Weekly Gospel Reflection—17 November 2013
Luke 21.5-19: Some people were talking about the temple, how it was decorated with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God. Jesus said, “As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”
They asked him, “Teacher, when will these things happen? What sign will show that these things are about to happen?”
Jesus said, “Watch out that you aren’t deceived. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the one!’ and ‘It’s time!’ Don’t follow them. When you hear of wars and rebellions, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen first, but the end won’t happen immediately.”
Then Jesus said to them, “Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other. There will be great earthquakes and wide-scale food shortages and epidemics. There will also be terrifying sights and great signs in the sky. But before all this occurs, they will take you into custody and harass you because of your faith. They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will provide you with an opportunity to testify. Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. I’ll give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to counter or contradict. You will be betrayed by your parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and friends. They will execute some of you. Everyone will hate you because of my name. Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. By holding fast, you will gain your lives.
Recently, I rebooted a series on New Testament Eschatology. In it, we’ll be discussing how the writers of the New Testament understood the times they were living in. The parallel of this passage (Matthew 24) will be addressed in more detail in that series, but I want to briefly look at it here.
Millions of dollars have been made in writing books about the “Apocalypse” or “End Times” — the idea that world is ending. And millions more has been made by taking those books and making them into movies. Some of the books and movies base their stories on biblical passages like the one above (and it’s parallels).
And all of them are flawed right from the beginning.
I know, that’s pretty big talk. But let’s notice a simple, but often overlooked, interpretive lens — audience relevance. That is, we ask a very basic question, “To whom was Jesus speaking?” The answer is quite simple. He uses the personal pronoun “you” roughly 20 times in this passage. Obviously, he’s addressing the people who were talking about the Temple (the Temple that Jesus and his contemporaries attended) and asked him the questions that prompted his response. To suggest that Jesus is actually talking to another group of people, as the people who support the view of the books and movies do, is being dishonest with the text. There’s nothing within the passage to hint at such a thing. Jesus is simply answering the people who were with him.
There’s a word for this type of biblical interpretation — eisegesis. Eisegesis means that the interpretation of a passage expresses one’s own thoughts, ideas, or biases rather than what the text is actually stating. We see this especially in the field of New Testament eschatology (the study of “last things”). Often, people suppose that since the things described didn’t literally happen, Jesus must be talking about a future generation and what they will experience. But, again, this shows the limitation of the interpreter and not the text itself. In the series I mentioned above, we look at the imagery used by Jesus (and others) and how it’s best understood as poetic language. That is, imagery used to describe something else.
Aside from addressing his contemporaries, there are other clues within this passage that points to a first century fulfillment. Most notably, Jesus stated that those people would be handed over to the leaders of their synagogues and brought before kings. And they would be betrayed by their own family and fellow citizens. And that’s exactly what we find in the book of Acts. Several times followers of The Way were taken before the synagogue leadership and brought up on false charges by their fellow Jews (eg. Acts 13.44ff; cf. Acts 9.1-2).
People quickly object to this type of interpretation because of other things in the passage — wars, rebellions, natural disasters, food shortages, etc. “These things are getting worse and worse,” they often point out. “At no time in history have things been this bad. Jesus is definitely talking about our generation. He’s coming soon!” But this type of response, again, fails to address the limitation Jesus set upon his response. Namely, it neither seriously takes into account the people to whom Jesus was addressing nor the experiences they had during those early years. In fact, most people I talk with regarding these things aren’t even aware of the horrific events of the first century leading up to the war with the Romans. They have no idea that the city and Temple were destroyed in 70 CE. And when it’s shown that this is the logical fulfillment of Jesus’ and the writers of the New Testament’s warnings, most of them just can’t accept it.
And I completely understand. I was there. It’s so hard to have one’s understanding of things unravel. But it does no one any good, and causes more harm to others, choosing to ignore the obvious fulfillment of this passage and blindly follow another option.
In summary, Jesus is talking to his followers about things they would experience during their lifetime. We find his warnings being fulfilled in the pages of the rest of the New Testament and reaching their climax with the war between the Jews and Rome in 66 - 70 CE.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC