[November 30, 2014] Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church year, and with this change we switch horses. From riding the Gospel according to Matthew we now mount the Gospel according to Mark. With that change, we have a shift in focus. Next year we will ride Luke’s gospel, written before Mark’s and having still another focus. Yet today’s text continues the theme that the last few weeks of the year had us meditating on: the coming of the Son of Man and our preparedness, on the one hand, for it catching us at any moment completely by surprise and, on the other hand, for its seemingly endless delay.
Advent (the four weeks in preparation for Christmas) is a time to meditate on several of the advents (coming arrivals) of Jesus: the coming of his birth (Christmas), his “coming out” to the public (when he is baptized by John the Baptist and anointed by the Holy Spirit), and his coming in glory (the “Second Coming”). We start with the third (this Sunday), move to the second (next Sunday and the Sunday following), and then come to the first (the fourth Sunday). In each the theme of preparedness pervades. Jesus tells his disciple that they need to be prepared for his coming unexpectedly; John the Baptist tells the people that they must prepare the way for the coming of God through repentance; and Mary is presented to us as a beautiful example of someone fully prepared for the coming of the Lord.
If you understand that I do not agree with the Q hypothesis about how the gospels were written and I am not just ignorant about modern scholarship, I can tell you that I think Matthew’s gospel was published in 52 CE in Antioch of Syria by Matthew, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus (a former tax collector but not to be confused with Levi). It was published, in other words, between Paul’s second and third missionary journey (between Acts 18:22 and 23), soon enough for Paul to have taken a copy with him when he revisited the churches of south Galatia on his way to Ephesus, the center of his activities. As I said elsewhere, Matthew, as the only one of the Twelve with writing tools and a writing table (who might even have taken notes of Jesus’ sayings on wax tablets), wrote as a representative of the Twelve—and on the basis of Jesus’ commission to the Twelve to be his chosen eyewitnesses—from the perspective of the Jewish church embracing the gentile mission. As the mission expanded its geographical perimeter, the verbal medium of the eyewitness memoirs came to be seen as unable to meet the needs of the new churches; the memoirs needed the stability of a written medium. Matthew wrote his gospel to correspond to the annual synagogue readings (the lectionary) with the purpose of being read as scripture in the Christian gatherings on the Lord’s Day (Sunday) to follow the scripture readings read the day before in the synagogue (which, Matthew assumed, the disciples would have attended). Matthew wrote at a time when the church’s controversy with the Pharisees was the fiercest, with violence against the (Jewish) believers erupting everywhere. The issue with the Pharisees was the disciples’ inclusion of gentiles into their fellowship as equals—that is, without requiring conversion to Judaism (via circumcision). It is not surprising then that we find one of the most pointed themes in Matthew’s gospel to be about the inclusion of the outsider, whether that be the Jewish sex worker or tax collector, the sick, disabled or demon-crazed, the poor or unclean or the gentile: no matter how marginalized a person might be, Jesus’ task was to gather all these lost sheep into his flock. And his qahal, his called ones, are to do the same. This is not the only theme that runs through Matthew; the other themes too, however, also aim at Pharisaic pretensions (remembering, however, that we are talking here about a certain brand of Pharisaism, not all the Pharisees) as well as the pretensions of all zealots.
Luke’s gospel—I think—was written by 56 CE, though whether it was published at this time I have not determined. Luke, a physician and a resident of Philippi, was probably a gentile who attended synagogue and worshiped the God of Israel when he was won over to the Messiah Jesus by Paul’s preaching, probably when he was in Antioch of Pisidia. After that, he traveled to Syria and Palestine and spent several years interviewing eyewitnesses of Jesus, including the mother of Jesus, and studying the manuscript of Matthew’s gospel. His gospel was a contribution to the kind of work that Paul was doing—forming churches of Jews and gentiles—in the Mediterranean basin. One of its most prominent themes in his first work is the apostolate of Jesus, who is the model for the apostolate that he describes in his second work, the Acts of the Apostles.
