people in Noah’s days are an accurate example, then many are likely to get it wrong if the focus is on knowing about the daily details.

In order to interpret our text accurately, I think we need to read closely the preceding “Lesson of the Fig Tree” (Matthew 24:32-35). “But from the fig tree learn this parable,” Jesus says, “whenever you observe (oida) its branch becomes tender and it puts forth leaves, you understand (ginosko) that summer is near…” (Matthew 24:32, my translation).

The two verbs show up in connection and contrast here. You “know” the condition of the branch and the presence of the foliage by observing. On the basis of that observation, you can get a deeper understanding of what’s happening – especially of what the season is. “Likewise, you also, whenever you see all these things,” Jesus continues, “you understand that he is drawing near, upon the gates” (Matthew 24:33, my translation and emphases).

In verse 33, we get a clear juxtaposition of oida and eidon, the verb for “to see.” Seeing events leads to an observation and awareness of those events. The wise observer will then understand more than meets the eye. The wise observer will conclude that the seasons are changing.

I think Jesus is quite intentional in the use of his imagery here. Some of the vocabulary in these verses shows up in the Matthean account of the Triumphal Entry in Matthew 21. We get images of trees and branches, like the branches laid on Jesus’ path as he draws near to the gates and enters the city. The coming of the Son of Man, Jesus tells his followers, has commenced with that triumphal entry. The tree branches are sprouting leaves, and the season is changing.

The lead-in for the Apocalyptic Discourse in the Matthew account comes in Matthew 23:39. Jesus pronounces woes upon the scribes and Pharisees. He declares in Matthew 23:36 that these messianic woes will come upon that current generation. Jesus then laments over the fate of Jerusalem, when the Temple (the “house” in Matthew 23:38) will be left desolate. And he connects “seeing” him with the declaration the crowds shouted in Matthew 21:9.

This generation has “seen” Jesus as he approaches the gates of Jerusalem. They have not comprehended that the season is changing for them. But that won’t keep things from happening to them. “Truly I am telling you,” Jesus solemnly declares in Matthew 24:34, “that this generation shall not come to an end until all these things have happened” (my translation). I think there’s no question that Jesus is speaking, albeit in veiled terms, to those around him at that moment.

Jesus makes clear the meaning of his actions. The season is changing for the Jerusalem establishment. Nothing can change that fact. “Heaven and earth shall come to an end,” Jesus concludes, “but my words shall certainly not come to an end” (Matthew 24:35, my translation). This is the introduction to our text.

The conclusion is equally as stark. In the parable of the faithful slave and the wicked slave, Jesus describes the incomprehension of the wicked slave: “the Lord of that slave will come on a day when he is not on watch, and in an hour which he does not comprehend (ginosko)” (Matthew 24:50, my translation). The pragmatically wise and reliable slave is blessed. The Lord finds that slave engaged in the ongoing work of the household. The wicked slave is cut up and cast out.

The pragmatically wise and reliable slave is in a position to see what’s happening. That slave comprehends that the Lord’s delay is not a sign of the Lord’s faithlessness. Rather, that delay is a call for greater faithfulness on the part of the slave. That faithfulness consists of continuing to do the work in which the slave has been employed all along. That will put the faithful slave in the best position to comprehend what the Lord is doing.

This may all have been cryptic and to some degree unfulfilled for Jesus’ listeners. The Matthean audience, however, is in a different position. So are we. Stanley Saunders offers helpful words in this regard in his workingpreacher.org commentary.

“We can, however, lift up the defeat of death in the cross and resurrection, which dramatically alters how we approach ‘the end’ of the biblical story: the defining moment is not Jesus’ triumphal advent at the end of history, whenever that might be, but the moment of his revelation of God’s true power on the cross. The point, for those who know this much, is to live in the light of this transformed reality.”

We Jesus followers trust that Jesus is coming. We look for that coming in our daily lives and experience. We look for that coming as the culmination of God’s Creation/New Creation project. We can observe the events of our lives. We can regard them as more of just one damn thing after another. Or we can comprehend these events as opportunities to meet Jesus as wise and faithful servants, part of the fulfillment of God’s project.

For those in liturgical traditions, it’s a change of seasons. It’s also a change of seasons in the natural world, toward winter or toward summer – depending on our hemisphere. Is it a change in the season of my life? Is it a change in the season of our congregation? Is it a change in the season for our tradition or denomination? This first Advent text raises those questions for us. And it challenges us to comprehend the depth of what we see.

Text Study for Luke 21:5-19 (Part Three)

In Luke 21:1-4, a widow gives her last two coins to support the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus commends her faithfulness. He contrasts her total commitment to the limited commitments of the rich donors as they make their gifts. The widow, Jesus says, has “out of her lack thrown in her whole life” (Luke 214c, my translation). That’s the immediate context, for Jesus and/or for the Lukan author, as we move into the Apocalyptic Discourse.

While Jesus is musing about this contrast in commitments, one of the disciples goes tourist, oohing and ahhing about the size and beauty of the Temple. But, Jesus says, even that magnificent monument will be destroyed. Institutions come and go, live and die, are built and destroyed. How does this observation impact the meaning and message of the widow’s gift?

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In other words, how does it feel to put your whole life into something that is destined to fail? That’s a personal question for me and for many Christian pastors these days. I might be tempted to write these feelings off as “retired pastor syndrome.” I always swore that I would not be one of “those pastors.” One of those pastors who said every third sentence, “In my experience…”

And yet, here I am. Too often, I’m one of “those” pastors.

Today’s ELCA, for example, isn’t “my” ELCA. I wasn’t trained for ministry in this century. I wasn’t trained in this century, first of all. And I wasn’t prepared for the realities of life in this century – for the church or for the world.

As an interim pastor, as a further example, I’m serving a congregation that hasn’t moved beyond the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW) in their liturgical life. The LBW was “my” hymnal. It was new when I was in seminary. I can lead the Sunday settings without opening a book. I can chant most of the Morning or Evening prayer services from memory. I can lead the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness in my sleep. I can tell you the numbers of favorite hymns without consulting the index. Pastoral colleagues of my vintage can do the same and much more.

The most comfortable thing in the world would be to rest in that familiar tradition – in “my” tradition. But that’s not my job. And it wouldn’t be responsible. I have to suggest and at least gently push for the congregation to move into the current iteration of our worship book (already sixteen years old). I have years of training, experience, use, memories, and love invested in the LBW. That and $2.50 will get you a good cup of coffee in Stanton, Iowa.

It’s in the nature of things that we invest our lives in to be things that pass away. But my feelings are more than the maudlin mutterings of a preacher past his prime. “My” ELCA, my institutional tradition may fade – in my lifetime – into denominational oblivion. There will be pockets of ELCA vitality and growth here and there. But if current trends hold, the ELCA will disappear from the denominational landscape in many places over the next few decades.

I know that in the broad sweep of history, denominations come and go. I was part of the merger of the three Lutheran denominations that joined in 1988 to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I remember that for a while it was considered bad form to even mention the “predecessor church bodies” by name, although that reluctance receded in a few years. But there’s a big difference between old bodies being incorporated into a new body and an old body dying out altogether.

So, I’m not sure how I feel about this state of affairs. It depends on the day. Sometimes I’m angry that I took time away from my family and poured my life into something that now seems so feeble and fragile. But I know that’s mere self-pity. It’s no different for people in a variety of vocations these days. We are all pouring our lives into things that are passing away. In that sense, perhaps, we are all like the widow at the beginning of Luke 21. The question is whether all that pouring was worth the bother.

I wouldn’t advocate that we read all of Luke 21 aloud in our worship services this week. However, I’m not sure in our preaching that we can stop at verse 19. That verse gives the impression that following Jesus is mostly about our capacity to just hang in there in the face of adversity.

“Heaven and earth may go by the wayside,” Jesus says at the end of that parable, “but my words will certainly not go by the wayside” (Luke 21:33, my translation). The widow, I hope, doesn’t give her whole life because she believes in the perpetuity of the Temple. Instead, I think Jesus commends her commitment because she trusts that God is faithful, no matter what, in life and in death. And Jesus’ resurrection is the demonstration of that faithfulness. In the resurrection, nothing good will be lost.

The verb the NRSV translates as “to pass away” is worth noting here. It’s not a word that means to be destroyed or to perish or to die. It has more of the sense of to go alongside something or to pass by something. That’s why I rendered it as to “go by the wayside.” It’s not so much that heaven and earth will be destroyed. Instead, at least in this verse, these realities will just no longer be useful. They will have served their purpose and will yield their places to the New Heaven and the New Earth, as we read in the book of Revelation.

