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

November 13, 2022

23 Pentecost C

“It’s tough to make predictions,” said that great philosopher, Yogi Berra, “especially about the future.” In our text for Sunday, Jesus makes a prediction about the future state of the Temple. The Jerusalem Temple was, in the first half of the first century CE, regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings in the Roman Empire. To suggest that not one stone would be left upon another was, to say the least, an audacious prediction. Some of those stones were the size of railroad boxcars.

The disciples were, predictably, confused and concerned. They inquired of him, saying, “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). The disciples want to be prepared for such a cataclysm. If Jesus can predict the end of the Temple as they know it, Jesus ought to be able to offer a few more specifics to his inner circle of followers.

Photo by Enrique Zafra on Pexels.com

Like all living things, we humans are creatures of the present moment. We live in that neurological space between the reception of sensory input and our processing and evaluation of that input. That brief time is the real “present” we inhabit. Any other sense of the “present” is at best a construction. Much of what we would call “the present time,” for example, is really in the past. It is only “present” to us because we hold it in memory and find it familiar.

Because we live on this ever-moving line between the past and the future, we are, like all living things, prediction engines. Predicting is what we do. It’s what kept us alive on the savannahs and in the forests when we were still hunters and gatherers millennia ago. Accurate prediction is what keeps us alive and healthy now. Accurate prediction keeps us in relationships and communities.

“The main task of brains,” David Christian writes in his book, Future Stories, “is to think about and model likely futures with just the right balance between precision and generality” (page 102). We use large parts of our neurological capacity to create maps of the world around us. Those maps contain numerous cause and effect relationships rooted in our memories. We discern patterns in those relationships and make predictions based on what we have observed. “Prediction,” Christian quotes the philosopher Patricia Churchland as saying, “is the ultimate and most pervasive of brain functions” (see Christian, page 102 footnote).

I serve people for whom accurate prediction makes the difference between economic flourishing and financial ruin. American farmers must be experts at forecasting the future – at least for the next growing season and preferably for the next few years. Farmers make predictions about which crops will produce the greatest net revenue in the next year. They make predictions about the future costs of inputs and the future prices of commodities. They make predictions about weather and climate, about equipment and techniques, about interest rates and land prices.

Like any dealers in commodities, farmers often work with “futures markets.” These markets are organized bets about the directions of supply and demand in the coming months and years. Farmers will “contract forward” to lock in prices on grain and livestock. Or farmers may use some of their production to go into day trading and ride the ebbs and flows of the spot market. It’s no different than the petroleum market, the markets in precious metals, or the market in financial securities that we call the stock market. Accurate prediction can reduce risk and lock in profits. Inaccurate prediction may produce disaster.

It may be that the Lukan author is engaging in post-diction rather than prediction. The Lukan author composed this account for Theophilus as much as twenty-five years after the destruction of Jerusalem between 66 and 70 CE. Therefore, the descriptions we have in our text are not predictions as such. Instead, they are reports of what actually happened to the Temple and to Jerusalem during the Jewish War for independence. We have extra-biblical sources which also describe what happened during that time. We know that the words of Jesus are fairly mild descriptions of the horrific suffering and death that occurred.

On the other hand, Jesus had more than sufficient information about what might happen to the Temple and Jerusalem if the Temple leadership continued to pursue their current trajectory. David Christian outlines the general principles for anticipating and managing futures. The first of those principles is that we have no evidence from the future. He quotes the idealist historian and philosopher of history, R. G. Collingwood, who reminded us that the future leaves no documents for us to check.

Therefore, the only evidence we have for likely futures lies in the past. How we view and evaluate that evidence, however, can shape how we behave in the future. In order to make more accurate predictions, we can investigate the intentions others have about the future. And we can study past trends and make projections. Jesus could certainly see that the combination of elite collaboration with and rural resistance to the Romans was going to result in a crisis at some point. In the past such crises had resulted in the destruction of a previous temple. The pattern was about to repeat.

It seems to me that the Lukan author has a tradition of Jesus making these predictions. That tradition appears in the other synoptics with some differences. But each of the synoptic writers uses that apocalyptic tradition to make somewhat different points. For the Lukan author, part of the point is that the end of the age has been delayed. Some may announce that now is the time. Don’t listen. Terrible things may happen, but that’s only the beginning. Other things have to happen first.

The time of delay, according to the Lukan author, is the time for testifying. This is stated clearly in Luke 21:13. This time of disruption and destruction will lead to opportunities whose purpose is “martyrion.” That Greek word can mean suffering and dying for one’s convictions. It will come more and more to mean that in the succeeding generations. But it’s basic meaning is to bear witness, to testify, or to give evidence. That’s what the delay is “for.”

The Lukan audience is painfully aware that Jesus’ predictions in the text came to pass, and much more. That crisis, however, is in the past. It seems clear that the Lukan audience members are facing their own crises in the present. And the Lukan author wants to remind them that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Just as it was a time for testimony in the first Christian generation, so it remains for succeeding generations.

I encourage you to imagine that you are in that Lukan audience. You listen to the text being told aloud. Perhaps you want to read the text aloud to yourself to really get a feel for that. Notice that Jesus is addressing “you,” the audience members. This is not an arms-length, third-person, report. These words are being spoken to you, right here and right now. The text is filled with commands. Beware that you are not led astray. Do not go after them. Make up your minds. These are things that the Lukan audience members need to do right here and right now.

Jesus does not hedge his bets with conditional verbs and percentage predictions. All will be thrown down. Nations will war. Natural disasters will come. Signs will appear. You will be persecuted. You will be betrayed. Some of you will be executed. Imagine that you’ve experienced at least some of these things in the recent past. You know people who’ve been arrested, tortured, put to death. “The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “It’s not even past.”

“By your patient endurance,” Jesus promises, “you will have gained your very selves” (Luke 20:19, my translation). This is how disciples respond to the crises all around us. “Patient endurance” is such a wonderful Greek word – “hupomoneh.” Literally it means to “remain under.” It means to bear up under the threats and burdens of life, to refuse delivery on despair, to push back on panic.

It is a counterintuitive response, given all the description up to this point. But the punchline of our text is in verse eighteen – “and not a hair on your heads shall perish.” It’s not that no one will suffer and die. Remember, we are the folks who save our lives by dying. But we are also resurrection people. In the resurrection, nothing good will be lost. The crisis is only one point on this journey. It’s not the end of the line. The most important fact to pull from our recollections of the past is that God is faithful.

And that will be the most important conclusion to draw from the “future” as well. Remember that our text comes in that crisis time between the Triumphal Entry and the Crucifixion. Next week we will be reminded that not even death itself can overcome the faithfulness of God in Christ. It is to that power that we Jesus followers will be called to testify. We’ll reflect more on several of these topics in the posts to come.

Resources and References

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