Text Study for Luke 21:1-36 (Pt. 2); November 28, 2021

Re-narrating Recovery

The move from the Markan composition to the Lukan history is a move from “immediately” to “now what?” While the tragedies and traumas of the late 60s did not result in the automatic End of the Age, as some might have expected, the Markan composition did not propose a long delay before the Final Consummation. The urgent task was to get the Word out to as many as possible before that last act took place.

With the passing of a generation, the task had changed. The End of the Age would surely come in God’s good time. But that time was apparently further in the future than anyone could have imagined twenty-five years earlier. Life in the Empire had continued uninterrupted. A new stability had been achieved for the Empire, while the small movement of Jesus followers remained in a precarious and sometimes persecuted position.

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The story of the End of the World as We Know It was not a temporary discomfort but rather a long-term reality. The necessity to deal with the trauma was becoming more pressing, I suspect, not less, for the Lukan communities. Someone had to try to draw the narrative, historical, and theological threads into one garment. Someone had to tell the story in such a way that the mission could continue.

At the same time, the Jesus movement was entering a third generation of followers. This generation no longer had the first-person testimonies of original witnesses. This generation was losing the voices of those who could tell the stories from memory as they had heard them from those witnesses. The movement was growing in numbers and continuing to deepen its presence in the Imperial system.

It is, therefore, not surprising that this point in the historical process produced two efforts to put the story in order for the new audiences and readers. The writers of the gospels of Matthew and Luke used material from the common store of early Christian memory – some form of the Markan transcript, early sayings material that scholars sometimes refer to as “Q” (from the German word for “source”), and materials specific to each of their own communities and traditions.

The writer of Luke’s gospel was the most intentional in this task of re-telling. One of the functions of these Advent messages in the three-year lectionary tradition is to give opportunities to reintroduce our listeners to the purposes and themes of the Lukan account which will occupy us during the next year. One of those purposes is the giving of an “orderly account” of the Gospel to those who might be interested.

It’s always good to return to the preface of Luke’s gospel in Luke 1:1-4 to understand and appreciate what we have before us this year. The writer of Luke’s gospel acknowledges that others have tried to write down an ordered account “of the events that have been fulfilled among us.” This is certainly a nod to the Markan account, Q, and other such records.

The writer also acknowledges a debt to the tradition that has been “handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” We have here a description of the first two generations of storytellers. The writer has decided to take another whack at pulling things together, this time for “most excellent Theophilus,” one who has received instruction in following Jesus and now is ready for the full story.

The contrast between this leisurely and diplomatic Lukan introduction and the prologue to the Markan composition could not be much more pronounced. “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” – ready, set, go!” The Lukan account is a careful compilation and consideration, designed for people with the luxury of time and an eye toward following Jesus for the long haul.

The move from Mark to Luke is also the move from an oral/aural transcript created to be heard (and perhaps created by hearing) to a written history drafted and crafted in order to be read (probably aloud, but still read). “Though contemporary scholarship has become aware of the deep significance of the origin of the gospels as oral stories,” Richard Swanson writes, “interpreters have noted that Luke feels and reads more like a ‘page text’ than an oral text” (page 22).

As I noted, the written account arises from a need to pull things together. “Luke’s story also comes out of a painful history, a time of disaster, a time when religious tradition gave desperate birth to hopes for the consolation of an abused people,” Swanson continues (page 23). “To see signs in the sun, moon, and stars would indicate that somehow the terrible chaos on earth had shaken all stability out of place. These are children at worship,” Swanson notes, “who have seen these signs, who have learned, painfully, that comfortable stability is an illusion” (page 53).

And as I noted in the previous post, Luke’s readers are learning about, remembering, and dealing with trauma now three decades old. Clearly that trauma, however, has not been tamed. A traumatic experience is not merely remembered. It is relived and repeated until the sufferer can accept the memory as a companion rather than an enemy. But how does that happen?

“At the heart of the clinical material on recovery,” Serene Jones writes, “are three insights about this process, insights useful for the theological-imaginative task” (page 32). First, Jones notes, those who have experienced trauma need to tell their story. Second, those who have experienced trauma need accepting, safe, and reliable witnesses to hear their story. Third, she continues, the testifier and the witness must launch into “the process of telling a new, different story together: we must begin to pave a new road through the brain” (page 32).

Human memory is a complex reality. We are not audio and video recording devices. We are story-tellers. Each time we remember and re-narrate an event, we grow the story in some particular way. We are not simply re-tracing the neural connections laid down to preserve our memories. We are strengthening the existing connections and creating new ones.

In the case of trauma, this telling of a new, different story “does not mean forgetting the past,” Jones writes, “rather it means re-narrating the events in such a way that agency is returned, and hope (a future) is possible” (page 32). Jones summarizes what this means for the Church:

“To translate these three insights about recovery and healing into the language of theology, as the church, we are called to be those who testify, who try to tell the story of what happened in its fullness; those who witness, who receive the story of violence and create a safe space for its healing; those who reimage the future by telling yet again—without denying the event of violence now woven into it—the story of our faith” (page 33).

This conversation about the nature of the telling the new and different story reminds me of the insights I have learned from work on the psychology of hope by C. Richard Snyder and his colleagues. They describe the psychology of hope as having three components: “willpower” (the capacity to choose a course of action), “waypower” (the existence of one or more potential courses of action), and “why power” (the goal, purpose, or end to be achieved by the potential course or courses of action). The new and different story assists, perhaps, in expressing these elements to people who have lost their sense of will, way, and/or why.

Jones notes that the Lukan account has a paradigmatic story about Jesus followers who thought they had lost their sense of will, way, and why. It’s the Emmaus Road story in Luke 24. As we live with the Lukan story this year, it’s important always to keep in the backs of our minds the plaintive resignation of the two disciples: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21, NRSV).

We learn, of course, that Jesus is precisely the one who is to redeem Israel and to be the source of repentance and forgiveness for all the Gentiles. But it doesn’t happen in the expected ways. Nor does it happen according to the expected time frame.

This is going to take longer than we thought.

It’s obvious that I am grieving the necessity to put the Markan composition aside for another three years. But it is clear that this Lukan account has much to offer for this time of the life of the Church. In North America, we certainly live in a “now what?” and “what’s next?” moment for congregations, denominations, and the Jesus follower movement as a whole. The voices that declare the end of the church world as we know it are swelling to a chorus, while the voices discussing how the new world will appear rise barely above a whisper.

This is going to take longer than we thought.

We can begin to see the outlines of “life after” (perhaps) – life after The Pandemic, life after The Insurrection, life after…Well, we’re not really in the “after” stage of very much yet. We’re still in the stage of longing to return to things as they were. But going back will only multiply the trauma and hinder the process of recovering. The same story leaves us in the same spot. It is only the new and different story that can take us forward.

Perhaps part of the Lukan account, especially in the Apocalyptic Discourse, is to urge us to resist distractions. The bangs and booms, the lighting and thunder, the disruptions and persecutions – these certainly might seem to us like the most important features of the story. But they are not. They are signposts, not the road. “Now when these things begin to take place,” the Lukan author encourages us, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” Luke 21:28, NRSV). That’s the good news of this text. But…

This is going to take longer than we thought.

References and Resources

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

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

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

More Than a Rerun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and Resources

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

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