I need to take a brief detour to head off a potential problem. I’m not suggesting that the Church has “replaced” the Temple or that Christianity has “replaced” Judaism. That rank sort of supersessionism has no place in orthodox Christian belief at this point. It has been a prominent feature of such theology in the past. And we current Christians must continue to repent of that perspective and repair what damage we can.

Judaism has not outlived its usefulness for Jews – or for the world. We need to stick with Paul in Romans 9 through 11 on this one. Jews and Christians have different vocations in God’s mission to redeem Creation. Those vocations are complementary, not in competition. When we lose touch with that perspective even a little bit, Jews die. So, we must always be careful in our comments about the Temple and especially about its destruction.

That’s why I focus on our own current Christian institutions. “My” ELCA will outlive its usefulness sooner or later. If it’s sooner, then I will be sad. But I won’t find God any less faithful. “My” hymnal or “my” congregation will outlive their usefulness sooner or later. When that happens, if I’m around, I can give thanks to God for what was good in those things and repent for what was not. Denominations and hymnals and congregations may go by the wayside, but Jesus’ words will not go by the wayside.

In her workingpreacher.org commentary, Debra Mumford reflects on several of these issues. Even though the Temple was indeed destroyed in 70 CE, “neither Judaism nor Christianity was destroyed. The Spirit of God transcends buildings and structures. Both religions continued to grow and evolve over the centuries in new geographical locations, nations, and among people of many ethnicities and races. People can take heart,” Mumford continues, “that though Christianity seems to be declining in some denominations, through the Spirit and power of God, it will continue to live and grow in new forms and new places. Our task is to ask for discernment,” she concludes, “about what God wants us to do and then follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit to get it done.”

Our text, therefore, calls us to have larger perspectives than we might entertain on our own. I serve in an area where the question often is whether “my congregation” will survive for another year or another decade. That question is asked in terms of whether “my congregation” can get “our own” pastor. If that’s the framing of the question, then the answer for many of those congregations will be a sad but firm “no.” People will walk away grieving and angry. That perspective is too narrow to give life at this point in history.

If, on the other hand, the question is whether God’s mission will continue in that area, the answer most certainly is a joyful and firm “yes.” The ways we’ve done church in the past one hundred and fifty years in those places have “gone by the wayside.” And it’s not just worship styles or preaching methods that have outlived their usefulness. It may well be that a new kind of “church” is coming to birth in those places. And some of us may have a hand in the birthing.

I think it’s worth sharing some or all of Carey Nieuwhof’s “10 Predictions About the Future Church and Shifting Attendance Patterns.”  It’s not a new article, but it continues to be relevant to the conversation. I think church leaders and congregants should read and discuss this article as we seek to discern what time it is among us and what the Holy Spirit is up to in our midst.

In my setting, some of the “predictions” have more bite than others. “Churches that love their model more than the mission will die,” Nieuwhof writes. “Attendance will no longer drive engagement,” he argues, “engagement will drive attendance.” Even as some churches go back to exclusively face to face worship experiences, Nieuwhof argues that “Online church will become more of a front door than a back door.” These three items will be more than enough challenge to shake up the folks I serve.

And that, I say with a smile and a big sigh, is my job at the moment.

Resources and References

Christian, David. Future Stories. Little, Brown Spark: 2022.

Text Study for Luke 21:5-19 (Part Two)

This morning we experienced the last full lunar eclipse for two and a half years. We will have a variety of partial and penumbral lunar eclipses in the next thirty months. But another complete blackout will not occur until March 14, 2025.

“A lunar eclipse occurs when the Sun, Earth, and Moon align so that the Moon passes into Earth’s shadow,” according to the moon.nasa.gov site, “In a total lunar eclipse, the entire Moon falls within the darkest part of Earth’s shadow, called the umbra. When the Moon is within the umbra, it will turn a reddish hue. Lunar eclipses are sometimes called ‘Blood Moons’ because of this phenomenon.”

We experienced such a “Blood Moon” here in the Midwest of the United States between 4:17 and 5:42 a.m. this morning. I’m using the royal “we” in that sentence. I was struggling to adjust to the change from Central Daylight Time back to Central Standard Time. But I’m sure many folks got up to witness the event.

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The reddish color of the moon is an expected result of the nature of light. Visible light consists of a variety of wavelengths. We humans see those different wavelengths as colors. The blue light is more easily scattered by the earth’s atmosphere – which also accounts for why the sky is blue. The red light penetrates the atmosphere more readily. Thus, we get red sunrises, red sunsets and Blood Moons because the blue light is reflected back into space by the atmosphere. “It’s as if all the world’s sunrises and sunsets are projected onto the Moon,” according to moon.nasa.gov.

In previous ages, this event would have been seen as a sign and portent in the heavens. Eclipses of all kinds could produce mass panic at many points in human history. The prophet Joel refers directly to a blood moon eclipse in the Hebrew scriptures. “I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke,” the prophet writes, “The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Joel 2:30-31, my emphasis).

Lunar eclipses are not as fear-inducing as are solar eclipses, but historically the meaning was often the same. Matthew Bell offers a nice little summary of the emotional and social impact of such heavenly portents. Even in the last part of the nineteenth century, people were convinced that an eclipse could be a sign of the end of the world – the return of Jesus and the onset of Judgment Day.

One might think that such responses are now a thing of the past. And one would be wrong.

The intersection of the Blood Moon and the United States election day has produced excited speculations. For example, an article in New York magazine offers the analysis and predictions of astrologer Aliza Kelly. Kelly notes that the sun, the earth, and the moon “will form a powerful cosmic trifecta” during the eclipse. She notes that eclipses have been associated with political chaos and governmental collapse in the past.

“And while we no longer use eclipses to portend bad omens,” Kelly writes, “it is at least notable that this lunar eclipse is happening during the midterms, you know?” No, Ms. Kelly, I don’t know. Please tell me more.

When the moon reaches these points in its orbit, astrologers associate these positions with fate and destiny. “Because they always involve these highly sensitive points,” Kelly observes, “eclipses are known to catalyze powerful events with long-lasting impacts.” The relative positions of the sun and earth and of the constellations Scorpio and Taurus are in opposition.

As a result, that’s the astrological theme of the moment. Opposition will be at work, in this astrological framework, in events of personal, social, and national importance. Additional planetary factors are also at work. “Basically,” Kelly advises, “Be extra gentle with yourself as you navigate this thorny lunar eclipse.”

Most important in Kelly’s analysis, “there are no coincidences.” This happens to be the title of a “Manifestation Deck and Guidebook Cards” created by Kelly and available on Amazon.com this month. I don’t want to be flippant here. Everyone is entitled to produce content that matters to them and to be compensated for that work.

Her advice today is to adequately prepare for the rigors of in-person voting and not to “obsess over the results prematurely. The key with eclipses,” Kelly concludes, “is to expect the unexpected.” I’ve gotten worse advice in my life.

Not to be outdone, some Christian pastors also see the Blood Moon eclipse as a prophetic sign regarding the midterm elections. Given the prominence of the quote from Joel 2 in Christian scriptures, sermons, and theology, such apocalyptic speculation is inevitable. As Thomas Kika reminds us, “This is the first time in U.S. history that such an eclipse has coincided with an election, and it will not happen again until the 24th century.” That assumes, of course, that the United States will continue, elections will continue, and such elections will continue on the same November day. But, you get the point.

The conclusions drawn by various Christian pastors range from boring generalities to humorous particularities. Some of these conclusions echo Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. There’s gonna be trouble, trouble, trouble, right here in River City. Since there’s always going to be trouble somewhere, it’s hard to miss with that one. Others conclude that, as the Lukan author says, “your redemption is drawing near.” In that perspective, Jesus might return by the close of polls this evening. I’d be ok with that.

Blood moons have been associated with bloodshed and warfare for about as long as we have records about eclipses. So, it’s not surprising that some pastors would connect the eclipse to events in Ukraine. And it’s even less surprising that politically right-wing Christian pastors would see this blood moon as a sign of the “red wave” in the American midterm elections. Of course, the eclipse will be visible in places without red waves and midterm elections. But let us not get bogged down in details.

Before we “modern” and “informed” people get too haughty about such supposed foolishness, let’s reflect on our own mania for prediction. Public opinion polling has become a multi-billion-dollar industry. Yet it seems that the more we spend on polling, the less we know. Data-gathering techniques and statistical analyses have never been more advanced and sophisticated. Yet, in light of previous elections, we Americans are left wondering if public polling still works.

