When the end comes for us...
20:45 In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, 46‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets. 47They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
21:1 He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’
Here is a criticism by Jesus. It should not be down to the widows who are being ripped off by the rich to be maintaining this place. Are those who are speaking about the temple and its beauty being defensive? It sounds like they are putting their hope for the future in the temple. Well, about that, says Jesus...
5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’
7 They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ 8And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” [I am] and, “The time is near!” [Or: at hand] Do not go after them.
9 ‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ 10Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
Mark D Davis notes: This verse (11) does not necessarily ascribe agency to God in these cataclysmic events.
12 ‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; 15for I will give you words [a mouth] and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Verse 18 may be an intentional echo of Luke 12:4-7: 4 ‘I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. 5But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! 6Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. 7But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
20 ‘When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. [is at hand.] 21Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; 22for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfilment of all that is written. 23Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; 24they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
When the end comes for us...
We don't really believe the end will come. There will be disasters, certainly, but not for us. We live as though
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you. (Ps 91)
But it will, Jesus says.
They will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name... 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name...
The author of Psalm 91 thought
8 You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked. (Ps 91)
But Jesus warns of a time when it will be us who are the hated ones, even though we are not wicked.
I have lived my life in a bubble, seeing the ill fortune of others and deciding almost without consciousness that something about their living had been wrong; it would not come near me.
I was like a farmer's kid who helped fire the stubble during the autumn. Not knowing the day had been carefully chosen for its lack of wind, not knowing that the neighbours were on alert, blind to the fact that sheep had been left in the stubble for weeks, feeding and trampling it down, I would accompany my father with excitement as the torch was dragged around the paddock. The tame fire meant we could cultivate the land a few weeks later without clogging the machinery.
And then one day I went to a real fire, and stood with the men as they debated how to control the burn. It was only a small fire, really, at the base of a gully. And then in a flicker towards the slope it jumped a quarter mile, roaring into our faces almost before we realised it was coming. We staggered back into the fallow paddock behind us; without that, most of us would have perished.
When I read Luke 21 I am a farm kid who knows only the entertainment of tame fires and Larry Norman songs— I wish we'd all been ready... When the real fire comes, there is no being ready. Our culture which has spent a century insulated from the terrors of the world, visiting the terrors of its greed upon the world, has not the least idea how to read Luke. We think there will be a tomorrow. We cannot believe there will not be a tomorrow like today. We cannot conceive of living in a time when perhaps the most beautiful building in the world— the symbol at the centre of our being— has been torn down and burned. We who have perhaps been sneered at, or ridiculed for our beliefs, have no concept of what it means to be blamed for that fall. We have no idea what it will mean to be dragged before the courts charged with treason, insurrection, abuse— anything which suits the moment for angry and grieving and terrified people who need a scapegoat.
Luke is not talking about some distant future that will not come near us. Neither is he promising some quick ending where we are snatched out of harm's way so that it will not come near us. He is talking about his present where people were "betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends and some were put to death. He is talking about his present where followers of Jesus were "hated by all because of [his] name."
How would we live in that? How can we survive in a firestorm of disintegrating culture? How might we live when the bushfires are too many and the water is too little, and our societal systems begin to fall apart; when the supermarkets are empty, when people drain our rainwater tank at the point of a gun, when we are dying in the heat?
Join the queues, Luke would say. Don’t race off after false promises of rescue. The text speaks of endurance, which means faithfulness to Jesus' teaching. Preachers of prosperity, preachers of sectarian separation, of populist revenge, of easy salvation: all these would lead us astray. "Do not go after them."
Brian Stoffregen paraphrases Luke like this:
By sticking to the convictions of your faith in the midst of opposition, you acquire your true selves -- namely, that you are children of God who have been promised a resurrected, eternal life.
Stretching this approach a little further, by not being afraid because of our trust in God, we are not letting our "selves" be controlled by the persecutors (or the natural disasters). The self is lost when we react to such threats with such emotions and behaviors like anger or revenge. Then we are allowing these other things to control our lives, rather than God and God's promises.
We will join the queues if it all falls apart, and trudge with the refugees. But this is not fatalism. This is where we continue to discover our true selves. When people abandoned Jesus in John 6, it says
67So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ 68Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’
Eternal life is what Jesus calls "the age to come," and "the resurrection," (Luke 20: 35) in last week's story where the Sadducees try to trap him. It is by enduring, by remaining faithful, in the easy times, and in the terrors, that we are given our true selves. That is the promise. And the preparation is not imagining what we will say or do. It does not lie in prepping and building bunkers. It lies in living the faith now, being formed by Jesus because we are open now, so that if such a time comes, we will be given words to say and a way to live.
Andrew Prior (2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also on One Man's Web
Luke 21:5-19 - Tested by Fire (2010)
Luke 21:5-19 - A Wonderfully Ancient and Eternal Place (2013)
Luke 21:5-19 - Gaining a Soul (2013)
Christopher Page: When the way forward is unclear it is tempting to panic. Anxious leadership casts around desperately saying, “We must do something.” Someone finally comes up with something; anxious leadership declares, “This is something, let’s do it.” It does not seem to matter what the “something” is; it only matters that we do something. The tension of being still and holding the doubt and confusion is just too painful to bear. So we rush to whatever plan seems to present itself at the moment and pursue our plan with tenacity until finally we have to admit our plan has failed.
Richard Rohr says that a priest in the church has only one job. The priest’s job is to tell people, “It’s okay.” A priest is uniquely qualified to fill the role of being “a non-anxious presence,” because a priest has a larger, broader, and deeper perspective than sometimes presents itself in the midst of the turmoil of daily life.
A priest has the capacity to reassure the community because a priest is called to stand a little bit apart from the chaos of daily affairs and to bring the assurance that “this too will pass.” Whatever anxiety or fear currently grip our hearts, the priest reminds us that there is another deeper, fuller realm in which we can know that, whatever is going on on the surface, God is present in the depths; we are not alone.
Brian Stoffregen: For the readers of Luke, the days that Jesus said were coming, had arrived. The temple had been destroyed. The stones had all fallen down -- actually, they had been burned up. For them the issue wasn't, "When is this going to happen," but, "Now that it has happened, what do we do? What does it mean?"
John Petty: The text is not a prophecy, in other words, but an interpretation of history... The text has nothing to do with predictions of the future, and any interpretation which treats it so is fatally flawed from the start. Luke was not written primarily for 21st-century Christians anxious about the future. It was written for a beleaguered and persecuted minority under the thumb of Rome. How were they to deal with this situation? Luke says to listen for Jesus, trust in Jesus, and use Jesus himself as a model....
Ecclesiastes 9: Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to the skilful; but time and chance happen to them all. 12For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them...
Nancy Rockwell: By your endurance... A powerful reflection on Luke 21 and Kristallnacht.