Mark 13:1-37 - Jesus has left the building
13:1As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ 2Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite (κατέναντι) the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’
Now he leaves the temple. The scapegoat goes out and God's presence goes with him. Like Ezekiel ... we see God departing from the temple and taking up position "upon the mountain which is on the east side of the city" [Ezek 10:18-19, 11:23] as a prelude to the destruction of the city and the departure of its people into exile.1
1. Mark heaps image upon image. Ezekiel's vision foreshadows more destruction, and yet rescue:
19I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God. 21But as for those whose heart goes after their detestable things and their abominations, I will bring their deeds upon their own heads, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 36)
But in the meantime:
23... the glory of the Lord ascended from the middle of the city, and stopped on the mountain east of the city. (Ezekiel 11:23)
In Zechariah we read something similar
2For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses looted and the women raped; half the city shall go into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city. 3Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. 4On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east... (Zechariah 14)
Jewish readers of Mark would remember the pathos of 2 Samuel 15:30 as Absalom seeks to overthrow his father. Marcus says the passages from Zechariah and 2 Samuel are the only places in the Old Testament where the Mount of Olives is specified by name. 2
30 But David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, with his head covered and walking barefoot; and all the people who were with him covered their heads and went up, weeping as they went. (2 Samuel 15:30)
Everything about Jesus sitting on the Mount of Olives primes the reader for destruction and terror, with a hint of eventual salvation. And that is what we will see spelt out in the rest of the chapter.
2. In Zechariah 14 the LXX 3 says τὸ κατέναντι ῾Ιερουσαλὴμ ἐξ ἀνατολῶν which is before or opposite Jerusalem on the east. NRSV uses the word before to translate κατέναντι in Zechariah, and uses opposite in Mark, which reflects the tone of the text. In English, we could say he sits in opposition to Jerusalem. Jesus is opposed to the Temple and what it is doing.
3. Mark has Jesus seated. In biblical culture this is associated with authoritative teaching (cf Mark 9:35) and the pronouncement of judgement, cf John 9:13, where Pilate sits in the judge's seat.
4. But how do we read Mark 13?
Many Christians have been taught to read these words as references to our future. But biblical prophecy concerns making sense of the author's present situation and history in order to live on into the future, and in making sense of them in the light of author's experience of the transcendent God. In Chapter 13 Mark is seeking to make sense of either the obviously imminent destruction of the temple, or its recent destruction, and seeking to make sense of the suffering of Christians in that time. He is using words of the Jesus tradition and, probably, drawing on his experience of the risen Christ, he is placing words in Jesus' mouth to talk about his own situation and the situation of his community.
The idea that he would put words into Jesus' mouth may worry us, yet it is the biblical tradition! In Psalm 110, the writer says to the king, "The Lord (God) says to my Lord (the King)…" He puts words into God's mouth based upon his understanding of God from the scripture and traditions of the day, and from his experience of God in prayer. Why would Mark not do the same?
Nonetheless, Jesus' prophecy of the destruction of the Temple is itself probably historical. Marcus4 notes Rabbinic prophecies of its destruction which predate the fall of the city by forty years, "in the time of Jesus."
What this means is that we should look to discern details of Mark's current situation as we look at the details of his text, rather than trying to apply the details of his text to the details of our current situation. The more general thrusts of his message—those who endure to the end shall be saved—may still apply as our own hope.
It is extraordinarily important to remember that Chapter 13 is not an isolated text. It sits within a Gospel written to make sense of the crucifixion of Jesus. And the crucifixion of Jesus illuminates Chapter 13 in the circular reading and seeing that characterises Mark. If we make it all a future prophecy for our time we will miss some of what it is saying.
5. The layout of Chapter 13
Hamerton-Kelly5 suggests three main divisions in the text, which each have three subsections. The main divisions are obvious, and the organisation dovetails nicely into Mark's constant use of three, sometimes called a triadal composition pattern. Hamerton-Kelly says
The threefold organisation of the speech recalls the three times Jesus comes and finds the disciples sleeping in Gethsemane, and the three denials of Peter. All of these fore-shadowings help the reader understand ... the Satanic violence that will soon break out from the temple against Jesus, the innocent victim.5 (I have conflated two parts of his text here for clarity.)
