- Isaiah 2:1-5
- Psalm 122
- Romans 13:11-14
- Matthew 24:36-44
Advent 1, Year A
Main Text (Hover for Text)
This text is a lesson in awareness. The use of the language of apocalyptic has fooled many into perceiving Jesus as simply another apocalyptist, from Albert Schweitzer (The Quest of the Historical Jesus) to Tim LaHaye (The Left Behind Series). The striking aspect of the text, as Rene Girard has pointed out is that the gospel text ‘demythologizes’ apocalyptic in that it anthropologizes otherwise traditional apocalyptic themes.Kasemann has already pointed out that “apocalyptic is the mother of early Christianity” (Ernst Kasemann, New Testament Question for Today). If that is so, persecution is the mother of apocalyptic. When things get really unjust, ugly, out of control, violent, hateful and fearful, people want out. Who can blame them? Apocalyptic has served as a large metaphor for the way things would work out at the end of time. Jewish Apocalypses, the apocalyptic scrolls from the Dead Sea, the atmosphere promulgated in small militant religious circles all contributed to the larger ‘apocalyptic myth.’
Jesus utilizes this metaphor of apocalyptic but subverts its function. This subversion can be seen in the parables as William Herzog has shown (Parables As Subversive Speech). Here in Mark C.E.B. Cranfield notes that “while the language of apocalyptic is indeed used, the purpose for which it is used and even the form of the discourse are different” (C.E.B. Cranfield The Gospel According to St Mark). To find Jesus turning things around, looking at life from a different perspective, should not astound anyone. One theme that will be mentioned again and again in these studies is that while Jesus may use the language of his culture and environment, he sees things from a very different perspective. One significant area relates to his understanding the character of God, his abba, the creator of heaven and earth (Jeremias, Theology, Prayers of Jesus). Jesus’ Father is all about LIFE. Life expressed as love and forgiveness.
Yet, Marcus Borg (Conflict, Holiness & Conflict in the Teachings of Jesus) has demonstrated that the ‘threat-warrant’ tradition permeates the Jesus tradition. Yes, Jesus talks about judgment. A lot. But not in the way we have become accustomed to. The threat -warrant tradition is simply “the warning of a future consequence that flows from a present behavior.” (How many times have we done this with our children?) Raymund Schwager (Jesus In The Drama Of Salvation) has also analyzed the ‘judgement sayings’ and come to the similar conclusion that “the judgement proclaimed by Jesus showed itself first as the self-judgement of humankind.” That is, “With the measure we measure others, we will be measured by God.”
In the Psalm for the day, the writer of Psalm 80:3 sees the tribulations of his/her present, and the destruction of the temple in terms of God’s anger. But even here already, it is the innocent victim who cries out, for in 80:12, the singer cannot figure out a reason why things are as bad as they are. The Isaiah text develops a theory of the human condition that God will help those who ‘do right’ (64:5). The text declares that, in spite of that fact, the terrible calamity that has befallen in the destruction of the Temple (64:11) results from God’s anger which is the same as “God hiding His face.” In fact, the apostle Paul will develop and radically alter the themes of this chapter in several of his letters.
One can see this clearly in the lectionary’s juxtaposition of texts for the day. Both texts from the Hebrew Scriptures, Psalm 80 and Isaiah 64 perceive the apocalyptically experienced events of their time in terms of God’s anger or wrath. God is therefore ultimately responsible for the destructive events occurring in our life. This is also the perspective of Job’s friends.
The Mark 13 text is wholly devoid of any reference to God as the cause of these events. The problem of human violence is laid squarely at the door of humanity. As Raymund Schwager has programmatically expressed (Must There Be Scapegoats?) there is a tendency to separate God from violence more and more throughout the development of the Hebrew Scriptures, and clearly shown in the teaching of Jesus.
Mention should be made here that two contemporary ‘lives’ of Jesus vividly demonstrate the vivacity of Jesus and his message, Bruce Chilton’s Rabbi Jesus and Raymund Schwager’s Jesus of Nazareth: How He Understood His Life. One should also see the tantalizing perspective on Jesus’ message of the “vivacious effervescent God” by James Allison in Raising Abel.
In Mark 13, unlike the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, it is clearly shown that the maelstrom of events that will bring about the destruction of humanity are not an expression of divine anger or wrath, these events are of human origin through and through. Robert Hamerton-Kelly finds it “remarkable that among all the apocalyptic imagery of this discourse there is not one claim that the tribulations to befall humanity in the messianic apocalyptic history and the ultimate eschaton are expressions of the vengeance of God (The Gospel and the Sacred). And to most, they will come as a complete surprise.
In a recent Discovery Magazine article about black holes, the author noted that there are at least a half-dozen black holes in our galaxy. What is more is that astrophysicists would not even know about an impending black hole. They would only be able to tell we were pulled into one after the fact. A similar analogy is drawn by Jesus except that we are not to be surprised as it happens. Violence is everywhere, it rules the planet; it is the heart of the ‘principalities and powers.’ When we acknowledge that violence cannot be attributed to God, we also disclose the anthropological dimensions of violence.
