At time around, as we move into the first week of the church’s year, we move from The Year of Mark into The Year of Luke, we read Luke 21:25–36, the final apocalyptic speech of Jesus, which climaxes with the striking claim, “when these things begin to take place … your redemption is drawing near”.
This long speech that Jesus gives (reported with slightly different variations in Mark 13, Matt 24, and Luke 21) is a striking speech, with vivid language and dramatic imagery, drawn from the traditions and patterns that are found in the increasingly apocalyptic fervour of prophetic oracles delivered through the history of Israel. The apocalyptic character of the speech means that it certainly makes a mark!
So, as Jesus is in the forecourt of the magnificent Jerusalem Temple (Luke 21:1, 5), he sets out the way that his disciples should respond. During this apocalyptic discourse, Jesus has indicated that the situation still to come will be one of persecution: “they will arrest you and persecute you” (21:12), there will be betrayal and death (21:16), “you will be hated by all” (21:17), and false preachers will arise (21:8).
In this context, the fundamental act of discipleship will be to bear witness to the way of Jesus: “this will give you an opportunity to testify” (21:13) and “the words and wisdom” for this testimony will be given by Jesus himself (21:15). The role of the disciple will be to remain faithful throughout these trials: “by your endurance you will gain your souls” (21:19).
The need for such faithfulness is underscored by the closing words of Jesus’ teachings: “be on guard … be alert” (21:34, 36). Jesus had not advocated joining in the armed uprising; he counselled faithful following of his way of service. Mark’s report affirmed this; Luke’s account underlines and emphasises the importance of this response. “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (21:36).
In reading apocalyptic material (such as Mark 13 and Luke 21), we also need to consider their typical literary characteristics. There are a number of common features in apocalyptic texts, which are striking in their impact and powerful in their capacity to invite attention. What is central to all apocalyptic writings is a clear portrayal of a stark conflict between good and evil, which often comes to a head in a grand cosmic battle. To put it in populist terms, apocalyptic texts “spin a good yarn”. They use the techniques of dramatic storytelling, or of good action films. They are vivid and compelling accounts.
Jesus is, by and large, adhering to the conventions of the genre, as he presents his graphic portrayal of what lies on store for his followers in this speech, which Mark says was delivered on the Mount of Olives, opposite the Temple (Mark 13:3)—although in Luke’s account, he is still within the Temple itself (Luke 21:1, 4; see also 21:37–38). In making use of this genre, Jesus demonstrates that speaking in apocalyptic terms is actually doing political theology within a specific socio-historical context. This is the third key element in seeking to understand apocalyptic.
Apocalyptic is “political theology” because it explores faith in the context of the realities of life in the polis, the city. It often provides a counter-narrative to the dominant story of the rulers and those in power, exposing the evil of their ways and proposing an alternative world in which righteous-justice will reign supreme.
The people of Israel, even from the time before they were taken into exile, had lived under the shadow of the dominant world power of the time—the Assyrians, who conquered the northern kingdom; then the Babylonians, who took the southern kingdom into exile; then, after a return under the Persians, an apparently more benign power, there came the crushing power of the Macedonian empire as Alexander the Great and his troops swept into the Jewish homeland.
Tellers of apocalyptic tales invited their listeners, living in times of crisis, to suspend disbelief, watch the vision unfolding, hear the angelic interpretation, even undertake the heavenly journey that the author retells; and to do this with expectation and hope.
Apocalyptic is always written in the midst of despair; despair fuelled by foreign invasion, murder and rape during the pillaging of that invasion, enforced slavery, religious repression, cultural imperialism, and societal oppression, with the loss of much-loved traditional practices and customs, disconnection from the homeland (the place where God resided), and a continuing sense of having been abandoned by God.
In the midst of all of this, apocalyptic texts invite their readers or listeners to have hope: hope that God would act; hope that despair would be dispelled and life would flourish once now; hope that the familiarity of traditions would be reinstated; hope that the evils perpetrated by the invading oppressors would be rectified by acts of divine revenge; hope that life, even in their own time, would be transformed into a realm where righteous-justice was in force, where the evils of lawlessness were dispelled.
There are clear, sharp pointers to the political situation of the time in which many works of apocalyptic are written—from the time of the Seleucid rulers (from the 180s BCE) through to the Roman conquest of Judaea (63 BCE) and on into the period we call the first century CE, when Jesus lived and then the Gospels were written. These works are political.
All of this, this, it should now be clear, is what Jesus was looking to in his parables of the kingdom, in his teachings about living with fidelity to the covenant with God, in his invitations to his followers to walk the way he walks, leading to the realm of God’s kingdom. His visions of cataclysmic times, in the apocalyptic speech of Luke 21, provide a hope-filled declaration that, despite the turmoil of the times, God is indeed acting to intervene in events, overturn evil, and institute the righteous-justice of God.
And all of this is intensely contextual, thoroughly political, firmly directed towards the injustices perpetrated under the religious and economic system of the Temple and the cultural and religious oppression of the Roman colonisers. In Mark’s account, Jesus refers to the “birth pangs” that are just beginning (13:8). They herald the coming good times when “the great power and glory” of the Lord is evident (Mark 13:26; Luke 21:26). In Luke’s version, this is the time when “summer is near” (21:30). That is the kingdom of God, in which much fruit is borne (Luke 8:15), much growth occurs (13:19), new life will emerge (9:22; 9:44; 18:33; 20:38); righteous-justice is enacted by God (20:15–17); and love of God and neighbour is practised by those in that kingdom (10:26).
Out of the darkness and despair, the agony of the birthpangs point to the hope of abundance that has been persistently proclaimed by Jesus. And so, we might pray: may that time come, may that kingdom be a reality, even in our time, even in our place; or, as Jesus taught us to pray, in thoroughly apocalyptic terms: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as in heaven”.
See further discussion at https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/24/towards-the-coming-the-first-sunday-in-advent-mark-13/