The higher the stakes, the more we demand accuracy in our predictions. If I’m staying indoors today, I’m not too troubled if the National Weather Service misses on their temperature and precipitation forecasts. If, however, I’m headed out for a picnic or some outdoor venue that costs a bunch of money, then I expect the NWS to be spot on with their estimates. In fairness, the NWS is right far more often than they’re wrong – thanks in large part to the supercomputers that now crunch massive amounts of contemporaneous data to give us our hourly and daily forecasts.

Elections have become existential dramas for many Americans. I’m not suggesting that this is an unwarranted over-reaction. It may not be. The future of American democracy may well be on many ballots today. My point is that when we see elections as such high-stakes events, our demands for predictive accuracy increase exponentially. The number of polls seems to increase at the same rate. Given the probabilistic nature of polling, we end up getting predictions that cover pretty much every logical eventuality.

When forecasts predict everything, they predict nothing. It would seem this year that we might do as well consulting chicken entrails as consulting opinion polls about the election forecasts. So, I’m not about to throw stones at astrologers (although I think the Christian commentators should know better).

“Teacher, when therefore will these things be, and what shall be the sign when these things are about to be?” (Luke 21:7, my translation). Jesus doesn’t give his disciples all that much help in the way of predictive power. The things that did happen – the Jewish War, the destruction of the Temple, the siege and sack of Jerusalem – happened without producing any cosmic changes. That wasn’t the end of the world, or even the end of the world as we know it.

Luke 21 is all about living between the times. It’s not about discerning the end of time. The first thing about living between the times is resisting calls from those who say the end is here. “Be careful that you are not led into wandering,” Jesus tells the disciples in Luke 21:8 (my translation).

The word for “wandering” here is the Greek verb from which we get our word “planets” (Greek = planehtehs, “wanderers”). If “there are no coincidences,” then perhaps the Lukan author is warning the audience away from relying on astrology to predict the future and guide present actions. I don’t really think that’s the case here. But it does illustrate what happens when we over-read texts (or events) and see patterns that may not be there.

More to our point is the rest of Luke 21:8. “For many will come upon the basis of my name saying, ‘I am [Jesus]!’ and, ‘The appointed time has drawn near!’ Don’t go after them” (my translation). If we’re looking in our text for descriptions of the current moment in American life (especially in politically conservative Christian nationalist circles), we need look no further than this verse. That verse provides enough material for some preachers to build an entire message for Sunday.

Resources and References

Christian, David. Future Stories. Little, Brown Spark: 2022.

Text Study for Luke 13:1-9 (Part Four)

In his workingpreacher.org commentary, Ronald Allen notes that the dialogue throughout Luke 12 directs our attention to being prepared for the apocalypse. While the Lukan author is clear that the coming of the New Age is not happening as soon as the previous generation expected, that doesn’t mean it’s not coming, or that we can stop preparing.

In fact, Luke 12:2 has the verb form of “apocalypse.” “But nothing is being concealed which will not be revealed, and nothing hidden which will not be made known” (my translation). In the Lukan account, Jesus urges his disciples (as thousands listen in) that they should value authentic testimony more than personal safety in the days to come. That testimony is what will matter when they stand before the angels of God (verse 9).

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The Lukan author goes on to imagine settings of persecution where that testimony will be required. Luke 12:11 is a foreshadowing of the situations in which the apostles will find themselves in the Book of Acts. They will be dragged into the presence of synagogues (here the assembly of people more than the building), rulers, and authorities. They need not worry about how they will defend themselves (the word used gives us the English word “apology”). In that hour of trial, the Holy Spirit will provide the words.

We don’t know in the Lukan account how the disciples responded to these words. We hear that at least one person in the crowd didn’t quite get the memo. “Teacher,” someone says to him from the crowd, “tell my brother to apportion with me the inheritance” (Luke 12:13, my translation). Some interpreters suggest that what we get next is a lovely meditation on faithful biblical stewardship. It is that, but the real meaning of the text is about apocalyptic urgency, not about wealth management.

The Rich Fool is oblivious to the possibility that this moment could be his last. He has accumulated an abundance of the Good Stuff. Now he can become unconscious. He has created a material buffer to protect him from the uncertainties of life and death. The Rich Fool is the picture of stupid privilege. Only rich people can afford to be so oblivious. But it does him no good. “You fool!” God says, “This very night your soul (as in life) is being demanded from you. But these things that you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20, my translation).

Again, we have a story about someone who is here today and gone tomorrow. An abundance of riches cannot change that fact. The chief characteristic of the Rich Fool is that well-funded stupidity. “This is the way for those who hoard treasure for themselves and yet are not rich in God” (Luke 12:21, my translation). Note that this assessment is about those who have wealth. This statement is not a general statement about human beings. The apocalyptic danger for the powerful, the privileged, the positioned, and the propertied is that their abundance will make them fatally dumb.

Jesus turns from addressing the crowd to teaching his disciples. As he turns, beginning in Luke 12:22, the discourse also turns. The poor (including the disciples) don’t have to worry about being stupidly oblivious in the face of existential threat. That’s not an option when one lives paycheck to paycheck or is uncertain about the source of the next meal. The disciples won’t be distracted from the apocalypse by stuff. They may, however, be consumed by anxiety.

Let me take a moment to remind us of this typical pattern in the Lukan account. The Lukan author takes a common theme, such as apocalyptic preparedness. The author expands on that theme in different ways for the different demographics in the congregation. In particular, those Lukan demographics are the privileged and the poor. While the concern is the same in general terms, the applications vary depending on the socioeconomic locations of the listeners. If that was the case for the Lukan audience, it is certainly the case for contemporary audiences – although our American Christian listeners tend toward the privileged end of the spectrum.

Jesus paints these beautiful word pictures with ravens and lilies. God provides for them, and they don’t worry about the future. Anxiety tends to shorten our lives, not to lengthen them. Strive for the Kin(g)dom and the rest will take care of itself. “For where your treasure is,” Jesus concludes in Luke 12:34, “there also will be your (plural) heart” (my translation). Unconscious privilege is deadly. Obsessive worry deprives us of real life. God will take care of us. Just be prepared for what comes next.

We’ll have the chance to address some of these texts in the summer and fall, but it’s important to have this context in mind as we come to Luke 13. Jesus urges his disciples to be dressed and ready for action, to have their lamps lit and their eyes wide open. They can’t and won’t know the hour when the Son of Man will return. Peter asks if this counsel is for the disciples alone or for all who are listening. Jesus turns the question on its head with a parable. The point of the parable is that those who are prepared will demonstrate their discipleship.

Yet, the greatest accountability falls on those who have heard the warning (Luke 12:48b). Trouble is coming – not just before synagogues and rulers and authorities, but in the very homes and families of those who follow Jesus. This may be a particularly poignant reference to the experience of the Lukan audience, many of whom may have experienced the family divisions that Jesus describes in Luke 12:52-53.

The discourse is certainly about knowing what time it is, as we see in Luke 12:54-56. And it is about focusing on what’s important in light of the coming apocalypse. Don’t get bogged down with petty concerns, as Jesus urges in Luke 12:57-59. Settle those matters quickly and get your mind back on the important stuff. Because the time of crisis is coming.

“At that moment, some people call Jesus’ attention to the Galileans whom Pilate had murdered (Luke 13:1),” Ronald Allen writes. “Their implied question is: Were those Galileans so much worse sinners than other Galileans that they were beyond the possibility of preparing for the Realm in the way Jesus had described in Luke 12:1-56? Jesus gives a straightforward answer: ‘No,’” Allen continues. “They were not killed because of their sin. They were brutally murdered by the Romans.”

That being said, this tragedy still serves as an apocalyptic wakeup call for Jesus’ listeners. Unless we repent, we likewise will be caught unawares and unprepared when the time of trial comes. “The purpose of the stories of the Galileans and those who died at Siloam is to stress the importance of repentance as a decisive step on the journey to the Realm,” Allen suggests. “That action is necessary prelude to the life described in Luke 12:1-59. Without repentance and faithful witness, punishment awaits.”

The Parable of the Fig Tree reminds us that the end is always closer than we might think. “The listeners in Luke’s community are in the position of the tree,” Allen argues. “The time has come for them to bear the fruit of repentance. God could already have ended the present age. However, God is giving them a little more time. While the second coming is delayed,” he concludes, “the apocalypse and the moment of judgment are still ahead.”

Well, friends, the apocalypse has been delayed far longer than the Lukan author might have suspected. Does that mean that we can and should ignore the urgency of this section and our text? No, I don’t think so. The end of the world as we know it can come to us in many ways. The call to be prepared is applicable to life in numerous ways.

