Re-reading the story: Luke 21:1-Luke 22:6
The reading of Saint Luke Chapter 20 took us through a series of political spats between Jesus and his opponents—group by group, he defeats in debate the Priests and the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Moving to Chapter 21 tonight the emphasis is much more theological.
We begin with a story familiar from Sunday School days—the widow’s mite. It is one of those stories that always seems comforting, perhaps because it is usually read as a story by itself. A story of humble generosity that is praised by Jesus; it is usually told without the looming shadow of the cross. Yet, when we read it in its context, it is part of Jesus’ conflict with the powerful opponents who are beginning to organize themselves to attempt to eliminate him.
But, for a moment, his attention is diverted from the impending battle. The disciples, countrymen for the most part, are entranced by the Temple building, a far remove from their humble homes back in Galilee. Their fascination with the building prompts theological reflection from Jesus into which is woven a number of different themes.
“As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down,” warns Jesus, “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near”. His warning was to come true within forty years. The Great Revolt against the Romans began in AD 66 and reached its culmination in AD 70. when the Roman armies surrounded Jerusalem. The Roman historian Tacitus says that there were some six hundred thousand people under siege in the city; people who fought to the death with whatever weapons they could find. Jerusalem was destroyed and in July AD 70 so was the Temple. The Arch of Titus, which still stands in Rome, shows Roman soldiers marching in triumphant procession carrying the treasures they looted from the Temple.
Jesus then interweaves prophecy of an historical event, the coming fall of Jerusalem, with warnings of cosmic events: the day of the Lord, the day of judgment. This stuff was much loved by the staff at the school I attended. We would be given tracts explaining the meaning of these apocalyptic warnings. They would draw on texts from the Old Testament prophets Ezekiel and Daniel and from the Book of Revelation, and on the words of Jesus himself. They would claim churches who did not teach as theirs taught were the sort of false prophets warned about by Jesus. “Watch out that you are not deceived”, they would say, quoting Jesus’ words.
We would be told that the 1970s were a time unprecedented in human history and that the end of time was near. The conflicts reported on the BBC were signs that their version of history was right. Verses like, “When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away,” were interpreted in a way that explained what was happening. The analysis was very detailed, there was an American company called Chick Publications that produced comic books explaining how all these things would happen. The writers of such stuff said that the ‘ten-horned beast’ in Revelation 13 was the European Community (there were ten members at the time) and identified other texts from the book with things happening at the time, particularly the conflict in the Middle East in the 1970s.
The people in Jesus’ time were as anxious to identify precisely when would be the end of time as were our staff at school; the warning Jesus gives them is one that could find resonances at any period in history, in verses 10-11 he says, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven”. The cosmic nature of the end, that this is the end of the world and not an historical event is set out in verses 25-28, “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
“But before all this”, says Jesus. He doesn’t set a time frame; he doesn’t say when the end will come, only that there will be a redemption day.
Before that day, though, there will be hard times to come. The destruction of Jerusalem would have as much hurt the young Christian church based there as it would the Jewish community from which it came. But the persecution would become much more severe when the Christians were put out of the synagogues.
Until around AD 85, the Christians had been seen as part of the Jewish tradition, enjoying the semi-official tolerance that the Jews enjoyed, but sometime in the ninth decade, a prayer was introduced into the prayer of the synagogues that was effectively a curse on the Christians. Naturally, the Christians could not in good conscience say the prayer and found themselves expelled from the synagogues, leaving them open to persecution. There were to follow many times of persecution, some of it hideously violent. The Christians were an easy target and Jesus anticipated what lay ahead, “You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. All men will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life”.
Having warned them of the pains ahead, Jesus moves quickly to reassure his followers, the blossoming of the trees tells them that the summer is near and so their persecution should reassure them that the kingdom of God is near.
Jesus warns them that the destruction of Jerusalem is not too distant, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened”, but they should not worry, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away”
There is keen insight into human nature in his warning that we needed to be watchful. People very quickly lose heart, very quickly grow tired of waiting, very quickly give up on things they once pursued, “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life”.
“Be always on the watch”, is a fitting conclusion to his words about the destruction of Jerusalem, about the coming persecution of the Christians, and about the cosmic end time, the redemption day to which his followers would look forward.
Beginning with the gentle story of the widow’s mite, Saint Luke’s telling of Jesus’ teaching on the Monday or Tuesday of the week concludes with a gentle note about Jesus going out to the quietness of the Mount of Olives each evening. But lest we forget where we are, on Wednesday, as the Passover was getting very close, Judas agrees to become a spy on behalf of the Priests and the Pharisees.
From theological speculation that threatens future bloodshed and violence, Saint Luke takes us back into the grim and gritty political world of Jerusalem with its conspiracies and intrigues. If we read this story without appreciating the sheer grimness of much of it, then we have missed its essential elements.
Tomorrow, we come to lines with which we are much more familiar.