Mark was written under different circumstances. John Mark was the cousin of Barnabas and took on the task of redacting a transcription of Peter’s retelling of the Gospel into a third gospel. Peter was in Rome at the time (64 CE), during the fierce Neronian persecution of the believers there. It seems that he took the two gospels, Matthew’s and Luke’s, and wove them together, omitting most of the teaching sections but adding eyewitness details along the way. Perhaps he was validating the newer gospel, the one written by Luke, a non-eyewitness and a gentile to boot, by showing how they harmonized. In any case, a transcription (or several) was made and Mark took this and put it in the form that we now have, sort of a digest of Matthew and Luke. He probably published it around 68-70 CE, when Jerusalem was under siege by the Romans. When Peter retold the Gospel, there was a sense of urgency in his tone, for it was a time of persecution. The gospel therefore reflects the theme of martyrdom and suffering on account of one’s allegiance to Jesus, and of bearing one’s cross. Mark composed this account while events were taking place in Israel that seemed to be the fulfillment of Jesus’ ominous predictions, amplifying the sense of urgency that Peter already had. The persecutions that believers now experienced everywhere—gentile conversions to Christianity (thereby renouncing their civic obligations to the gods without actually converting to Judaism) was now officially illegal across the empire—and the coming desecration of the Temple made the coming of Christ in glory seem imminent. (Perhaps Mark was in Alexandria when he published his gospel.)
This third gospel, the second in our canon (perhaps because it bridges Matthew’s and Luke’s) we will be tracking throughout the year, with occasional diversions to John’s gospel and the others. May we grasp it properly!
With today’s reading we jump in on Jesus’ private talk to Peter, James, John, and Andrew following the announcement he made to them when they were admiring the Temple buildings: “You see these great buildings? Not a single stone will be left on another; everything will be pulled down.” He proceeds to tell them of a terrible time that is to come when the Temple will be desecrated. Before this happens the world will experience wars and rumors of war, earthquakes and famines, and general social chaos. During this time his followers will be persecuted by both Jews and gentiles and many will be tempted to turn tail and even betray others. There will be false prophets and upstarts claiming to be messiahs, and some of them will perform miracles to deceive people. All this will take place. Do not be tempted.
For Mark’s readers all this had already taken place—the chaos Jesus describes corresponds to their experiences over the decades since Jesus’ departure (in 30 CE). The persecution was taking place as they listened, and the desecration of the Temple was imminent.
“But in those days, after that time of distress, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, the stars will come falling out of the sky and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.”
Mark (or probably Peter, we cannot distinguish them) follows Luke’s gospel by skipping over Matthew 24:26-28 (which Luke inserted into 17:23-24 and 37), to introduce the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24:29-31 and Luke 21:25-28) immediately after describing the crisis in Judea. Mark however makes a noticeable change. He omits the word “immediately” from Matthew’s account. In Matthew’s account Jesus says, “Immediately after the distress of those days,” making it seem as though the coming of the Son of Man would take place “immediately” after the desecration of the Temple. Mark had peppered his gospel with the word “immediately” where Matthew and Luke do not have it. It seems to be one of his favorite words, adding to his gospel’s sense of urgency. Yet he omits it here where Matthew has it. By doing so, he leaves open the possibility that the coming of the Son of Man might not happen for a while. Luke’s gospel says that “Jerusalem will be trampled by the gentiles until the times of the gentiles are fulfilled,” also suggesting this possibility.9
The disturbing of the cosmos, the sun and moon and stars, might be apocalyptic language for the crumbling of the political structures of the world. More likely, it alludes to the collapse of the spiritual structure of the world, which would cause the political structures to fall apart as well. For in those times the heavenly beings—sun, moon and stars—were understood to be conscious beings, and modern philosophers and scientists are reviving this notion. Revelation 12:3-4 says that in a vision John saw a great red dragon in heaven “and his tail drags away the third part of the stars of heaven, and he cast them to the earth.” John says in verses 7-9, “There was war in heaven: Michael and his angels went to war with the dragon. And the dragon warred and his angels. And they did not prevail, neither was their place found any longer in heaven. And the great dragon was cast down, the ancient serpent, he who is called the Devil and Satan, he who deceives the whole inhabited earth; he was cast down to the earth, and his angels were cast down with him.” Perhaps Jesus describes a chaos that will envelope the appearance of the cosmos, the spiritual structure of the world, and all geopolitical powers. Any one of them will correspond to the others.