I have officiated at hundreds of funerals over the last forty years. Yet I was ill-prepared to deal with the sudden and unexpected death of my first spouse. In one sense, no one can be prepared for a major loss. In another sense, however, I had not really considered the possibility. Relatively early death is a feature in my family tree more than hers. I was expecting to die relatively young and had made some plans accordingly. Intellectually I knew that she could die before me, but I was not prepared emotionally or spiritually for such a possibility.

I was completed disoriented by her death. Even though I was given a path to a wonderful new life, it took me some years to really get settled in to the new reality of my existence. Only in the last few years has that new orientation really become a bit more familiar and comfortable. The advantage of my experience was that I no longer had the luxury of acting as if death was a thing that happened to other people. Death ceased to be a theoretical construct and has instead become a relatively familiar companion.

For the most part, that familiarity with death doesn’t make me morbid. It has subdued my temperament to some degree. But the chief effect in my heart has been threefold. I have learned to live now and to act decisively. I have much more time behind me than in front of me. The proximity of death and the gift of age have made me more willing to do things now, since tomorrow may never come.

A second effect of being better prepared for death is that I feel far more grateful for life and love than I think I was two decades ago. I may not take as much joy in the ravens and the lilies as, for example, my spouse now does. But I know now how much of a gift this life is and how fleeting it can be. So, I am grateful to savor the joys as they come.

The third effect is that my life is more clearly set against the horizon of eternity. I won’t get it all done. I won’t set everything right. I won’t accomplish all I’ve planned. That’s fine. I seek to find my treasure where Jesus wants my heart to be. That’s the best way, in my experience, of living a life of grateful repentance.


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Text Study for Mark 13:1-37 (Pt. 6); November 14, 2021

Who Wants to Know?

In the film, Men in Black, James Edwards has just witnessed the reality of aliens living among humans on earth. Kay, his recruiter to MIB, is explaining the situation as they sit on a bench in Battery Park. “Any given time, around fifteen hundred landed aliens are on the planet, the majority right here in Manhattan,” Kay lectures. “Most aliens are decent enough, just trying to make a living.”

“Cab drivers?” Edwards asks. “Not as many as you’d think,” Kay replies. He pauses thoughtfully and then resumes the lecture. “Humans, for the most part, don’t have a clue. Don’t want one, either. They’re happy. They think they’ve got a pretty good bead on things.”

Edwards is beginning to grasp the situation. “Why the big secret? People are smart,” he argues, “they can handle it.”

Photo by Ash @ModernAfflatus on Pexels.com

Kay shakes his head. “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Everything they’ve ever ‘known’ has been proven to be wrong. A thousand years ago everybody knew as a fact, that the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, they knew it was flat. Fifteen minutes ago, you knew we humans were alone on it. Imagine,” Kay murmurs, “what you’ll know tomorrow.”

Men in Black is a clever meditation on the price of blissful ignorance versus the cost of knowing what’s really going on. It is, in fact, an “apocalypse” in an intentional fictional format. There are things going on under the surface of life that most people don’t know and don’t wish to know. But those things are matters of life and death, not only for the few who are in the know but for the whole world.

It is the job, in fact, of the MIB agents to make sure that as few are in the know as absolutely necessary for the safety of the planet. As they pursue a rogue alien through the streets of New York, Edwards fires his (alien) weapon, creating mayhem and chaos.

“We do not discharge our weapons,” Kay scolds, “in view of the public.” Edwards (now known only as “Jay”) is not impressed. “Can we drop the cover-up bullshit?! There’s an Alien Battle Cruiser,” he contends, “that’s gonna blow-up the world if we don’t…”

Now it’s Kay’s turn to be unimpressed. “There’s always an Alien Battle Cruiser…or a Korlian Death Ray, or…an intergalactic plague about to wipe out life on this planet,” he explains, “and the only thing that lets people get on with their hopeful little lives is that they don’t know about it.”

“And Jesus said to him, ‘Are you seeing these great buildings? Not even a stone upon a stone will be left here which has not been torn down’” (Mark 13:2, my translation). The anonymous disciple looks at the surface, but Jesus sees deeply. “’Say to us when this will be,” the Fallible Four later inquire in private, “and what will be the sign when all this is about to come to completion.” I wonder if they later wished they hadn’t asked for quite so much information.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty adept at avoiding information that makes me uncomfortable or forces me to change my thinking and behavior. When the stock market takes a dive, I’m far less likely to check on my retirement plan. When there’s bad news nationally or locally, I’m very good at finding ways to avoid reports and updates. When there’s a funny sound in the rear brakes of the car, I hope that I can drive it less (and that some sort of miraculous automotive self-healing might take place). If I don’t go to the doctor, I won’t know which biological bombs are ticking away in my aging body.

“Humans, for the most part, don’t have a clue. Don’t want one, either.” Far too often that’s the case for me. And I’m not exceptional, as far as I can tell. I want things to go well, to be stable, and to make me blissfully ignorant and self-assuredly happy.

That’s all well and good as long as things are well and good. When blissful ignorance serves my needs and interests, however, then it’s time to question that blissful ignorance. For example, one of the realities that undergirds White supremacy is the sense of “White innocence” created by willful White ignorance. As long as we White people do not “see race,” we don’t have to deal with it. And if we put ourselves in spaces that are exclusively White, then we can sustain our ignorant innocence. We can persuade ourselves that we “have a pretty good bead on things.”

But a significant part of the gospel method, at least in the Markan composition, is to pull back the curtain and reveal things as they really are. The first-century imperial system took land and wealth from the most vulnerable and transferred it to the most powerful. The cultural values of the time put those who were different in some way into a variety of unclean and excluded categories. At least some of those who were supposed to be the helpers abused and oppressed those who most desperately needed the help.

The Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is that these underlying systems are not what God creates. And they are not the way God intends the world to be. These forms of hierarchical value and systematic oppression are passing away – and that’s the good news. That’s the good news unless I am one of those who is benefitting from those systems. Then it is in my interest that the truth remains buried under layers of ignorant innocence and willful deception.

Truth tellers are not welcome by most of us most of the time. In fact, if they can’t keep their mouths shut, someone will shut their mouths for them. That’s as good a description of the crucifixion of Jesus as any I can propose.

I was part of a couple of conversations the other day that make this all the more pressing for me. Someone shared a difficult exchange during a church meeting. A vocal member was criticizing a church representative for the failings of a denomination. In particular, the member didn’t want to hear any more about diversity, equity, inclusion, peace, justice, and systemic change – not from the pulpit and not from the preacher.

“Leave my ideology alone,” the member demanded, “and stick to theology.” I thought immediately of the discussion of ideology and the Theology of the Cross in Douglas John Hall’s The Cross in Our Context. Hall offers a definition of “ideology.”

“By ideology I mean a theoretical statement or system of interpretation that functions for its adherents as a full and sufficient credo, a source of personal authority, and an intellectually and psychologically comforting insulation from the frightening and chaotic mishmash of daily existence” (page 25).

In other words, the purpose of ideology is the opposite of apocalyptic. Ideology hides reality in order to keep the privileged in power and the advantaged agnostic. Apocalyptic uncovers reality in order to dismantle the power of privilege. To use another science fiction film image, ideology is the blue pill of The Matrix – the one that allows the collaborator to enjoy imaginary steaks in blissful and willful ignorance.

“For the ideologue,” Hall continues, whether religious or political, it is not necessary to expose oneself constantly to the ongoingness of life; one knows in advance what one is going to find in the world….The ideological personality,” he observes, “(and in our time there are many such personalities) is constantly on guard against the intrusion of reality, of the unallowable question, of the data that does not ‘fit’ the system; therefore,” he concludes, “the repressive and suppressive dimension is never far beneath the surface of the ideological inclination” (page 25).

Hall argues, quite rightly, that the Theology of the Cross is anti-ideological at its core. It is “apocalyptic” in the deepest sense. The Theology of the Cross uncovers and makes known what is really going on under the covers of human ideologies. That’s why it is so dangerous to systems of power and privilege. That’s why Jesus’ ministry takes him to the Cross…and Jesus followers with him.

Ideology is always, Hall argues, the Theology of Glory. Theology of the Cross is a “great refusal,” he writes. “It refuses any system of belief that capitalizes on and exploits human need…the fallen human need to control and repress truth, to hold to comforting and comfortable partial truths or even downright falsehoods that can seem to assuage the soul’s thirst for certainty and ultimacy, and so avoid unprotected exposure to the abyss of meaning over which finite existence is suspended” (page 29).

