Saturday, 9 November 2013

Luke 21: 5-19: ‘By your endurance
you will gain your souls’

Patrick Comerford

Luke 21: 5-19


5 Καί τινων λεγόντων περὶ τοῦ ἱεροῦ, ὅτι λίθοις καλοῖς καὶ ἀναθήμασιν κεκόσμηται, εἶπεν, 6 Ταῦτα ἃ θεωρεῖτε, ἐλεύσονται ἡμέραι ἐν αἷς οὐκ ἀφεθήσεται λίθος ἐπὶ λίθῳ ὃς οὐ καταλυθήσεται.

7 Ἐπηρώτησαν δὲ αὐτὸν λέγοντες, Διδάσκαλε, πότε οὖν ταῦτα ἔσται, καὶ τί τὸ σημεῖον ὅταν μέλλῃ ταῦτα γίνεσθαι; 8 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν, Βλέπετε μὴ πλανηθῆτε: πολλοὶ γὰρ ἐλεύσονται ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματί μου λέγοντες, Ἐγώ εἰμι: καί, Ὁ καιρὸς ἤγγικεν: μὴ πορευθῆτε ὀπίσω αὐτῶν.

9 ὅταν δὲ ἀκούσητε πολέμους καὶ ἀκαταστασίας, μὴ πτοηθῆτε: δεῖ γὰρ ταῦτα γενέσθαι πρῶτον, ἀλλ' οὐκ εὐθέως τὸ τέλος. 10 Τότε ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς, Ἐγερθήσεται ἔθνος ἐπ' ἔθνος καὶ βασιλεία ἐπὶ βασιλείαν, 11 σεισμοί τε μεγάλοι καὶ κατὰ τόπους λιμοὶ καὶ λοιμοὶ ἔσονται, φόβητρά τε καὶ ἀπ' οὐρανοῦ σημεῖα μεγάλα ἔσται.

12 πρὸ δὲ τούτων πάντων ἐπιβαλοῦσιν ἐφ' ὑμᾶς τὰς χεῖρας αὐτῶν καὶ διώξουσιν, παραδιδόντες εἰς τὰς συναγωγὰς καὶ φυλακάς, ἀπαγομένους ἐπὶ βασιλεῖς καὶ ἡγεμόνας ἕνεκεν τοῦ ὀνόματός μου: 13 ἀποβήσεται ὑμῖν εἰς μαρτύριον. 14 θέτε οὖν ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ὑμῶν μὴ προμελετᾶν ἀπολογηθῆναι, 15 ἐγὼ γὰρ δώσω ὑμῖν στόμα καὶ σοφίαν ἧ οὐ δυνήσονται ἀντιστῆναι ἢ ἀντειπεῖν ἅπαντες οἱ ἀντικείμενοι ὑμῖν. 16 παραδοθήσεσθε δὲ καὶ ὑπὸ γονέων καὶ ἀδελφῶν καὶ συγγενῶν καὶ φίλων, καὶ θανατώσουσιν ἐξ ὑμῶν, 17 καὶ ἔσεσθε μισούμενοι ὑπὸ πάντων διὰ τὸ ὄνομά μου. 18 καὶ θρὶξ ἐκ τῆς κεφαλῆς ὑμῶν οὐ μὴ ἀπόληται. 19 ἐν τῇ ὑπομονῇ ὑμῶν κτήσασθε τὰς ψυχὰς ὑμῶν.

5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he [Christ] 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?’ 8 And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” 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.’ 10 Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

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. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.’

Introduction

This morning’s reading (Luke 21: 5-19) for our Bible study is the Gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Sunday week, the Second Sunday before Advent (17 November 2013).

These Gospel readings in the RCL for Sundays at the end of the season of Pentecost read like readings for Lent and preparation for Holy Week rather than readings for the weeks leading up to Advent. But Advent is a season of preparation for Christ coming among us as God incarnate, as our king.

In the Lectionary readings over the last few Sundays, we will have seen in the past few weeks how Christ, like Isaiah (50: 7) and Ezekiel (21: 1-2) in the Old Testament, has “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9: 51), while his disciples, first in awe, then in shock, follow him on that road to Jerusalem and the Temple. This reading is from the last story about Christ teaching in the Temple.

In between our Gospel readings for the Fourth Sunday before Advent (3 November, Luke 19: 1-10) and for the Third Sunday before Advent (tomorrow, 10 November, Luke 20: 27-38), the Lectionary readings skip over Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, when the “whole multitude ... began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power they had seen, saying ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Luke 19: 38).

On his arrival in Jerusalem, Christ weeps, invokes sayings from Jeremiah against a city that “did not recognise the time of your visitation from God” (Luke 19: 41-44), and then faces up to three attempts by the authorities to entrap him, each concluding with Christ silencing his opponents (Luke 20: 1-19; 20: 20-26; and 20: 27-40), the third of which we looked at last week.

Setting the scene

The scene has been set in the verses in this chapter that immediately precede this Sunday reading. Christ is sitting by the Temple Treasury, where he watches the poor widow offer the smallest of coins (verses 1-4).

The scene does not change as he goes on to speak about the Temple, the Nation, and the looming future. But, instead of questioning him about what he has just said about this widow, which might have offered a focus for how the politics of God work, those around him, probably a wider group than just his own disciples, cannot get past the physical presence and appearance of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem, then revered as a sign of God’s presence, even as the dwelling place of God’s sheltering protection for Israel (see Luke 13:34-35).

The coming of God’s reign

Christ is no longer facing attacks from others. Instead, he alerts his followers to the hardships they face ahead, beyond the time of his journey. But as he approached Jerusalem, Christ had declared that God’s “visitation” had come with his reign, that the very stones of the Temple would testify against those who rejected him (19: 41-44).