The text of Mark 13 is aptly called “the Second Sermon on Revolutionary Patience” (Binding The Strong Man). Myers’ argument that the Mark 13 text can only be properly understood in the light of a call to arms (as it occurs e.g., in the War Scroll of Qumran or I Enoch) is certainly worthy of observation. That is, the ‘little apocalypse’ is not an end-time call to arms but a warning that when that occurs, in “the war of all against all” as Girard puts it, Christians ought not to be surprised.
3. False Readings
- Perceiving Jesus as an end time preacher of apocalyptic judgment
- Asserting that Jesus message contained elements of divine vengeance
- Masking our inherent tendencies to justify our violence by projecting onto God our propensity for self-destruction
- Failure to discern that non-violence is primarily a theological category with ethical consequences, not just an ethical high ideal.
The First Sunday in Advent in all three years begins with an eschatological warning. Year B, in which John and Mark predominate, begins with a portion of the text from the “little apocalypse” of Mark 13. Theissen has shown (The Gospels in Context) that this text originated from within the Jerusalem community around Peter/James in the context of the Caligula crisis of 40-41 C.E.The Markan use of this narrative, as well as that of the Passion, which was introduced by the same Jerusalem community, indicates that at the time of the composition of the Gospel, another crisis had emerged. The traditional dating of Mark to the time of the Neronian persecution (Hengel, Studies in Mark) is made more plausible when we note the debate over whether or not the author (whom we shall call Mark) is aware of the events occurring in and around Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The traditional Petrine influence can also be accounted for as well.
Scholars have detected both Petrine and Pauline influence in the Gospel of Mark. The tradition that places both Paul and Peter in Rome to be executed in the Neronian pogrom suggests that Rome, in the late 60’s or perhaps early 70’s is probably the location of the ‘ Markan’ edition of the gospel (this does not preclude a pre-Markan gospel outline [Dodd, According to the Scriptures] or partially formed text [Vorlage] as suggested by redaction critics. Nor does it preclude the Papias tradition where Mark is the ‘interpreter’ of Peter).
The Petrine tradition had gained a solid foot in Rome and the link between Jerusalem and Rome would be the apostle Peter. However, due to the expulsion under Claudius, it is probable that Pauline congregations began to exert their influence. The end of the letter to the Romans (Donfried, The Romans Debate) indicates a tremendous amount of awareness of the social, political, economic and ethnic standing of many of the addressees and some of the ecclesial leaders. Many of them were comprised from the upper strata of Roman society (Raymond Brown and John Meier, Rome and Antioch).
Why is this important? These texts we use in worship today were developed in worship then. It is a commonplace in New Testament Studies to acknowledge the influence of the early church on these documents. Form criticism has demonstrated that the texts were shaped in liturgical contexts. In the latter half of the twentieth century, New Testament scholars like C.F.D. Moule and Oscar Cullmann have shown real liturgical presence in the gospels and letters. Vincent Taylor says of the writer of Mark that “the writer’s interests are catechetical and practical” (The Gospel According to St. Mark).
Whether Petrine or Pauline, congregations in Rome had to deal with issues of persecution and martyrdom and how to faithfully respond in such times of crisis.
2002:In times of intense social violence and persecution, using a text that was formed in Jerusalem and recast in Rome, it seems fitting that an end of the world scenario presented itself. Writing these lines in September of 2002 it is not difficult to construct a worst-case scenario regarding the next few years. Even the most liberal among us was truly surprised by the events of September 11, 2001.
Only those who follow Jesus and the churches who gave us Mark 13, churches who have renounced violence both in themselves and in their theology, can see that the ‘revolutionary patience’ that is enjoined here is a watchful waiting for “the coming of the kingdom [which] has nothing to do with triumphalism; it comes from below, in solidarity with the human family in its dark night of suffering. The world is Gethsemane, and we are called to ‘historical insomnia.’” (Myers)
Preaching from a Peace Perspective would suggest that just as the early church, so today this text is to be issued as an ‘alert.’ The alert says clearly that God will not be behind the violence of the End. But when humanity is hell bent on its own destruction, it can get ugly very fast. Even more so in a time of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons!
And the chain of events that will bring about that final spiraling of destruction is entirely of human origin. For Jesus, the coming of the Son of Man occurs after this final orgy of self-destruction. It is the final destruction, and the final rescue of creation. In the beginning God created, in the end humanity destroys. In the new beginning….
Reading this text from the perspective of peace calls the church to a stance of steadfast waiting and radical renunciation of violence. In our day, as millenialists look eagerly for the final conflagration, we are called to look forward in confidence, but not with glee. As Christians, we acknowledge that Jesus has already inaugurated the kingdom, and we are called to live in a way that shows its presence, not a way that will provoke a human melt-down.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Three years ago when we wrote this, we had not yet gone to war in Iraq, but the situation looked grim. Now at the end of 2005, the ‘apocalyptic group’ in the White House (the so-called White House Iraq Group) is experiencing their own version of an apocalyptic meltdown. The purveyors of evil and lies are seeing the chickens come home to roost.