It’s no wonder we don’t really want to know. But refusing to lift up the covers on what’s really happening requires the suffering and death of the people and the planet that subsidize our willful ignorance. Pick your -ism and see what it costs someone for the privileged (probably you and me) to remain in blissful ignorance. When I do that, I see that I am crucifying them so that I can avoid my own cross.

The Theology of Glory, Hall summarizes, “is invariably tempted to be a theology of sight, not faith; finality, not hope; and power, not love” (page 33). This is the “theology” (actually the ideology) that drives and underwrites the dominant but decaying culture of Christian Nationalism and White Supremacy. The truth is, as Hall notes, that the world is full of pain, and God loves the world. The Cross uncovers that Truth and calls us to announce it.

Fifteen minutes ago, I was able to ignore that truth. I wonder what I’ll ignore tomorrow.

References and Resources

Brobst-Renaud, Amanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33-2/commentary-on-mark-131-8-5.

Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Dein, Simon. “Covid-19 and the Apocalypse: Religious and Secular Perspectives.” Journal of religion and health vol. 60,1 (2021): 5-15. doi:10.1007/s10943-020-01100-w.

Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World. Fortress Press, 2003.

Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.

Shively, Elizabeth E. “What Type of Resistance? How Apocalyptic Discourse Functions as Social Discourse in Mark’s Gospel.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 37.4 381–406. Web.

Men in Black movie script: https://sfy.ru/?script=men_in_black.

Text Study for Mark 13:1-37 (Pt. 5); November 14, 2021

Watch Yourself!

If the function of the Markan composition is more impact than information, then what is that intended impact? It is hard to proclaim faithfully from the text if we can’t come to some modest understanding of that intention. Elizabeth Shively offers this proposal in her article. “My thesis is that Mark’s Gospel functions as persuasive rhetoric by telling the story of Jesus so as to reveal the only world that is reasonable for its audience to inhabit. It does this, in part,” she argues, “by employing apocalyptic language in order to restructure community identity” (page 382).

What does that phrase “community identity” mean? I think many of us would describe our identity as the way we are seen by others. I am a white, male, cisgender, reasonably well-educated (in the European sense), lower middle-class, Christian, Midwesterner. That’s not all that others see about me, but that’s a good start. I get those identifying marks from my communities and often regarded those marks as “given.”

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

But community identity is much more a matter of how I see than how I am seen. I see my reality from the perspectives of whiteness, maleness, cisgenderness, etc. In this way, my identity (and that of my community) is not so much given to me as I impose it on my experience. Realities outside of my body don’t become “experience” until I interpret them. Interpretation happens through lenses and within a framework. The lenses and the framework are internal to me and my community. They don’t exist objectively out in “the world.”

It is, therefore, no accident that some of the miracle stories in the Markan composition are about changes in perceptual abilities. Blind people are now able to see, because of Jesus. Deaf people are now able to hear, because of Jesus. In the case of Bartimaeus, that change in perceptual capacity makes it possible for him to follow Jesus on the way to the cross. Identity shapes perception.

And identity describes position. I perceive through my lenses which begin to shape the experience. I interpret that experience from my position in life. Identity both shapes and responds to my perspective. My perspective is my view of the world – my worldview. It’s no surprise that following Jesus means “changing my mind,” that is, accepting a different view of the world.

I notice, therefore, how many times words for “seeing” show up in the Little Apocalypse. Do you see these big buildings? Watch out for yourselves (twice)! When you see the desolating sacrilege; they will see the Son of Man; when you see the fig tree. Keep your eyes open since you don’t know the day or the hour. Keep watch! Of course, there are a few auditory allusions as well, but the Discourse focuses primarily on seeing.

The reliable markers of community identity will fail the disciples as they have failed Jesus during his earthly ministry. Governing and religious authorities will reject the changes in perspective and position that following Jesus requires. Biological family members will hand over the troublemakers – those who have taken the name of Jesus. There will be no limit to the displacement and distress.

But those expected sources of identity – family, community, religion, government – they are passing away. The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple is an example of that passing, although it is not the definitive and final example of that passing. There is one source of identity that is stable and lasting – that of following Jesus. The one who endures to the end will be saved. Heaven and earth will pass away, but Jesus’ words will not pass away. So, keep watching.

Pablo Richard, discussed in an earlier post, represents what Shively calls the “resistance literature” approach to apocalyptic in general. While Richard’s arguments are directed toward the Book of Revelation, they are, as I noted previously, equally applicable to the Little Apocalypse in Mark 13. These resistance literature interpretations “agree that Mark is written to address the audience’s experience of oppression and social alienation under Roman and Jewish authorities. Accordingly,” she continues in describing this approach, “Mark employs apocalyptic language in the service of political discourse, which functions to shape a social group that resists the dominant order” (Ibid).

Shively notes that additional research demonstrates the limitations of this approach. Some apocalyptic literature is, in fact, political resistance literature. But some works are more focused on “social injustice,” while others address “temptations that plague the flesh” (page 389). The Markan composition has elements of apocalypse not only in chapter thirteen but scattered throughout the composition. While we can use the analytical tools applied, for example, by Richard, to the Book of Revelation, the approach to the Markan account is not and cannot be the same.

“Although we cannot ascertain the particular social setting of Mark with certainty, evidence internal to the Gospel suggests that Mark seeks to explain the suffering and death of Jesus and his followers,” Shively argues (page 390). “The main rhetorical function of Mark’s apocalyptic discourse is to persuade the audience to testify and suffer for the sake of Jesus and the gospel,” she continues. “Nevertheless, the function of Mark’s discourse extends to challenge visions of the world espoused by Rome and the ruling authorities” (Ibid).

Shively proposes that in the Markan composition, Jesus is not so much creating a resisting movement as he is forming a new family. “Jesus forms a social group, that is, a community gathered for a particular purpose and organized around shared customs,” she argues. “Particularly, Jesus restructures kinship ties to form a new family organized around ‘doing God’s will’” (page 392). This community has a family identity that is defined by practice rather than blood relationship. “Ultimately,” Shively concludes with a nod toward Mark 13, “Jesus’ new family not only transcends the borders of kin and ethnicity to participate in a cosmic conflict, but also transcends the borders of time and space to enjoy an eschatological existence” (page 393).

The Little Apocalypse, according to Shively, develops and describes the nature of this family in light of the destruction of the Temple and the coming of the Son of Man. “Jesus’ point is that the destruction of the temple may be a harbinger, but it is not the end of all things, as the disciples appear to believe,” Shively writes. “The end will come only after Jesus’ followers endure the kind of suffering that the disciples have resisted so far in the narrative” (page 393). She notes that the Parable of the Householder, at the end of the discourse, shows the new household at work – resisting, testifying, suffering, and dying, until Jesus returns.

What does this mean (for us)? Shively argues that the community created by the text (or performance, I would add), is a theological reality with political ramifications. “It exists as an alternative social reality because it follows Jesus, not because it resists, reorders or manages socio-political power structures,” she argues. “Because it follows Jesus, the community faces opposing power structures that it may then resist, reorder or manage” (page 402). The Markan community does not exist as a community of resistance per se. The values and practices of following Jesus, however, create the conflicts that make resistance necessary.

“Apocalyptic discourse provides the resources for Jesus’ followers to form and maintain their identity as those who proclaim the gospel in the context of a hostile environment and who live self-sacrificially even in the face of death,” Shively concludes. “Mark gives the audience eyes to see what human vision would otherwise miss about the experience of rejection, suffering, domination and power, in order to shape a new community, inspire it to hope, and compel it to action” (pages 402-403).

Identity is perhaps the fundamental field of struggle in American culture at this time. What does it mean to be a “real American”? What does it mean to be a “real Christian?” What does it mean to be a “real man” or a “real woman”? People have been asking those questions for the last hundred years or so in a variety of venues, but there is a particular and sometimes violent urgency to the questions these days.

Will we White American Christians, for example, continue to assert that being White American Christians (with a firm commitment to fixed gender identities and roles as well) is the definition of and norm for what it means to be fully and authentically human? That has been the perception and perspective of our community for the last five hundred years. But it seems that this perception and perspective are passing away – or at least that they should be passing away.

Will we economically privileged Christians assert that a capitalist model is the only way to describe and organize what a faithful congregation looks like? Will we maintain our idolatries of numbers and real estate, of “profits” and success at the expense of love for God and love for neighbor? So far, that is the order of the day. But Christian bodies that maintain these perceptions and this perspective are passing away, and some are doing so rather quickly.