We might add to this that Jesus will be in the grave for three days, and that he foretells his own death three times.6
The three sections are:
- A revised account of the immediate past history, "refuting claims that the war is an eschatological event and that the prophets who claimed to be the returning Jesus were in fact he." (13:5b-23)
- A presentation of the parousia [the coming] using "traditional apocalyptic imagery." (13:24-27)
- Warning about "the nearness of the parousia and a demand for constant vigilance" because no one knows the time or day (13:28-37)
3When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’
[Section One: A revised account of the immediate past history, "refuting claims that the war is an eschatological event and that the prophets who claimed to be the returning Jesus were in fact he."]
5Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” [Gk I am] and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For 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.
The war is the first subsection of Section 1. (5b-8)
The warning is not to be led astray. It appears that people came claiming to be the returning Jesus. The Greek has a hint of the name of God in it: They came saying egō eimi, which is I am, alluding to Exodus 3:14 (LXX) where God says to Moses, egō eimi. Mark is saying that wars are indeed a sign that the end is near, but it is not yet. Wars, and this war in particular, are the beginning of the birth pangs. NRSV translates the text as "but the beginning," but Marcus says although this is "an enticing translation, since it protects Jesus from a mistaken belief in the imminent end," the word but is absent from the text. He says the appropriate translation is neither only, nor but, the beginning: It is this is indeed the beginning of the birth pangs.7
Girard speaks of "the complete disintegration of sacrificial protections it is our misfortune and privilege to witness."8 Mark is writing about war post-crucifixion. The Jewish revolt was associated with a time of societal chaos in "the year of the four emperors" where following the suicide of Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian ruled. We also live in a time of chaos and fear. One of Girard's insights is that since the scapegoat mechanism has been so thoroughly exposed by the crucifixion of Jesus we have less and less channelled and controlled outlet for our violence. In all of this Jesus makes the stunning statement: Do not be alarmed; this must take place... and Girard would agree.9
9 ‘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. 10And the good news [Gk gospel] must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12Brother will betray (παραδώσει) brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 13and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
6. The persecution of the church and the Gentile mission comprise subsection 2 of Section 1.
There is a threefold handing over in this part of the text. NRSV says brother will betray brother but the word translated as betray (paradōsei) has the same linguistic derivation as paradōsousin which is used in verse 9. In Jesus' three foretellings of his own death, as the drama unfolds, it becomes clear his death will result from being handed over, firstly to human hands (cf 9:30) and then to the chief priests and scribes, and then to the Gentiles. (10:33, where the word is used twice.) It is people handing over people; that is, God is absent from this process. Typically, in a time of violence, people sacrifice other people in an attempt to ensure their own survival, which is perhaps reflected in the phrase you will be hated by all because of my name.
In addition to this, the Septuagint (LXX) uses the same word for the handing over of the suffering servant to death, yet the servant "ends up being exalted and glorified." (Cf Isaiah 53: 6,12) But in the time of the school of Isaiah it is still not possible to see that the handing over is by people; God is still willing it. (cf 53:10)
The Markan text is cast in the future tense but speaks of present experience. Christians are being handed over, even by those who should be most loyal to them. Remembering Mark 3:31-35, there is a strong hint here that the text is referring to the horror of handing over from within the Christian community. Marcus notes records of Christians denouncing their brothers and sisters to the authorities.10 In this time of horror Mark encourages his people by constructing his text to show that this was all foretold. Even back in Chapter 8 Jesus says, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (cf 8:34) And soon, the text will show Jesus' being handed over. There is no easy comfort here. But, "people being people," Mark could have written, "this must take place." (cf 13:7) The promise is that if we endure to the end we shall be saved. There is a double meaning here: If we endure to the end of the persecutions we shall be saved, and if we persevere to the end that is our death, we shall be saved.