I still see things as ‘apocalyptic’, that is, I still think that American culture is undergoing a crisis that can either change us for the better or for the worse, but change we must. Who will win? Ultimately, the Victor if Jesus, for now I pray that Americans are able to distinguish not only the political lies of the right but also the religious lies propagated in the name of Christ. Perhaps we may find a way out of this mess….but if not….be ready!
Trouble always begins with a plan. It is rarely spontaneous. It arises from deep within the human imagination. Paul’s exhortation to the Roman Christians has as profound and deep a psychology as was exhibited in Romans 7. I begin today’s reflection with some contemporary observations then move to the contribution of mimetic theory toward understanding the pragmatics of Paul’s anthropology.It would be easy to take a passage like this and go on a prohibitory tirade against ‘worldly’ behavior. It would be just as easy to use a passage like this against those ‘in the world’, who do not behave in a holy and righteous way. To do so is to fail to heed Paul, for Paul’s anthropology, psychologically (through typology) in Romans 7 begins in Romans 5:12-21 as a collective. This text may speak to others, but it must speak to us. It is not our calling to hear a text for another, only for ourselves. Everyone hears for themselves.Paul states that we are not to “make plans to indulge our selfish desires. (CEB)” The behaviors listed in verse 13 have to do with the breakdown of accepted social order. Drinking alcohol inhibits our judgment, of this is little doubt. It can therefore, lead to crossing boundaries. This is what Paul is describing. One may think here of those with the economic and social means to afford such extravagant parties. Paul is not addressing the poor or the slave here, but the elite. He uses stock language to describe the partying atmosphere of Rome’s nightlife, which is just as alive today as it was back then (but then one could say this of every major city in the world)!
The language of verse 13 reads like a daily newspaper. How often lately do we hear of celebrities being arrested for drunk driving, the parties they attend, the relationships that they have with others, their fighting with one another and their obsession with possessions, fame, fortune and recognition? Yet, if we were to admit it, we all would love to be so carefree and footloose. Paul understands this, this is why his rhetoric is couched in such a way as to suggest that not only are these behaviors practiced but also secretly desired by those who cannot do such things. America’s current obsession with reality TV shows, personalities, celebrities of all kinds are symptoms of this cultural disease. But what is actually occurring in the behaviors of verse 13?
From the perspective of mimetic theory what Paul is describing is a sacrificial crisis, a social breakdown of taboos that leads to total undifferentiation and requires a sacrificial victim to re-stabilize the community. ‘Partying’ and ‘getting drunk’ are the occasion for inhibitions to break down which leads to ‘sleeping around’ and ‘obscene behavior.’ This is the point at which the boundaries between persons become thin, where the desire of the other is imitated completely. She/He is beautiful/a hunk, they are desired by millions, I too desire him/her, and if I am powerful enough, I will bed her/him.
The inevitable outcome of this is rivalries between lovers, spouses and any who would take what “is rightfully mine.” Paul recognizes this with the term “fightings” but connects this fighting with obsession, the inner psychological requirement to win the battle at all costs, to be the one who comes out of this sacrificial crisis unscathed. Inasmuch as no one wants to be the loser, fighting can only become obsessive.
How do we remain apart from such? Paul’s advice is “not to make a plan for trouble.” Trouble begins with a plan. It starts when we consciously begin thinking about how we are going to meet our perceived lack. A mimetic relationship does not bring a sense of fulfillment but a sense of lack that is interpreted as need. Meeting the ‘need’ we have is all that counts. Our obsession with our perceived ‘need’ inaugurates thinking about the way we can meet our need. Some might recognize this as an addictive behavior pattern. It is. We are to stop “the stinking thinking.’ We are addicted to meeting our perceived needs. Paul encourages us not to begin this planning process but instead to “clothe ourselves with Jesus.” Jesus is the one with whom we can have a pure unadulterated mimetic relationship, one that does not lead to the breaking of relationships and rivalry. Jesus as our only source of fulfillment.
In him and with him is to put on “weapons of light.” Yes, there is a battle but it is not waged with anger, resentment, self-justification, guns or bombs. Our weapons are those that bring healing: a kind word, an encouraging gesture, a compassionate act. The weapons of light belong to the “Day.” We have already seen what the weapons of darkness look like in verse 13. To put on Jesus is to be centered in him alone as our source of life, meaning and fulfillment.
Finally, the apocalyptic element is shot through this text. Even though we are still “in the night”, and it we may be deep into the night, for the dawn is coming soon (“the night is almost over”), we live as though the sun has risen. For Paul the daybreak was the death and resurrection of Jesus, which had already occurred in the past but which heralded a new era, a break in human history. We are those, Paul says, who have one foot in the dusk and another foot in the dawn. We live in a temporal lacuna, a gap between past and future, this interim time, the “between the times” of eschatological fulfillment and eschatological consummation is Jesus-time.
Apocalyptic is not primarily about global tribulation but about the turning of the ages in Jesus. Barth said that christology which is not eschatology is no christology at all. This is how Paul understands apocalyptic.