Luke 20:1-8: One day as Jesus was teaching - in Luke’s gospel, Jesus spends an extended time in Jerusalem teaching and preaching in the Temple. These two chapters provide Luke’s picture of those days of teaching. Two groups are prominent throughout - the people and the authorities. Appropriately enough, it begins with chief priests, scribes and elders asking Jesus by what authority he teaches. He does not answer the question directly but puts a question back to them – by whose authority did John teach? They cannot answer. They are unwilling to acknowledge that God seemed to be doing something new in both John and, now especially, in Jesus. The chief priests exercised both political and religious leadership in Jerusalem, but under Roman watch. They had to negotiate with Rome and would have been highly suspicious of wandering teachers who had garnered a following. Public order was one of their highest values, but sometimes the usual order of things needs to be questions, needs to be disturbed.
Luke 20:9-19: While Jesus has not responded directly to the question posed by the authorities, he seems to use this story to offer an answer, and he tells the story to all the people. The story is about a vineyard owner who leases out his vineyard, and then sends representatives back to collect his share of the produce. The tenants revolt, even to the point of killing the owner’s son. I have often thought this a strange element in the story, but it may have reflected current law in which, if an owner of leased land died without an heir, the land would revert to the tenants. In any event, the owner will throw the tenants out for their misdeeds. In story form, Jesus asserts his own authority as one coming from God and diminished the authority of those with positions in the religious and political power structure. They don’t miss the point, and it fuels their anger. Yet because of the people, they are afraid to act.
Luke 20:20-26: The authorities take another tack. They hire spies to pose a difficult question to Jesus, in order to trap him. They ask Jesus about the appropriateness of paying taxes to Rome. Remember, Rome is an occupying force, a conquering government that rules with a heavy hand. It seems like a no-win question. But Jesus is wise and shrewd. He asks them for a Roman coin, and the fact that they carry one takes away some of their phony anti-establishment bent. Then Jesus replies simply that given that the coin belongs to Caesar anyway, give it back to Caesar. All things belong to God, but supporting political authority to some extent is permissible, and so might resisting political authority to some extent. Jesus gives no hard and fast rules regarding church/state issues. Christians are engaged in both and have responsibilities in both.
Luke 20:27-40: Another group of Jewish leaders become the prime questioners of Jesus, the Sadducees. For Luke, the Sadducees whose emphasis was on the Torah as the primary text for Jewish religious life and practice, were always hostile to Jesus and the early church. The Sadducees “belonged to the wealthy, conservative, priestly stream of Judaism associated with the temple leadership” (Peoples New Testament Commentary). Looking primarily to the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Sadducees rejected ideas that had a later development within the tradition of the Hebrew faith, including the idea of “resurrection.” They pose a question based on the Torah about who would be married to whom in the afterlife if there were a resurrection. Jesus responds with an appeal to another part of the Torah in defending the idea of resurrection, and the idea that God is a God of the living and not the dead. Resurrection life, a gift from God, will be different in kind from this life, and the current arrangements may not apply. The main point of the story is not what the afterlife will be like, but on Jesus as a wise interpreter of the tradition, and on God as one who has the power to give life.
Luke 20:41-44: Jesus now asks the questions. The question is strange to our ears, but for Luke it one way of again asserting the importance of Jesus, using words that may go back to Jesus himself. Both Matthew and Mark report this saying of Jesus. “For Luke, Jesus is the true Son of David, but he will represent God’s kingship in a way radically different from the nationalistic and violent David” (Peoples New Testament Commentary).
Luke 20:45-47: Jesus now addresses the disciples, but in earshot of the crowds, warning them against the scribes, or at least certain practices of some scribes. Matthew had included the Pharisees in Jesus condemnation. Prayer and injustice don’t belong together. Religious piety that remains on the surface and does not lead to a transformed heart and life is not what Jesus is after, but rather, with the prophets he seeks a change of heart so that persons then do justice, love kindness and walk with God (Micah 6:8).
Luke 21:1-4: Luke uses this story from Mark, a story Matthew chose not to use. Jesus commends the giving of a widow. While her gift may not be as “valuable” as the gifts of more wealthy contributors, nevertheless she has “put in more than all of them” because she has given from the very core of herself. This is a challenging story, not easily reducible to a simple action plan for today’s disciples.