Will I embrace the likely discomfort and perhaps even the suffering that real changes in perception and perspective will produce for me? Am I ready for life as I have known it to pass away (and good riddance)? I’m not at all sure of that. I think I am continuing to look for the community that will help me to find that identity. But will I take yes for an answer when I find it?

That remains to be seen…

References and Resources

Brobst-Renaud, Amanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33-2/commentary-on-mark-131-8-5.

Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Dein, Simon. “Covid-19 and the Apocalypse: Religious and Secular Perspectives.” Journal of religion and health vol. 60,1 (2021): 5-15. doi:10.1007/s10943-020-01100-w.

Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.

Shively, Elizabeth E. “What Type of Resistance? How Apocalyptic Discourse Functions as Social Discourse in Mark’s Gospel.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 37.4 381–406. Web.

Text Study for Mark 13:1-37 (Pt. 4); November 14, 2021

Friends, it’s time for fundraising at workingpreacher.org. I’ll be making my contribution soon, and I hope you will as well. There’s a dollar for dollar match available through November 30th that makes this even more effective. Just go to the site and follow the instructions. Thanks!

It’s About “You”

We can get caught up in the details of our life dramas, since that’s what we live intimately day in and day out. Amanda Brobst-Renaud refers to a recent article by Simon Dein on the relationship between current crises and apocalyptic thinking in our own contexts. That article is available online and worth a firsthand read.

“Pandemics,” Dein writes, “indicate the fragility of life and the world, chaos, engender paralysing anxiety that the world is dissolving, a sense of detachment and raise significant issues of meaning resulting in existential crises.” He suggests that such a crisis puts into doubt our accepted systems of symbolism, significance, and sense. As a result, we cast about for other explanatory systems to manage the mess.

“Our current plausibility structures upon which the existence of society is dependent are (sic) threatened,” Dein writes, “and we are urgently in need of alternative sociocultural contexts to provide structures of meaning.” I would suggest that this need explains at least to some degree, for example, the phobias regarding masks and vaccines and the continued attraction of informal apocalyptic schemas such as the QAnon conspiracy cluster. More on that, perhaps, later.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Dein notes that apocalyptic literature, therefore, is not only “religious” in background and context. In fact, I would argue, that we live in an era of hybrid religio-secular apocalypses resulting in such things as the “Christian Nationalism” at the root of the January 6th insurrection. From that perspective, the Covid crisis is uncovering a decay in the “Real America” of Christian Nationalist mythology. Since this is an existential crisis, it’s no wonder that as many as a third of the proponents of this mythology believe that public violence will be the result and solution.

The Covid crisis also provides the opportunity for more “left-leaning” apocalyptic scenarios. I find these more based in evidence and less in ideology, but such views are not without their own mythologies. That being said, Dein puts it this way. “The Covid crisis is revealing health care inequalities, class divisions, unequal distribution of power, and the fact that the most important workers in American society are among the least paid. Health inequalities have been brought into sharp focus and the crisis has exposed the structural disadvantage and discrimination faced by parts of the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.”

I just want to point out the “apocalyptic” verbs in Dein’s comments: revealing, brought into sharp focus, exposed. These verbs describe the impact of apocalyptic scripting and literature on the audience and readers.

All that being said, Dein reminds us that the fundamental perspective of apocalyptic literature in the end is that of hope. Things are not as they ought to be. The current situation is dissolving under the weight of its own dysfunction. Something new is being born among us. The question is not whether we face an apocalyptic crisis. Humans always face such crises, to one degree or another. The question is, rather, whether we have placed our hope in One who brings the beginning to birth.

How would the Markan performer present this part of the script? There may be clues to such performances in the text. And those clues may help us to experience the text a bit more like the first audiences did. I would encourage you to read Mark 13 aloud several times and try to experience what it would be like to speak these words aloud to a living audience. I find that this affects my responses as an interpreter.

The text begins in a “third-person” mode. We are spectators as the anonymous disciple raises his question about the temple. But that indirect mode of address quickly turns to a “second-person” perspective. “Are you seeing these large buildings?”

The shift goes from “him” to “you” very quickly. There is a brief respite from that in-your-face conversation back to the third person for a moment in verse 3. I can imagine the performer turning more directly to the audience and looking people in the eye. Even though the audience would not be looking at the Temple in person, many in the crowd would be able to recover images of that Temple in their imaginations.

Remember that the text is spoken after the Temple has been reduced to ruins. Inviting the listeners to bring the Temple to mind would likely lead them to feelings of fear, anger, grief, and shock. At least some may have worshipped in the Jerusalem Temple before its destruction. Some may have witnessed that destruction as they escaped from Jerusalem one step ahead of the Roman occupiers. I am moved by this imaginative effort at some empathy which deepens the pathos of the text.

If that was the experience of those early audiences, it’s no wonder that there is a small break, perhaps, between verses two and three. The listeners have been smacked in the mouth, rhetorically, with memories of tragedy and trauma. They probably needed a moment to recover before the onslaught continued. I imagine the whole crowd taking a deep breath after verse 2 and the performer allowing for and even imitating that pause.

The four disciples speak the anxieties of the audience in their questions. The listeners are drawn back in because they too would like to know the underlying code if that’s possible. The performer turns from the third-person narration back to the second-person (plural) confrontation.

This is the power, as is so often the case in the Markan composition, of the quoted dialogue. “See that you are not deceived,” Jesus says. I cannot imagine playing this line in any way other than looking at the listeners right through the “fourth wall” of the performance. This direct address doesn’t let up until the end of chapter thirteen.

Joanna Dewey argues that “in the very oral performance of these speeches, Jesus is made present to audiences. The hearers of the Gospel experience being directly addressed by Jesus” (page 117).

I would argue, in fact, that the Little Apocalypse is framed by direct addresses to the audience. There is the initial order to look at the great building and to look to oneself. And there is the final admonition to one and all to keep watch. Dewey says this final admonition “is easily understood in the context of oral performance, for performers often make asides to their audiences in character” (page 118).

The focus of literary criticism and interpretation of scriptural accounts is typically on the meaning of what has been written. We preachers try to figure out “the point” and then translate that to our current settings. The focus of performance criticism, however, is to help us experience the impact of what is being spoken. Meaning and impact are certainly related. But the Markan composer is not merely in the business of information transfer. The composer is in the business of provoking responses.

Dewey argues, in line with most Markan scholars now, “that the Gospel of Mark was composed around 70 CE, in response in part to the First Roman-Jewish War and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. I agree that it is ‘hot memory,’” she continues, “serving that present situation, not an attempt to preserve some earlier pristine past” (page 111).

This makes the Little Apocalypse a critical section for understanding the Markan composition. I have often been reminded by commentators that the narrative of the composition could flow uninterrupted from the Poor Widow’s Offering to the beginning of chapter 14 without the inclusion of chapter 13. In fact, that may have been the shape of the script until the events of 66 to 70 CE in Judea.

With Jerusalem and the Temple in ruins and prisoners being executed in Rome, it became not only necessary but critical to include some interpretation of those events in the Markan composition. This doesn’t require the proposal that the Markan composer either made up the Little Apocalypse or hijacked it from some other source. Jesus’ words, or some reasonable facsimile thereof, made sense in the days of his earthly ministry. But they took on real urgency once there was no longer “one stone left upon another.”

With this narrative framework in mind, the address to the audience takes on a bit more clarity. “I would argue,” Dewey writes “that Mark is simply separating the expectation of the return of the Son of Humanity from the events of the Roman-Jewish War” (page 115). Part of the impact of the direct address is to shift the attention of the audience from those “prophets” who saw the destruction of the Temple as the “end” and to the narrative that sees it as the “beginning.”

Times of disorientation, dislocation, and disintegration lend themselves especially to the machinations and manipulations of false messiahs. While government authorities will persecute the Jesus followers and family members will betray them, it is only the false messiahs who will mislead and deceive them.

Dewey, following Werner Kelber, argues that these false messiahs are, in fact, leaders of the Markan community. These are not, Dewey argues, to be seen as equivalent to The Twelve or their successors. Instead, they are leaders who arise, I take it, in the midst of the crisis and seek to lead the community in the direction of end times speculation rather than in the direction of patient endurance.

In my parish ministry, I learned that whenever a crisis of meaning or identity faced the dominant culture in the United States, one or more parishioners would approach me and ask, “Pastor, do you think we’re in the End Times?” In my pastoral youth, I discounted such questions with overly long disquisitions on the nature of apocalyptic and our hope in the gospel. I wasn’t necessarily wrong, but I was neither pastoral nor helpful.