In the light of Mark 8: 35's For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it, the kind of magical thinking that says Covid-19, or any other form of peril, will not come near me, (cf Ps 91) is clearly not realistic. There is no denial of our human vulnerability in Mark.
The two foretellings of his own death by Jesus in 9:30-32 and 10:32-34 are not followed by the demand of Mark 8:34 to take up the cross, but are followed by the demand to serve, although in Chapter 10 he says bluntly to James and John in that context, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized." (10:39) In Luther's "Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague" which has been widely circulated on social media during Covid-19, he says
Those who are engaged in a spiritual ministry such as preachers and pastors must ... remain steadfast before the peril of death. We have a plain command from Christ, “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep but the hireling sees the wolf coming and flees” [John 10:11]... [But] where enough preachers are available in one locality and they agree to encourage the other clergy to leave in order not to expose themselves needlessly to danger, I do not consider such conduct sinful because spiritual services are provided for and because they would have been ready and willing to stay if it had been necessary.10b
Sometimes the cross is service which threatens death in the chaos around us. Luther, ordered to leave Wittenberg for the relative safety of Jena by Elector John of Saxony, in the plague of 1527, refused.
14 ‘But when you see the desolating sacrilege (the abomination of desolation KJV) set up (ἑστηκότα standing) where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; 15someone on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; 16someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat. 17Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! 18Pray that it may not be in winter (χειμῶνος). 19For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. 20And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days. 21And if anyone says to you at that time, “Look! Here is the Messiah!” [Or Christ] or “Look! There he is!”—do not believe it. 22False messiahs [Or christs] and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23But be alert; I have already told you everything.
7. The abomination of desolation and the destruction of Jerusalem comprise subsection three of Section 1.
The phrase let the reader understand first of all directs us to the book of Daniel where it appears twice. (Daniel 11:31, 12:11) and is also alluded to in Daniel 9:26-27. Reading Daniel helps us understand the phrase. Daniel 11 speaks of the abomination that makes desolate. (NRSV) The temple is no longer able to fulfil its purpose. Daniel 12 distinguishes between the time [of] the regular burnt-offering [and the time of] the abomination that desolates... (NRSV) Hamerton-Kelly says that "it disqualifies the Temple as a place for the second coming of Christ. Violence is personified, Satan has taken over the temple, and thus it is disqualified forever as the place of the Parousia."11
Clearly, Mark's directing of the reader to Daniel only makes sense if there were some desolation of the Temple of Mark's day. Daniel was making "a coded reference" to the placing of an image of the god Baal Shemayin on the Jerusalem altar in 168BCE by the Seleucid tyrant Antiochus Epiphane. After the Roman takeover of Israel in 63BCE people reinterpreted the abomination as a future desecration.12 Mark sees that this desecration has come to pass. The reference could be to the destruction of the Temple itself, but Marcus (Ibid) points out that the Greek gender for standing (cf vv14) implies a person, not an event. Possibly it referred to Titus, the Roman General who entered the Holy of Holies as the Temple was burning.
But the logic of the text suggests that the abomination was present well before then; why else would there be the instruction to flee, which reflects the history of flight by Jerusalem Christians to Pella. This suggests that the abomination was the occupation of the temple by Zealots who usurped the high priesthood in 67-68BCE near the beginning of the War, with bloodshed, and appointed their own high priest who was not of priestly descent.13 Marcus wonders if Mark thought that the Zealot's nationalist banishment of Gentiles who worshipped in the Temple was also a "desolation" in light of 11: 17: ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?' This would also reflect the pericopes of 7:24-8:13.
Cheimōnos is the word translated as winter. It can also mean a storm. Marcus notes that in the spring of 68CE refugees from Gadara could not cross the Jordan because of the storm floods. This was perhaps a risk for those who would later flee to the east for safety from Jerusalem.13b
Verse 19: Daniel 12:1 says (LXX, not the Masoretic text) "and there shall be a time of tribulation, such tribulation as has not been from the time that there was a nation on the earth until that time." Marcus notes a significant change to his source by Mark.