Mark, however, omits the sign in heaven that will cause all the tribes of Israel to mourn and repent, a mysterious event (Matthew 24:30 does not tell us what that sign will be) that, according to Matthew, precedes the gathering of Israel’s elect from the four winds and from the ends of the earth and sky (see Deuteronomy 30:4). In other words, he rushes to tell us of the manifestation of (“they will see” it) the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. For it is immediately after this manifestation that he sends his angels to gather together his elect (the elect of Israel) from the four winds, etc. As we explained last week, the gathering of his disciples to meet him “in the air” has already taken place, for when he is manifested to the world, his followers will accompany him and be manifested with him. This is consistently taught in the Scriptures. So also is the entire gathering of all Israel at the coming of the Messiah (Paul tells us that at this time “all Israel will be saved”) and their literal gathering to the Land of Promise (I mean, that is how it is continually described).
The picture of the Son of Man coming in the clouds comes from Daniel 7:13-14. In apocalyptic language God puts “the beast” to death and consigns his body to the flames, while depriving the other “beasts” of their empire, though he gives them a lease of a season and a time. Then the Son of Man is manifested and on him is “conferred rule, honor and kingship, and all peoples, nations and languages become his servants. His rule is an everlasting rule which will never pass away, and his kingship will never come to an end.” A heavenly being explains to Daniel that a most fearsome beast will make war on the saints and will prove the stronger one until God puts him to death. When he is thus judged, the saints will also be judged and will assume kingship. “Kingship and rule and the splendor of all the kingdoms under heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Most High, whose royal power is an eternal power, whom every empire will serve and obey.” This is what Jesus has in his mind. The picture he presents, and that the apostles present after him, and that John also describes in the Book of the Revelation all derive from and are consistent with this. The kingdoms of the world will collapse, Israel will repent, the saints will be gathered and judged, and then the Son of Man will manifest himself with his saints as he gathers all Israel to at last fulfill for them the blessing of the Promised Land. And then he will sit down as king and judge of the nations, recruiting his saints to join the work of bringing all things under his headship.
We picture this graphically, and artists have reinforced this for us, but what is really going on, regardless of the exterior narrative and “picture,” is interior and very profound. We need to be prepared for the possibility that the literal picture we have is actually a complex metaphor, a possibility that is reinforced by the already obvious metaphors that abound in this picture.
“Take the fig tree as a parable: as soon as its twigs grow supple and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. So with you when you see these things happening: know that he is near, right at the gates. In truth I tell you, before this generation has passed away all these things will have taken place.”
Here Mark/Peter follows the sequence that both Matthew and Luke follow, omitting Luke 21:28. Other than the omitted verse, this parable comes directly after the description of the Son of Man’s being seen coming in great power and glory. Mark blends the other two gospels together, following the wording of Matthew’s more closely.
In Luke 21:31 Jesus says “know that the kingdom of God is near” but Mark omits any reference to the kingdom of God, perhaps moving away from the idea that the fig tree putting forth leaves is a sign that the kingdom of God is near. He says that “it” is near. In 13:4 the disciples ask, “When will these things be,” referring to the total destruction of the Temple. Probably this is what, in this gospel, Jesus is referring to when he says, “it is near, right at the gates.” Indeed, it would happen forty years after Jesus spoke these words. Then the fig tree that he speaks of would be the same as the one he cursed a few days earlier in 11:12-14 and 20-21. The fig tree is Israel in the land, but Israel’s stay in it since the days of Ezra is not the fulfillment of the promises but is something provisional, only a sign that one day God will fulfill his promises. Even in our own day the same is true. The disaster that befall the nation in 70 CE, however, is the result of this fig tree not bearing fruit, the fruit demanded by the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus after him. Instead of taking up penitence, recognizing themselves under the hand of God’s judgment, they became arrogant and zealous, taking things into their own hands and making themselves judges of others, forsaking the love of their neighbor. When, therefore, Jesus says, in Mark’s gospel, “when you see these things happening,” and “all these things will have taken place,” he is referring to verses 5-23 and not to verses 24-27.
“But as for that day or hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son; no one but the Father.” These words may refer to verses 5-23, but when Jesus says “but as for that day or hour,” he might be referring instead to verses 24-27. No one knows the day or hour when “they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds.” When Jesus says the Son does not know the day or the hour he is referring to the knowledge he possesses as a human being, what is actually in his brain. Jesus did not know everything but had to learn as all people do, even if, by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, he was given knowledge and perception that no one else possessed.