After a while, I began to answer the question with a qualified “yes.” While I take seriously the reminder that eschatological calendars and timetables are both a waste of time and bordering on heresy, I also know that we often find ourselves at “the end of the world as we know it.” The Millennium Bug, the Iraq War (either version), Hurricane Katrina (or others), the 2008 financial crisis, the election of Barak Obama, Antiracism protests, Covidtide, and a dozen other events have produced the question in congregations I served – and for very good reasons.

After more of a while, I began to answer the question with “I hope so.” This is the Good News of Christian apocalyptic discourses. It is not that we are about to experience the Rapture or Armageddon, to ride with the Four Horsemen or to flee to the mountains beyond Judea. Instead, I hope we are always witnessing a fresh outbreak of the Kin(g)dom of God drawing near. I hope that we are always, as Jesus followers at least, changing our minds and putting our trust in the Good News.

Let the reader understand…

References and Resources

Brobst-Renaud, Amanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33-2/commentary-on-mark-131-8-5.

Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Dein, Simon. “Covid-19 and the Apocalypse: Religious and Secular Perspectives.” Journal of religion and health vol. 60,1 (2021): 5-15. doi:10.1007/s10943-020-01100-w.

Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.

Text Study for Mark 13:1-37 (Pt. 3); November 14, 2021

Back to Beginnings

“A beginning,” Frank Herbert wrote in Dune “is a very delicate time.” The Markan composer knows this narrative and historical truth well. He winds up his audience with threats of false messiahs (a running theme in the Dune series, by the way), wars and rumors of wars. The birthing of all this upheaval shall be “necessary,” the composer declares, but contrary to expectations it is not yet The End (Mark 13:7).

It may be that the Markan composer uses that indefinite Greek verb, dei, to indicate that all of this upheaval is God’s mysterious doing. When you hear these things, Jesus says, don’t be caught off guard. Things are happening within God’s intentions, no matter how frightening things may seem. The surface appearance is not all that is going on here.

Nonetheless, things will be difficult. International chaos will be mirrored by the shaking of the very ground under our feet. There shall be hunger – whether for food or God’s word, or both is left unclear. These things are the beginning of the birth pains. There is no connective between this last phrase and what precedes it, neither additive nor adversative. The “but” included in the NRSV translation of verse 8b may be permitted from the context but does not occur in the text itself.

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Pexels.com

There is no paragraph or section break between verses eight and nine in the critical editions of the text. From a performance critical perspective, we might make the case for that break since there is a “but” near the beginning of verse nine. Nonetheless, there is (as far as I can tell) no clear indication if the “birth pains” are a conclusion to verses five through eight or the beginning of verses nine through thirteen.

The right answer is probably “yes.” This beginning refers to all of the eschatological woes listed in verses five through thirteen. For that reason, I think it is a significant error to stop reading at verse eight in public worship this week. As I continue to reflect on the text, I think I might re-read the story of the widow’s offering at the end of chapter twelve and then read through verse thirteen.

I know that the “punch line” about the beginning is perhaps less uncomfortable than the “punch line” about being saved through enduring to the end. Well, preacher friends, that is (as they say) why we get the big money. The focus on patient endurance (Greek = hupomene and related terms) is a hallmark, certainly, of apocalyptic in the Christian scriptures.

The word appears at least six times, for example, in the Book of Revelation. John the Revelator shares in both the persecution and the patient endurance of the congregations in Asia Minor (1:9). He commends the patient endurance of the believers at Ephesus (2:2), Thyatira (2:19), and Philadelphia (3:10). He commends nonviolent resistance to persecution and describes it as “patient endurance and faithfulness of the saints” (13:10). In 14:12, he describes that patient endurance and faithfulness of the saints as keeping the commandments and holding fast to the faithfulness of Jesus.

This theme of patient endurance to the end is point two in the three-part structure of the Little Apocalypse. The eschatological woes are the beginning of something, not the end (verses 5-8). The faithful will endure to the real end, even though things may get even worse (verses 9-22) This endurance will come as the gift of the Holy Spirit, most audible in the form of testimony during trials. The spiritual posture of the faithful must be watchful discernment (verses 23-37).

As always with the Markan composition, details matter. These things are “the beginning.” If we have listened to the Markan performance from chapter one, verse one, our ears will perk up at this moment. “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” the composer declares in the first words of the script (Mark 1:1). It is this Good News which is turning the world “right side up” as Richard Swanson would put it. Any beginnings are rooted in and flow out of that beginning.

The proper response to that Good News is to know that the proper time is now fulfilled and that the Kin(g)dom of God has drawn near. Jesus calls us to “change our minds” and put our trust in that Good News. If apocalyptic is an uncovering of what’s really going on, then the ability to see, hear, and understand what’s really going on requires that changed mind, which goes by the humble title of “repentance.”

This change of mind cannot arise naturally or spontaneously. Instead, it is formed first by Jesus’ teaching. An anonymous disciple marvels at the scale of the Temple architecture and construction. Jesus offers a bit of perspective, noting that the grand structure shall be “thrown down.”

Before I go on to Jesus’ private teaching, it’s worth pausing for a bit on the verb used at the end of verse two. It certainly means “to be thrown down” or destroyed. However, I noticed that this is also the word that gives us our English words, “catalysis” and related terms. It literally means to “loosen something down.” A catalyst is a compound that actually facilitates other reactions, in part by dissolving or breaking down old things in order to produce new things.

The Markan composition is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That Good News can only be appropriated by a change of mind that puts living and dying trust in that Good News. The “old order” is dissolving, sometimes slowly and sometimes in the suddenness of catastrophe. It takes trained and formed eyes to see and ears to hear the rustles of the beginning that is really closer to us than our own breath.

The “Fallible Four” – the Markan composer’s favorite foils for Jesus’ private teaching – ask the obvious questions. When will these things be? And what is the sign when all these things are about to come together in the end? Not so fast, Jesus instructs them. Disciples don’t get to skip the middle bits. It will be messy – worse before it gets better – but hang in there. Pregnancy produces progeny. Labor leads to birth.

At our house, we are fans of the BBC series, Call the Midwife. These days that is about the only “appointment TV” on our weekly schedules. The writers tell a variety of human, social and cultural stories in the drama. But they never lose touch with the real reason the midwives do their work. All the stories remain in the service of bringing children to birth. Every episode has at least one (and often several) depictions of women in labor and delivery, moving from the agony of the contractions to the ecstasy of the delivery. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.

We can get caught up in the details of our life dramas, since that’s what we live intimately day in and day out. That was likely a risk for the Markan community as well. Amanda Brobst-Renaud refers to a recent article by Simon Dein on the relationship between current crises and apocalyptic thinking in our own contexts. That article is available online and worth a firsthand read.

“Pandemics,” Dein writes, “indicate the fragility of life and the world, chaos, engender paralysing anxiety that the world is dissolving, a sense of detachment and raise significant issues of meaning resulting in existential crises.” He suggests that such a crisis puts into doubt our accepted systems of symbolism, significance, and sense. As a result, we cast about for other explanatory systems to manage the mess.

“Our current plausibility structures upon which the existence of society is dependent are (sic) threatened,” Dein writes, “and we are urgently in need of alternative sociocultural contexts to provide structures of meaning.” I would suggest that this need explains at least to some degree, for example, the phobias regarding masks and vaccines and the continued attraction of informal apocalyptic schemas such as the QAnon conspiracy cluster. More on that, perhaps, later.

Dein notes that apocalyptic literature, therefore, is not only “religious” in background and context. In fact, I would argue, that we live in an era of hybrid religio-secular apocalypses resulting in such things as the “Christian Nationalism” at the root of the January 6th insurrection. From that perspective, the Covid crisis is uncovering a decay in the “Real America” of Christian Nationalist mythology. Since this is an existential crisis, it’s no wonder that as many as a third of the proponents of this mythology believe that public violence will be the result and solution.

The Covid crisis also provides the opportunity for more “left-leaning” apocalyptic scenarios. I find these more based in evidence and less in ideology, but such views are not without their own mythologies. That being said, Dein puts it this way. “The Covid crisis is revealing health care inequalities, class divisions, unequal distribution of power, and the fact that the most important workers in American society are among the least paid. Health inequalities have been brought into sharp focus and the crisis has exposed the structural disadvantage and discrimination faced by parts of the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.”

All that being said, Dein reminds us that the fundamental perspective of apocalyptic literature in the end is that of hope. Things are not as they ought to be. The current situation is dissolving under the weight of its own dysfunction. Something new is being born among us. The question is not whether we face an apocalyptic crisis. Humans always face such crises, to one degree or another. The question is, rather, whether we have placed our hope in One who brings the beginning to birth.