Jesus does not say "until that day" but "until now" This may be another of those places in which Mark drops the appearance of transmitting a speech by the earthly Jesus in the early thirties c.e. and lets his readers see that the body of chapter 13 is at least in part, an address by the risen Lord to a Markan community that is currently undergoing tribulation (cf. "let the reader understand" in 13:14)14
8. With respect to Mark's great theme which distinguishes the gospel of the kingdom of God from empire, Hamerton-Kelly makes the following observation:
It is 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. Rather, the suffering is to be caused by wars, frauds, charlatans, natural catastrophes, misunderstandings and persecutions. These are the sadly predictable human failings that cause human misery without any divine intervention. In fact, the one clear reference to divine intervention has God shortening the tribulation for the sake of his elect. There is, therefore, a significant omission of the divine vengeance from a traditional apocalyptically styled passage, and that confirms our thesis that the generative energy of the Gospel is the opposite of the Sacred. Even though traditional imagery is used, the traditional content has been modified so as to remove the idea of the divine wrath and vengeance. The wrath is the suffering we inflict on ourselves and each other...15
Marcus notes that there is nothing in the chapter about the "punishment of nations" which was so often a feature of Old Testament expectations. (cf Zechariah 14) Indeed, the only reference to the nations in this chapter "is in 13:10 where they are to be an object of mission rather than condemnation."16
9. In all of the suffering which Mark's community reads as accompaniment and commentary upon its own suffering, Jesus says, be alert; I have already told you everything. In other words, you know this must happen. Don't be misled by the false Messiahs.
"For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be." This was true enough: there are records of a woman eating her newborn child in the severe starvation of the siege.17 But again, these are words about the history of Mark's community, not words for the future. The days have already been cut short. (vv20) We now come to the time which is after that suffering.
[Section 2: A presentation of the Parousia by means of the traditional apocalyptic imagery.]
24 ‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
10. In Hamerton-Kelly's scheme the three subsections of Section 2 are the cosmic drama (vv24-5), the coming of the Son of Man, (vv26) and the gathering of the elect. (v27) These, at last, are the words of hope.
Hamerton-Kelly makes an interesting comparison between Chapter 12 and Chapter 13. Inasmuch as Chapter 12 foreshadows Chapter 13 we see the condemnation of the Temple system in the parable of the tenants, followed by the question of taxes. All this is about the old order of being in which we are trapped. Then, rather unexpectedly we have the pericope of the seven brothers. Here Jesus speaks of the resurrection as a new way-of-being. Hamerton-Kelly says
The role of the section on the parousia (13:24-27) in this chapter is analogous to the role that the question of resurrection plays in the discourses in the temple (12:18-27). It introduces the note of miraculous intervention and signals that the fulfilment of hope for a new order can only take place through the action of God. It is as if for a moment the veil is lifted and we are shown the real agent in the history that is being recounted. The temple is to be replaced not with another sacrificial system but with the community of those chosen by the Son of Man, which in Daniel 7 symbolises the truly human one, who with the restoration of the right order of creation takes the place of the beasts as the ruler of humanity. Sin caused the beasts to rule over Adam in contradiction to the intended order of creation. Now the right order is restored and the human one rules in the human community.18
Relevant to this are words from Walter Wink
and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form” (Ezek. 1:26). And this is the revelation: God is HUMAN. This is no anthropomorphism. Israel was thoroughly familiar with anthropomorphic language, and never confused it with reality. But Ezekiel is not beholding a figure of speech. This is really what God is: HUMAN. It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness—which is to say, we are capable of becoming human. Furthermore, we are incapable of becoming human by ourselves. We scarcely know what humanness is.19 (I have added the italics)
Wink points out that the Greek text uses the words ton huion tou anthrōpou which strictly mean the son of the man, which translations universally leave out. Despite all the titles offered to him, Jesus calls himself the son of the man. He is son of the MAN, the HUMAN one in Ezekiel. This is the one who will come.
