Pentecost 23: 17 November Luke 21:5-19
These words of warning follow the account of the widow who displayed true devotion to God’s temple by giving two small coins. Such devotion, had it been replicated in the temple’s leadership, would have protected it from the disaster which was to come. This appears to have been the common view of the gospel writers. Among them Luke is probably the most fond of the temple. Stephen’s speech in Acts 7, commonly interpreted as an attack on the temple, is an attack on its leadership and their abuses. Luke is at pains to point out in Acts 6 that the apostles were not attacking the temple or the Law.
At this point in his account Luke is following Mark 13 very closely, but with some significant changes. Reflecting his high regard for the temple, Luke does not have Jesus depart from it (perhaps symbolically as well as literally), but remain in the temple precincts for all his teaching, including the predictions of its fate. Luke does not have Jesus leave the temple, except to overnight on the Mount of Olives (21:37). So he was teaching in the temple daily. Similarly Luke shows the earliest church as gathering daily in the temple. The temple was the place of prophecy over Jesus, the infant. Luke will go on later in this chapter to portray Jesus’ prediction of the disaster of 70 CE, but hold out the firm hope that Jerusalem will see Jesus’ return. He will come back and bring them deliverance. The times of Gentile trampling of the holy places will be over (21:20-28).
Our passage begins with that prediction of destruction. The temple renowned in the ancient world for its beauty (Mark had emphasised the size of the stones) will be destroyed. From Luke one senses sadness rather than smugness. Later Luke will have us walk beside women whom Jesus redirects to bewail its fate (23:27-31) as in 19:41 we acclaimed a Jesus who wept over the city. For Luke’s hearers the destruction of the temple was an event which had reverberated around their world with foreboding. Like Mark before him, who was much closer to the event, Luke links the past and prospective sufferings together. Together they generate the cry: how long? When will deliverance come? People today who are pushed to the extremes of despair are perhaps best able to connect with our passage. We need to walk in their shoes. Burma - how long?
Mark alerts his readers to religious delusion (13:5-6; Luke 21:8). During the years of the revolt of 66-70 CE and before, there had been messianic claims, people asserting super knowledge from God about events to come, and religious fanaticism. Did some even claim to be Jesus? Outside of this passage nothing suggests this. Probably the reference is to people claiming a messianic role. At this point Luke adds: some will also say, ‘The end is at hand’ (21:8). In 19:11 Luke had spoken of some who were believing the kingdom was about to come. Luke appears keen to ward off that kind of intense speculation.
The following verses (21:9-11) use a standard description of future woes, which draws upon biblical imagery (eg. Isa 19:2; Ezek 38), and was widespread in apocalyptic literature. Daniel, one of the first exemplars of this style of writing, has heavily influenced the speech in Mark 13 which Luke is following. Some of the imagery translates well into how we might image a modern doomsday, so that, like similar descriptions in the book of Revelation, it easily feeds the imaginations of those who today would cry: ‘The end is at hand.’
The point Luke is making (and before him, Mark, and perhaps originally, Jesus) is that we should not be panicked by such events. The same danger exists today except that the reports come via the media and sometimes packaged by the media for good viewing. The panic whipped up is highly volatile and has the potential to ignite and explode into irrationalities, religious and otherwise. The casualty is usually truth as racist and other generalised claims are made or people drive themselves into doomsday fantasies and their cults.
The passage continues with reports of harassment and victimisation of the minority Christian movement both in Jewish contexts (‘synagogues’) and broader Gentile contexts (‘governors’) (21:12-15). Luke will tell us about some of this in Acts. Not even then are the hearers to be panicked into irrationality. In a saying which Luke has already brought in another form in 12:11-12, people arraigned to give account of their faith should trust they will be able to say what they need to say. Here Luke replaces ‘it will be given you what you should say’ (Mark’s version, 13:11) with the promise that they will be given irresistible wisdom (21:14-15). Luke is not envisaging that such Christians will simply ‘bowl over’ their opponents and escape scot free. Neither Jesus’ own trial nor those in Acts suggest such ‘success’. Rather Luke is suggesting that if you speak with this wisdom it will be an irresistible force. The other version of the saying speaks of the Spirit supplying the words or being the advocate (an idea which John’s gospel exploits to great effect with the theme of the Spirit as advocate and helper).
At one level Luke’s appeal is that we live out of the wisdom which God gives, the Spirit, and not out of fear. It is a way of saying: let your responses to the hype and horror of accumulating disasters not be determined by the one-liners of media editors or religious demagogues, but by the same Spirit who is now the centre of your life. Stay in touch with the depths, the Spirit who, to use John’s terms, advocates what Jesus was about. There is indeed something irresistible about love, even when it is crucified. Luke is realistic: he and his readers will know of family conflicts and betrayals; they will have experienced hate. Where events whip up panic, there is a lot of hate to go around. Anyone who advocates the way of Jesus should expect to land some of it.
Remember the saying about the hair? That almost seems to be the effect of Luke’s introducing the reference to hair here in 21:18. It is doubtless intended to recall 12:7 which speaks of the hairs of our head being numbered. It is Luke’s reminder to live out of trust in God. Luke is not suggesting that Stephen’s body, for instance, remained untouched by the stoning. It is rather a colourful way of saying that our future is in God’s hands whatever that might mean, but that ultimately we believe it means we will be taken into the heart of the God of Jesus, the God who loves and, therefore, even in the worst adversity, we can set our faith in God.
Trust in God has profoundly personal implications. It also has important political, social and religious ramifications. Luke has not withdrawn into individualism. He (or his text) still weeps for Jerusalem and longs for its liberation. He is prepared to be inventive to tackle the madness of fear and hate and the fanatical theologies it also generates. He keeps our feet on the ground about abuse and oppression. He stands in a tradition which tackles enmity in a way that is not off-centred by hate or fear, but informed by the stillness and wisdom of the Spirit. The shift is then from quantity of time to quality of being in all times and places.
Epistle: Pentecost 23: 17 November 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13