References and Resources

Brobst-Renaud, Amanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33-2/commentary-on-mark-131-8-5.

Dein, Simon. “Covid-19 and the Apocalypse: Religious and Secular Perspectives.” Journal of religion and health vol. 60,1 (2021): 5-15. doi:10.1007/s10943-020-01100-w.

Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.

Text Study for Mark 13:1-37 (Pt. 1); November 14, 2021

Peeking Under the Covers

Mark 13 is often referred to as the Markan “Little Apocalypse.” Jesus discusses the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in response to the gee-whiz comments of one of the disciples in Mark 13:1. We should note that the Markan composition is performed and transcribed during and after the Jewish War of 66-70 CE. Therefore, the described destruction is now accomplished fact. We can talk later about why that is important in the Markan composition.

For now, however, I want to focus on and remind us of the nature of apocalyptic literature in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and beyond. While the Book of Revelation is, perhaps, the best known and most studied apocalyptic document around the first century, it is by no means the only such document. It demonstrates characteristics that can help us to understand and interpret other apocalyptic documents, such as Mark 13.

The Greek verb, apokalupto, means to “reveal” or to “disclose.” The literal meaning, when we take the word apart, means something like “to remove the cover” or “to bring out from hiding.” Apocalyptic literature uncovers what is happening far more than it seeks to predict what will happen.

Photo by David Huck on Pexels.com

Apocalyptic literature is a kind of prophecy, but it is prophecy in the sense of most prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures. It is not foretelling so much as it is forth-telling. Pablo Richard, in his book, Apocalypse, offers several guidelines for interpretation here. While he is speaking specifically about the Book of Revelation, most of his guidelines are applicable to Mark 13 as well. So, I will share selections from those guidelines to assist us in our grappling with the text.

Richard notes that apocalyptic literature arises in times of persecution. In particular, such literature comes to the fore in situations of chaos, exclusion, and ongoing oppression. The eschatology (discussion of the “last things”) in such literature takes place in the present of the composer rather than in the future.

If, for example, the Markan composition comes to light during and after the Jewish War and the persecutions before, during, and after it, then the discussions of persecution, trial, family division, and the need for endurance were issues for those listening to the composition. It may be that the “desolating sacrilege” (Mark 13:14ff.) has already taken place and needs to be interpreted. The necessity for alertness is clearly addressed to the listeners in Mark 13:37.

Richard notes that Revelation (and, I would say, Christian apocalyptic in general) is about the process of history rather than events at the end of history. Therefore, for example, the little parable of the fig tree (Mark 13:28-31) shows how history really works. Apocalyptic literature uncovers the work of God in and through history as well as the work that transcends that history. So, we have both the description of the earthly tribulations and the expectations of cosmic disruptions in Mark 13:24-27.

The Little Apocalypse unites apocalyptic and prophecy, I would argue, just as does the Revelation to John. As in the case of John’s apocalypse, some of this “prophecy” is almost certainly after the fact, pointing to events that had not yet happened in Jesus’ time, but which had taken place by the time the Markan composition was performed. The Little Apocalypse explains and interprets far more than it predicts.

Apocalyptic literature brings together eschatology and politics. We can certainly see that in Mark 13. And Richard urges us to interpret apocalyptic literature in the historical context in which it arose.

Therefore, the Little Apocalypse made sense to those first performers and listeners. It helped them to understand, interpret, and endure their experiences as Jesus followers. If the Little Apocalypse became meaningful only in our time, as some interpreters would argue, it is unlikely that it would have been preserved by all those people confused by the opaqueness of a document not meant for them.

“The content of revelation is the reality of heaven,” Richard writes, “that is, the transcendent world of the presences of God in history. The opposite of revelation is covering up,” he continues, “what today we would call ideology. Ideology serves to conceal injustices and legitimize domination. Apocalypse un-conceals the world of the poor and legitimizes their struggle for the reign of God, which is life and liberation. This liberation is therefore,” he concludes, “good news for the poor” (page 37).

I think it is critical to remember the way in which the Markan composer frames the Little Apocalypse. Last week we read and studied the basis for the Little Apocalypse in the critique of the greedy scribes and the offering of the poor widow. Jesus sat “opposite” the Temple treasury in Mark 12:41. That word can have the sense of being in contradiction of or in opposition to something. It’s important to remember that position, not only in terms of geography but also in terms of theology.

Then in Mark 13, Jesus leaves the Temple and sits “opposite” the Temple, gazing on it from the Mount of Olives. The word for “opposite” is the same as in the previous passage. By now we should know that such repetition is neither accident nor coincidence in the Markan composition. Something interesting is going on here.

Following the Little Apocalypse is the story of the woman at Bethany who anoints Jesus’ head. The text begins with the brief reminder that the chief priests and the scribes were looking for an opportunity to remove the troublemaker (or to put down a dangerous disruptor, depending on your perspective). The woman is scolded for wasting money that could have been given to the poor. Woman, money, poor – the Markan composer wants us to see that this is connected to the other piece of the frame in Mark 12.

I find it most helpful to read apocalyptic literature as a method of theological and social analysis rather than as mere history or fantastic prediction. The method is to uncover Reality, insofar as it is possible, from God’s point of view rather than from the view of human power structures. The analytical framework of the Little Apocalypse, therefore, is about the exploitation of the poor for the sake of the Jerusalem elites in the first century. What can we take from the analysis for our own Way of discipleship? That’s part of the question for this week.

When an ideological system perceives challenges and threats to itself, it responds first with falsehood. I can’t help but think of the pseudo-messianic claims of the previous president, for example. “I alone can fix it,” he declared in 2016. I live in a neighborhood where there is flag promoting the candidacy of that former president in 2024 with the slogan, “Saving America Again.”

The Markan composer notes that many will come in Jesus’ name and say “I am.” If you recall the extended discussions of that phrase in connection with the Gospel of John, you will remember that this assertion vibrates with claims of divinity. Those vibrations take us all the way back to the call of Moses in Exodus. The ones who make such claims will deceive many and lead them into error. “Astray” is not just being lost here. It is being mistaken.

A threatened ideological system will seek to displace the blame for problems on to outside agents and structures. Every autocrat needs a credible and demonic enemy or two. “Wars and rumors of wars” are useful for maintaining the level of anxiety necessary to keep people from risking resistance.

These days the threats are caravans of migrants overwhelming the southern borders of the United States and rabid socialists overwhelming the moral resources of the individualist, capitalist regime. Always lurking in the background, and now in the open, is the bugbear of the black beast, ready at a moment’s notice to rape white women and steal white property. Many are led into error these days by such ideological nonsense.

When messianic promises and demonizing the Other are not sufficient to maintain power, then actual violence is employed. The description in Mark 13:9-13 is specific and precise. I suspect that some of the listeners to Markan composition could nod in remembrance of their own experiences, finger their own scars, and mourn those who had not endured or survived.

Wherever the Markan composition was produced and performed, there would likely be in the audience refugees from the Jewish War who had fled to the mountains to escape the disaster. There were those who left everything to get away. There were some who lost children on the trip. In the midst of the chaos and dislocation, there would certainly be those who still claim to be the only ones who could fix it.

The framing of the Little Apocalypse in the Markan composition leads us to believe that the “problem” was the Imperial system of wealth extraction, undergirded by the public theology of the emperor as savior and son of a god. The Jerusalem Temple and its functionaries had a complicated relationship with that system and that theology – neither all good nor bad. But in the end, that system could tolerate no resistance. And the oppressed could not the tolerate the deception and theft. There was war.

We can ask ourselves, in this time of dislocation and deconstruction, what ideologies are being uncovered for what they truly are? The ideology of Christian Nationalism, which is the framework and foundation of four centuries of White Supremacy on this continent, is perhaps the most obvious candidate for discussion here. There is a great uncovering happening in our time. And the response is predictable – messianic promises, externalized threats, and violent suppression. While that response was more in the shadows in the past, it is now quite in the open and is celebrated by at least a third of the population (far more among so-called “Evangelical Christians”).

I don’t know that most of us white preachers are going to make that direct connection in our sermons this week (unless we have our walking papers prepared for execution). But at least we might raise the question, after helping people to begin to understand what Mark 13 is about. What systems are being uncovered among us now for what they truly are? Will we resist and testify? Or will we retreat and ossify?

For me, at least, the verdict is (I am sad to say) still in doubt…

References and Resources

Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.