Luke 21:5-6: The scene remains the Temple, but now the focus shifts from those contributing to the Temple treasury to the Temple itself. Here it is some who speak of the temple, not the disciples, as in Matthew and Mark. The beauty of the temple was being appreciated and Jesus says that some day not stone will be left on top of another. This never happened in a completely literal sense, one can still go to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Yet the Temple was destroyed by Rome in 70 CE and Luke is composing his gospel after the fact. The destruction of the Temple was a major event for both Jews and Christians and it required some deep theological thinking. The Holocaust, in our recent history, has been an event that has required deep theological thinking among both Jews and Christians. Where was God in the midst of such tragedy? How could “good German Christians” given themselves over to such anti-Semitic thinking? I am reminded here of some Buddhist teaching. “Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world: a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream; a flash of lightening in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream” (Diamond Sutra). While Jesus may be saying something about the fleeting nature of reality, his more central point is that God remains faithful even when institutions we thought permanent disappear. Sometimes I wonder how we are preparing ourselves, how we are deepening our faith so that if some such institutions collapse in our day, our faith would remain strong.
Luke 21:7-36: In these verses Luke uses material found also in Matthew and Mark. Here we again find “apocalyptic literature” and I would like to repeat some material previously shared. I will then offer some comments about what might be unique to Luke as he incorporates this material into his gospel.
The Destruction of the Temple: In 66 CE, a massive Jewish revolt against Rome was launched, and for awhile it was successful – but only for awhile. Jerusalem was the center of the resistance movement, and it took Rome four years to recapture it, but they did. When they did, Roman troops offered sacrifice to the emperor in the Temple and then destroyed the Temple and the city. All of the gospels were composed with this war as a part of their context.
Luke 21:7-36 needs to be read within the context of that war and its aftermath. How many of the sayings and stories reported in these chapters go back to Jesus is a matter of scholarly debate. Whether they do or not, Luke, like the other gospel writers, puts the sayings and stories together in such a way as to speak to his context. I want the focus of my notes on the New Testament to be formation rather than information, though I know I have included quite a bit of the latter. In order to help the words in the coming chapter be more formative, I think it is important to get some information on the table.
The materials here have to do with eschatology (a semitechnical term that means “the last things, the final things, the end of things”), judgment, and apocalypse (a word meaning “revelation” or unveiling). “Though sometimes equated with ‘the end of the world,’ it is important to realize that biblical eschatology is not about the end of the space-time world, not about the disappearance or vanishing of the earth, but about the transformation of this world” (Marcus Borg, Jesus, 252). These verses have a lot to do with the end of things, but they speak about them in a particular way. “An apocalypse is a kind of Jewish and Christian literature that reveals or unveils the future in language loaded with images and symbols. Apocalyptic literature speaks of a time of great suffering followed by divine deliverance” (John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, The Last Week, 78). There are also references to a coming of the son of man, a “second coming of Jesus.”
So how much of this goes back to Jesus? That is a matter of scholarly debate, but beyond such debate asking the question may help us ask questions that help form us in our faith. What are these stories trying to say to us, fundamentally? Do we need to adopt the exact same “apocalyptic eschatology” to benefit from that fundamental meaning, that is to be formed by the Spirit into the image of Christ.
Second Coming: Did Jesus speak about his own second coming? Most mainline scholars do not think that Jesus spoke about his second coming. To suppose that he did would require imagining that he tried to teach his followers about a second coming when they had not really understood his “first coming” very well, including not really understanding that he was going away, that is, the he would be killed…. We think the conviction that Jesus would come again emerged in the post-Easter community. The Jesus whom the rulers of this world had executed and who had been vindicated by God would soon come again to complete what he had begun. (Borg, Jesus, 179, 255). Language describing God’s future is a set of signposts pointing into a mist. The signposts may tell the truth but shouldn’t be mistaken for the reality…. The New Testament often uses the Greek word parousia, frequently translated “coming,” to express this “presence” of Jesus within God’s future recreation of the cosmos. Of course, someone who is present after a time of absence must have “come,” “arrived,” or “appeared.” But the root meaning remains “presence;” the word often used of the “royal presence” of kings and rulers. If we spoke of Jesus’ royal presence within God’s new creation, rather than thinking of his “coming” as an invasion from outside, our talk about the future might make more sense. It would also be a lot more biblical. (N.T. Wright in Wright and Borg, The Meaning of Jesus, 201-202). Language about a second coming of Jesus might best be thought of in terms of a conviction that what God was doing in Jesus, making God’s dream for the world more of a reality, would continue until it wins the day and the world is transformed.