Now he again predicts that all the stones will be thrown down (21: 6), as one scene in the divine drama.

A web of prophetic citations is woven through these verses. These include words and phrases from Jeremiah 4, 7, 14, and 21; Isaiah 19; and Ezekiel 14 and 38. Maybe we could say that Christ, like the prophets before him, was not very original in what he said. But there is still the question: how faithfully did these prophetic words and warnings of destruction speak to the people of the time, to the people who heard Christ speak?

But Christ also differentiates his teaching from the teaching of the false prophets, who also quoted the ancient words of God. While announcing the coming judgment, Christ cautions against following prophets who claim to know God’s timetable, even invoking Christ’s own name.

The account in this chapter of Christ’s words could be compared with Mark 13, and its intensity of the coming “tribulation.” Or we might go back to Luke 17: 22-37 which also reminds us that Christ’s death is an integral part of God’s timetable: “But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation” (17: 25). Luke’s longer account of Christ’s discourse (21: 5-36) assures his readers they are experiencing not “the end” … but the period of “tribulations” or “persecutions” through which believers will enter the kingdom (see Acts 14: 22).

And so, Saint Luke’s account of Christ’s speech does not provide yet another programme or timetable to predict the working out of God’s plan, down to the last second. The prophets and Christ teach us that the struggles in history and in disturbances in nature are more than accidental. They remind us that God triumphed over chaos in creating the natural world, and yet both human and supra-historical forces are still contending for the earth. Christ’s followers are aware, therefore, that his death and resurrection is God’s ultimate act in a struggle of cosmic proportions. Only the final outcome is sure.

The gift and strength of endurance

As the Apostle Paul testifies: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, be we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8: 22-23).

The hope to which Christ testifies in this passage, therefore, is no trivial denial of the struggles, the pain and agony of human life, or the catastrophic forces of nature. These are real, and the prophets of old have interpreted such devastations as the context of God’s saving work. Christ joins this chorus, bringing it close to the concrete realities of early Christians. But he says: “This will give you an opportunity to testify” (verse 13) and “By your endurance you will gain your souls” (verse 19).

The “opportunity to testify” does not require Christ’s followers to know every answer to the question: “Why do bad things happen to good people.”

Christ is promising that he will give us “words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” His earlier promise of the Holy Spirit’s wisdom in times of testimony (see Luke 12: 11-12) now becomes his own promise. When he commissions them as “my witnesses” (Acts 1: 8), he assures them of the power and the presence of his Holy Spirit, and the stories in Acts will display the fulfilment of this promise of God’s "mouth and wisdom" (see Acts 4: 13-14; 16: 6-7). And so, even these harsh prophecies in Luke 21 are filled with the confidence of Christ’s enduring presence.

And the “endurance” that “will gain your souls” (verse 19) is also not mere heroic persistence.

The early Christians knew all about endurance, and that endurance was often tested. Paul echoes that theme in Romans 5: 3-5, then transformed this endurance from reliance on human strength to trusting in God’s love: “… we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Saving endurance is a gift of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Verse 6:

Christ foretells the destruction of the Temple (“all will be thrown down”). This event took place some 40 years in the future. At that time, Roman legions (“armies,” see verse 20) surrounded the city.

Verse 7:

In Christ’s time, people were concerned about when the world would end, and what signs would indicate “this is about to take place.”

Verses 7-11:

Christ begins to answer, in terms drawn from the prophets, including Micah, Jeremiah, Hosea and Joel) and from contemporary books, such as II Esdras. “The time” (verse 8) is the time chosen by God for the end of the era. He then adds “the end will not follow immediately” (verse 9).

Verses 12-19:

Christ then diverts to issues that matter now: the treatment his followers will receive, and how they should react to it

They will be treated as he has been: they will be accused of heresy in “synagogues,” brought before civil courts (“kings and governors”) and sent to prison.

Verse 13:

On these occasions, they should take it as “an opportunity to testify,” for testimony (verse 13, μαρτύριον), to tell the good news, we might even read into it to be martyrs.

Verse 14:

They should be themselves, and not act out a role. The Greek word translated “prepare ... in advance” (προμελετάω, verse 14) literally means to practise as in to practise a gesture or rehearse a dance.

Verses 16-17:

To follow Christ entails suffering and betrayal and being “hated.”

Verse 19:

Perseverance under duress will gain you eternal life.

Some questions:

How would you relate this Gospel reading to the Old Testament reading for that Sunday (Isaiah 65: 17-25), which has a very different vision for the future of Jerusalem?

A problem that continues to dominate parish priorities is the emphasis on buildings rather than people. Are there “building blocks” we need to knock down so we can start again and care for little people like the poor widow who is passed over in this reading?

Is it time to rebuild, to become the kind of temples God really wants?

Should we change church politics and priorities for God’s politics and priorities?

In pursuing God’s vision for the future of the church and the Kingdom, are we relying on our own knowledge and strengths?

What risks are we willing to take for our core values?

How would you be prophetic and offer hope in the face of the current economic “earthquake” we are facing in Ireland?

How do you read the signs of the times when it comes to global events?

Have you a vision for a new heaven and a new earth (see Isaiah 65: 17-25)?

How do you balance concerns for the wider world with those for the widow and her small coin in your parish?

How would you relate the Gospel reading to the Epistle reading (II Thessalonians 3: 6-13) and keeping away from believers who do not remain true to the essentials of faith?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This essay is based on notes for a Bible study in a tutorial group with part-time MTh students on 9 November 2013.

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