The final verses, 33-37, are his demand of his disciples for vigilance in view of all these things. This was the point of his telling them everything he has said in this discourse up to this. It follows directly on verse 32, the fact that no one knows the day or the hour. This lack of knowledge means that they cannot set the alarm clock for a certain time but rather they must be constantly vigilant.
Compare this to the situation of a doorkeeper, Jesus says. The master has gone out and might come back at any of the four watches of the night: evening, midnight, cockcrow or dawn. If the doorkeeper is asleep when the master returns, he or she is in big trouble. The lesson? Stay awake! Do not fall asleep on the job. Paul uses this illustration. It is now the night, and the whole world is asleep, or if not sleeping, then getting drunk and carousing. They, after all, are children of the night; but not you. You have daylight inside of you. You are children of the day. Everyone else may be asleep or drunk but you must live as if it is daytime, wide awake, sober, and alert.
In these last verses (33-37) Mark/Peter diverges considerably from Matthew and Luke. He picks up their order in the following verse (14:1). Here Mark is drawing things to a close and like his other summaries this one is brief. In comparison, the ending of this discourse in Matthew is much longer (24:36—25:46); and Luke’s ending (21:34-36) is quite different. Luke took Matthew 24:42-46 and transposed it to a much longer parable in 12:37-46. Mark composed his account by blending and summarizing these. In verses 33-34, Mark took a little from Luke 21:34-36 and a little from Matthew 24:42 and 25:13-15.
For Mark/Peter the reference to the doorkeeper must have been important, for after mentioning a plurality of slaves at first, he zeroes in on the singular doorkeeper. Besides, 12:38—14:11 forms in some ways a unit, framed by stories of two different women who are faithful in the presence of treachery, the widow who contributes her mite to the Temple treasury while rich scribes arrogantly show off and devour the property of widows, and the woman of Bethany (Mary) who anoints Jesus while some of the disciples complain about the waste of good money on Jesus. In 13:9-13 Jesus urges his disciples to also keep faith in the midst of treachery. In 13:34 Jesus now lifts up the doorkeeper who stays awake through the night as a parable of the faithful disciple in the nighttime of the world. The faithful disciple remains faithful not only amid persecution (13:9-13) but also in the long and quiet night.
In 13:34-35 Mark/Peter moves away from the language of Matthew 24:45-51 which ends in violence (or at least a graphic metaphor for regret: “there will be weeping and grinding of teeth”) to the Lukan account in 12:35-38 and 42-46 which omits this ending. Mark’s gospel always avoids bringing in this particular terminology wherever he finds it.
Jesus says “stay awake” four times: in verse 33, verse 34, verse 35 and verse 37 (in verse 36 he says, “he must not find you asleep”), just as there are four watches of the night. Interestingly, the disciples must remain vigilant during the four watches of the night of Jesus’ arrest: evening (14:17; also 15:42), midnight (14:30?), cockcrow (14:30, 68, 72); and dawn (15:1). The disciples fall asleep in Mark 14:37 and 40. The disciples needed first to be faithful during the time of Jesus’ distress as well (they stumbled) as well as during the time of the church’s distress. The reader/auditor of Mark’s gospel must also stay awake during the reading of the story of Jesus’ passion. The disciples, because they were not prepared, fell asleep in Gethsemane when Jesus needed him and Peter denied him when put to the test. This should be a warning to the rest of us.
“What I am saying to you I say to all.” This is the closing frame which opened with the disciples requesting in verse 4, “Tell us” (the four of them). It also corresponds to and answers Peter’s question in Luke 12:41: “Lord, do you mean this parable for us, or for everyone?” In Mark 13:3, Peter, James, John and Andrew questioned him when they were by themselves.
Paul emphasizes the need to stay awake in 1 Thessalonians 5:2-8; Colossians 4:2; and Romans 13:11-13; Peter says the same in 1 Peter 5:8; and Jesus says it again in Revelations 3:2. I would like to expand on what this means, but I must leave this posting unfinished. I apologize to anyone who has gotten this far.