Eschatology: Marcus Borg does a good job in his book Jesus discussing this topic. A theory many scholars maintained throughout the twentieth century was that Jesus believed and taught an “imminent eschatology.” “Imminent eschatology means that Jesus expected a dramatic supernatural intervention by God in the very near future that would establish the kingdom of God” (254). There is some significant and solid biblical evidence for this. One difficulty in holding this position is that it would mean that Jesus was wrong. Borg argues that even if Jesus believed and preached an imminent eschatology, it was a secondary theme. Borg argues that Jesus’ primary theme would have been a “participatory eschatology.” Jesus called people to participate in the coming of the kingdom. There is solid evidence for this position as well. Borg’s own words are helpful. Does participatory eschatology mean that Jesus thought the kingdom of God, God’s dream, would come about through human political achievement? By no means. I do not imagine that he thought that. It is always God’s kingdom, God’s dream, God’s will. And it involves a deep centering in the God whom Jesus knew. So did he think God would bring in the kingdom without our involvement? I do not imagine this either. Indeed, the choice between “God does it” or “we do it” is a misleading and inappropriate dichotomy. In St. Augustine’s magnificent aphorism, “God without us will not; and we without God cannot.” (260) Whatever “the end” looks like finally, and whenever it may come, the important point is that we are invited to work toward God’s dream for the world, not speculate on “end times signs.”
Apocalyptic: Recall that apocalyptic literature had as its central conviction that God’s deliverance will arrive after a time of intense suffering. That is the most important theme. Beyond the symbolic language and metaphoric timetables, there is a deep conviction of faith “namely, what has begun in Jesus will triumph, despite the tumult and resistance of this world” (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 83). Again, it seems a misplacement of energy to spend too much time speculating on the meaning of all the symbols (remember this when we get to “Revelation”). We do better to align our lives with what God was up to in Jesus.
Judgment: I have already quoted this passage once, but it is worth repeating. Granted Jesus used language about a final judgment, did he believe in a last judgment with eternal consequences – that some people would go to hell?... It is possible that Jesus did believe in a final judgment in which some people would go to hell. It is also possible, at least equally so, that the afterlife was not a central concern of Jesus and that he used the language of a final judgment to reinforce the importance of acting compassionately. We can imagine that language working this way: you who believe in a final judgment – what do you think the basis, the criterion will be? His own answers to that question, as reported in the gospels, subvert and undermine widely accepted notions of his time (and perhaps every time). The judgment will not be based on membership in a group, or on beliefs, or on rule keeping, but on deeds of compassion. But whatever Jesus believed about rewards and punishments in a final judgment, his mission and message were much more concerned about life in this world than about our fate beyond death. (Borg, Jesus, 180-181). This theme is less prevalent in Luke than in Matthew or Mark, at least in this section of the gospel.
Some Additional Thoughts: I have used the work of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan quite a bit in this blog, and anticipate that I will continue to do so. Another New Testament scholar whose work I find helpful is Walter Wink. Wink’s brilliant, but also densely written book, The Human Being offers some provocative thoughts on eschatology and apocalyptic. Both eschatology and apocalyptic deal with the end of things. “Eschatology” (which means the study of the last things) regards the future as open, undetermined, and capable of being changed if people alter their behavior. The urgency of the great prophets of the Old Testament came from their conviction that catastrophe need not happen, that even a small deviation from the course toward doom might avert it. By contrast, “apocalyptic” (which means “unveiling,” specifically visions of things to come) judges the future to be closed, inevitable, and inescapable…. Eschatology is concerned about the goal of humanity and the world; apocalyptic is consumed with the end of the planet Earth as presently constituted. Prophetic eschatology is ruthlessly realistic, yet incurably hopeful. Apocalyptic has abandoned hope and looks for divine, miraculous intervention. (158-159) From this characterization, Wink obviously holds a bit fonder view of eschatology than apocalyptic. But Wink is a complex thinker. There is a positive role for apocalyptic as well as its better-known negative. The positive power of apocalyptic lies in its capacity to force humanity to face threats of unimaginable proportions in order to galvanize efforts at self- and social transcendences…. The apocalyptic situation dwarfs our human capacity and reduces us to powerlessness. The negative response is passivity and despair; the other response is superhuman effort and assault on the impossible. (159) Was Jesus an apocalyptic thinker and preacher? How does that give light to Luke 21 which repeats much of Mark 13? The evidence seems unambiguous that Jesus