11. We have already quoted Crossan's comment that ancient people told symbolic stories that "we are now dumb enough to take them literally.” (op. cit.) Such stories use "concrete temporal, spatial and dynamic imagery"19b as metaphors to describe the abstract, and to reach towards the transcendent. If we do not remember this here, we will miss the point of the text entirely.
There has been opposition in Mark between God and Jesus, and Satan and demons. Marcus makes this point20 noting in Chapter 5 the panic of the demon even at a distance when Jesus came near, knowing that Jesus spells its destruction. The darkening of the sun and the moon, and the falling of the stars "returns the universe to the situation before the fourth day of creation." The idea is present in Jeremiah 4:23: I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. In Mark 13:9 it says suffering such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now... Now the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Marcus says
But our passage does not just describe a reversion to chaos; it also hints at victory over it. In OT, Jewish, and Christian sources, the eschatological dimming of the sun moon and stars is often portrayed as a climactic event in the cosmic battle between God and the forces of evil (eg Isa 13:10-13; 14:12-13; 24:17-23 [etc])20b
The terrible signs in the heavens are in fact the good news of the completion of creation. They are not finally events we should fear. The ones who have something to fear, the they who will see the Son of the Man coming, are the false messiahs and false prophets of verse 27, and perhaps also the stars in as much as they represent the powers opposed to God. The immediate image which comes to mind is the text from Isaiah 14: 12: How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! In Ephesians, the battle against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places... (6:12) uses similar symbols. Evil is overcome.
12. The imagery of the coming Son of Man comes from Daniel 7:14. The clouds are the symbol of the presence of God and in Daniel it says
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.
The implication of the text in Daniel is that the son of man ascends into the heavens, but "in the NT and some rabbinic traditions" this is reversed. He descends to earth. "This reversal presumably expresses the hope that this world will be transformed at the eschaton."21 And now that he has come the great hope of Israel will be fulfilled. The faithful ones will be gathered from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. The use of heaven here may imply those dead who will be raised.22
Marcus notes that at this point Jesus has answered the disciples' question about "all these things" and turns to the timing.23
[Section 3: Warning about "the nearness of the parousia and a demand for constant vigilance" because no one knows the time or day (13:28-37)] (I have divided the text into the three subsections which Hamerton-Kelly discerns, although here they seem much less obvious than in the two previous sections.)
28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer (θέρος can also mean harvest) is near. 29So also, when you see these things (ταῦτα ⸃ γινόμενα) taking place, you know that he [Or it] is near, at the very gates.
30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; [Other ancient authorities add and pray] for you do not know when the time will come.
13. If Jesus is "the Son," how does he not know the day? Especially since he knows this generation will not pass away. Jerome said this verse made "Arius and Eunomious rejoice" because it appears to make the Son inferior to the Father. Both he and Ambrose claimed Arians had introduced the phrase into the original text! (Marcus pp913) But the point is clear: if someone knows the day and hour, they are wrong. But be alert:
34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’
14. The end of the Gospel approaches. We are ready to re-read the story of his crucifixion and understand what it means. And Mark's last words in Chapter 13 prepare us. For the disciples will not be able to keep awake in the evening— three times. (14:34-41) And there is a sharp dig at Peter, and all of our protestations of zeal. For at midnight Peter was not awake, and not ready at cockcrow, but denying Jesus instead. (14:72) The three times Jesus mentions match what is to come, for at dawn, in the morning they decide to hand him over to the Gentiles, just as he had said. (cf 10:33-34)
15. I began by asking how we are to read Chapter 13.
Mark clearly expected Jesus to come again. Not in the immediacy of the fall of the city or the destruction of the Temple, and not in the immediate aftermath, but very soon. The birth pangs had begun. He has not come. Those who said I am he were lying. Those who pretend to know when are still lying.
How then do we now read him almost 2,000 years later? Well, we watch alert, or we will not meet him in the Galilee of our time and place. (cf Mark 16:7). And we remember that wars and rumours of wars mean very little. They are indeed the beginning, and the working out, of something, but it is not yet complete.