had a prophetic sense of eschatology…. Most if not all of Mark 13 consists of layers of speculation about the signs that portend the end of the world. This represents a calcification of Jesus’ vivid expectation of God’s active presence and power in the world…. My hunch is that Jesus is not the author of much in Mark 13 and parallels. (162-163) The truth in the doctrine of the second coming is that Jesus’ work on earth was not finished during his lifetime…. I believe that Jesus perceived the Reign of God to be breaking in already, yet that it was still to come in fullness in God’s own time, and that Jesus rejected the desire for revenge, yet awaited god’s final judgment on sin and oppression. I see this future judgment and consummation, however, not as a historical promise, but as a mythic necessity. Whether it actually happens, it remains a beacon sustaining hope into the darkest future. (164-165)
Forgive again another lengthy introduction, but these are important themes to discuss as we read through the New Testament. There are a number of Christians who argue for very different understandings of the end times, the second coming and judgment. They remain part of the family of faith. Sometimes I find their discussions less helpful as I seek to be formed by God’s Spirit. Focusing on “making it in the end” and on the shortcoming of others has less to do with becoming Christ-like than reading the words of the gospels and asking how they speak to me about how I should live. It is o.k. to disagree about eschatology – you don’t have to think like I do on these matters. Nor do you have to think like those who seem to major in “end times prophetic thought” – and that’s the important point. It is more important that we help each other live lives consistent with the love and justice Jesus proclaimed. It is more important to foster hope in our own day and time. Maybe some institutions we take for granted will loose their prominence in the near future. Will we be able, nevertheless, to sustain hope, to live faithfully, trusting that all we do for God’s dream for the world is never lost?
Luke 21:7-19: Jesus has just spoken of the destruction of the Temple, and naturally someone asks when this may occur. The end will not follow immediately upon wars and insurrections. For Luke’s audience, this is self-evident, for the insurrection against Rome has occurred, it has been defeated, yet the world as they know it goes on. Luke loses the language of “birth-pangs” we found in the other gospels. Luke seems to be writing as if the ultimate end may be a way off. Luke’s audience also knows about arrests and persecutions. This section ends with words of deep consolation and strong encouragement. “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain you souls.” The future may be uncertain, and this may be true at any time. We should always be cultivating a deep and enduring faith.
Luke 21:20-24: Luke has lost the language of a “desolating sacrilege” marking only the destruction of Jerusalem and taking some of the apocalyptic bite out of the passage. Luke also adds a phrase, “until the time of the Gentiles is fulfilled.” Luke writes in a time where the church of Jesus Christ has become primarily a Gentile institution. In his theology of history, Luke sees this as an important part of God’s work in the world – the opening of the community of God’s people to the whole world.
Luke 21:25-28: Luke again loses some language from Matthew and Mark. Both those writers used temporal language – “immediately” – “in those days, after.” Luke simply says, “And there will be.” I think this is important to point out for our day as there are those Christians who argue for one and only one interpretation of the eschatological and apocalyptic literature of the Bible, ignoring the fact that even between the gospel writers, different spin is put on such words of Jesus. The function of this eschatological discourse is not to satisfy curiosity about the time or manner of the end, but (1) to proclaim God the Creator as the lord of history, whose purpose for the world will finally be fulfilled, and (2) to call the readers to repentance and service (Peoples New Testament Commentary).
Luke 21:29-33: If all the language of cosmic change doesn’t grab you, how about some language from nature. Watch the fig tree. Just as you notice in its leaves the changing of the seasons, so can you learn to watch for signs of God’s kingdom. Luke has changed the language of Matthew and Mark here as well. It is the kingdom of God that comes near, not the son of Man. Whatever else happens, the genuine work of God will not pass away. Count on that. Live for that.
Luke 21:34-38: Luke has taken some of the urgency out of these words of Jesus. For both Matthew and Mark, there was a sense that the world might change completely in the very near future. Luke has lost that feeling. Given what the community of Christians for whom he writes has experienced, things just seem to be moving along. The intense persecutions have not brought the end. The destruction of Jerusalem has not brought the end. That the church has become primarily Gentile has not brought the end. Nevertheless, Luke is concerned that his readers not become complacent and bracket their faith off from their day to day lives. He uses words of Jesus, or adds words to Jesus – “be on your guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” Luke ends this dramatic discourse with a note that Jesus continued teaching in the Temple, spending the night on the Mount of Olives.