And we remember that Mark and his culture write in symbols. "One like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven" is symbolic of the presence of God. Daniel's "Ancient One [who] took his throne" reflects the careful symbolism of Ezekiel, who saw something "that seemed like a human form." (Ezekiel 1:26) These are people grasping to express the experience of God, careful not to reify the vision which was granted to them, for that would pretend to understand, which is to seek to control, and which boxes in and limits the Divine. Our culture is the one that makes the mistake of reading specificity into the visions which speak of the presence of God, as understandable as that is in our longing and hope for final vindication.
There are two things I can say.
One is that I can have very little to say about Mark 13 (despite having said a lot.) Apocalyptic literature is written by those who suffer, for those who suffer. I have lived my life among the safe and the privileged. Do I have sufficient experience to interpret Mark 13? I once wondered if this might be so when talking with some folk who had been refugees from massacre and war. Their response was something like, "You are right! And you have no idea how right you are!" We need to listen to First Nations folk, to refugees, to Dalit friends, and all those who have been in situations so disempowered that it seems only the Son of Man coming in the clouds might save them.
Second, I seek to remember that Jesus will come in greater and lesser ways than the mindset of empire conditions us to expect. For those who seek salvation in kings and caesars and nationalist heroes, he will be underwhelming. We see this already: the Messiah was a Palestinian peasant who died alone on a cross, crushed by empire in the one great victory in human history. And yet in this weakest power we have seen the world changed. The innocence of victims is understood. The scapegoat mechanism has been exposed. We have learned the power of forgiveness. And people are healed. They have told me stories of appalling violence where all I can say is, "How are you even still alive!?" The question is if we will follow him enough and love him enough that we will alert to watch and see the marvels around us.
How do I live in my present privilege?
At base, Mark is dealing with the anxiety which comes from suffering and violence, from betrayal by friends and family (which is a victimisation and scapegoating), and from not knowing what one's future will be. I want to suggest that our unconverted human response to these things, beyond flight, is to retreat into the Sacred. Let me explain the two ways I see this happening.
The first is that we may determine not to be a victim, but to fight back, especially if we are not yet too much disempowered by our situation. This means we become more enmeshed in the mindset of empire rather than becoming freer in the reality of the kingdom of God. Violent resistance is to subscribe to the myth of redemptive violence; the myth that we can save ourselves and heal violence with violence. This is the essence of the Sacred, and as a myth (in the Girardian sense), it works—the sacred is written and told— to hide the fact that we too become victimisers. It justifies our behaviour. You notice how religious the language is! If, and when, I use violence to survive— and I blame no one for this at that moment when the only other choice is bodily death— at that moment, there is a sense in which I fail by seeking to save my life. My only hope is that I am "anyway forgiven."
The second way to retreat into the Sacred is to succumb to the temptation to read Mark 13 violently. That is, it is to hope and long for a future saviour who will mete out violent justice to the persecutors. Apocalypse postpones justice into the future and this assurance gives us hope and energy to endure the present. But if we include in that longing the imagination that God will punish those who have failed to live justly and well, we not only long for our own punishment! We also practise the mindset of violence. We marinate our minds in the flavour of vengeance, making an appearance of piety, while postponing violence for a future time.
We again become children of empire by longing for vengeance through the one who is to come. In other words, we look for a God who is the same as the gods of empire, only stronger, which means: more violent than the gods of empire. This longing is understandable. After all, our way of being and thinking is formed by empire, which presents this kind of god as the only option. But Jesus will soon show us in Mark 14-16 that God is not that kind of God, for the Son of God will not resist violence with violence, and will not take revenge. Instead the risen Son of God will meet his disciples in Galilee, which is ordinary everyday life where we suffer.
When we read Mark 13 violently we hypothesise a God of impositional power. Power which imposes is inherently violent. We cannot impose without excluding someone, because imposition implies right and wrong, and the taking of sides. As soon as we impute the violence of apocalyptic times to God we project ourselves upon God. This is why Hamerton-Kelly's insight is so important: the violence in Mark 13 is human violence. It is this that Jesus' death and resurrection reveals about the situations we call apocalyptic; they come from us.
Mark is teaching us in his Gospel that God does not impose; God invites. Indeed, God does not intervene even to save Jesus from death on the cross. This is to say that in the time of the cross God does not impose. Mark shows us that God's power lies only in the cross:
Beyond the cross there isn't a reservoir of awesome force. The power of God just is the weakness of the cross. The cross exhausts what we mean by "the power of God," with no remainder. As Bonhoeffer says, God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which God is with us and helps us… God invites and loves us into partnership, into a cooperation of love and healing
God invites. God loves. God vindicates the victims who have been killed. God comes to us in the victims. (Matthew 25:31ff)23b
In the end Chapter 13 gives a promise that we will be saved if we endure to the end… and as Marcus points out, the end may well mean our death. Jesus says to the disciples that there is no apocalyptic rescue available, so as the Temple falls they should flee if they are able. And then, beyond that, wherever they are, there is only more truly Christlike response. That is to suffer.
To be really humanised, to be becoming fully human, is to be becoming free of the fear of death, and so to be becoming free of the need for violence and exclusion, and so to be becoming able to leave tribalism and enter the community of the kingdom of God. It is to imagine a new way of living.
Which means to choose to suffer.
Nora Gallagher said "I once asked a friend of mine who is a therapist how to stop projecting onto others my own fears and weakness, that is, how to love, and she said: 'You must enlarge your capacity to suffer.'" The empires are metaphors for the path taken by humans determined to sort out and manage their own salvation… If Jesus rejects Babylon, and rejects Satan, his only other option is to suffer. This is because if we will not suffer, if we will not "enlarge our capacity to suffer" then we will inevitably project, and deflect, our suffering upon others. In the end, that's all Babylon and Rome are: for all their grandeur and power they are, finally, a refusal to suffer. They try to avoid the suffering that is unavoidable if we are to live. They fail the call which Jesus accepted.24
Perhaps the apocalypse, the revealing, is that when the son of the human one comes to us, however that might me, the glory of the clouds and thrones will be that he is defenceless. Which will not matter, because we will be human at last.
(Andrea Prior, Dec 2023)
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly The Gospel and the Sacred, pp35 (Back)
2. Joel Marcus Mark Anchor Bible, pp869 (Back)
3. LXX is The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by many in Mark's day. (Back)
4.Marcus, pp871 (Back)
5. Hamerton-Kelly, pp36 (Back)
6. Hamerton-Kelly, pp39 (Back)
7. Marcus, pp878 (Back)
8. Michael Kirwan Discovering Girard, pp93) (Back)
9.See also Girard, "On War and Apocalypse", https://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/08/on-war-and-apocalypse (Back)
10. Marcus pp888 (Back)
10b. (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 43 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 119–38 posted https://blogs.lcms.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Plague-blogLW.pdf) (Back)
11. Hamerton-Kelly p38 (Back)
12. Marcus pp889-890 (Back)
13. Marcus 891 (Back)
13b. Marcus pp89, quoting (Josephus, War 4.433) (Back)
14. Marcus pp896 (Back)
15. Hamerton-Kelly pp40 (Back)
16. Marcus pp907 (Back)
17. (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews 6.201-219) http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0148%3Abook%3D6%3Asection%3D201 (Back)
18. Hamerton-Kelly, pp40 (Back)
19. Walter Wink, Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human, pp102 (Back)
19b. Taylor, David Bruce, Mark's Gospel as Literature and History, pp300 (Back)
20. Marcus pp908 (Back)
20b. Marcus pp907 (Back)
21. Marcus pp905 (Back)
22. Marcus pp905 (Back)
23. Marcus pp909 (Back)
24. Nora Gallagher quoted in https://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20070219JJ.shtml, full paragraph is quoted from Andrea Prior: https://www.onemansweb.org/when-in-lent-luke-41-13.html (Back)