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November 18, 2012
Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25
The first two verses of the gospel lesson, Mark 13:1-2, actually belong with the preceding material as the completion of Jesus’ teaching in the temple, whereas verses 3-4 take the reader to a new location, the Mount of Olives, and introduce the lengthy apocalyptic discourse in vv. 5-37. Nevertheless, the connection between 1-2 and the verses that follow is close, since the disciples’ questions in v. 4—“[W]hen will this be?” and “[W]hat will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”—are posed in response to Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple in v. 2. The first question refers to the singular event of the temple’s destruction, whereas the second has to do with “an all-embracing complex of events” related to the end of the age.
The inclusion of vv. 1-2 in the reading underscores the centrality of the temple-motif to the entire apocalyptic orientation of the gospel of Mark. In Mark, Jesus’ first two actions following the “triumphal entry” are his demonstration in the temple and his cursing of the fig tree (11:12-25); and the fact that the two accounts are interwoven suggests that the fig tree symbolizes the temple. Throughout his days in Jerusalem, Jesus is in conflict with the temple leadership, and his last words before leaving the temple predict the coming destruction. In addition, the mention of his departure underscores the point in a subtle way, recalling the departure of “the glory of the LORD” from the temple and Jerusalem in Ezekiel 10:18-19, 11:22-23 in connection with the Babylonian exile and destruction of the first temple. There is thus no doubt that the apocalyptic scenario signals the judgment of God directed specifically at the temple establishment.
The central message of vv. 5-8, however, is that neither the temple’s destruction nor the woes that will follow immediately upon it signal the immediacy of the end. These belong to the “complex of events” associated with the end, but they are nevertheless merely “the beginning of the birth pangs” of the new age. The specific advice offered Jesus’ followers is thus “[D]o not be alarmed” in the face of these tumultuous happenings. As the discourse develops, Jesus elaborates at length on events that do not constitute signs of the imminent end. In vv. 24-26, he finally provides “signs” of the actual end, but far from preceding the coming of the Son of Man they accompany it. As Eugene Boring comments,”[w]hen the signs can be seen, it will be too late to get ready.”
Thus the discourse concludes with the notation that no one knows when the end will come—not even the Son! And so the final advice is not to look for signs in order to discern an apocalyptic timetable but to keep awake. In the end, then, Jesus answers the disciples’ questions, in a sense, by rejecting them. They can neither know the time of the end nor should they spend their time looking for signs that will precede it; they should rather be ready at every moment for Jesus’ return as Son of Man.
The lectionary text adds specificity to the injunction to wakefulness: the disciples should beware of being led astray by those who will come “in Jesus’ name.” According to Boring, those against whom Mark’s Jesus warns are neither the false Messiahs of v. 22 nor persons claiming to be the resurrected and ascended Jesus now appearing as Son of Man but an entirely different sort of figure. Writing in the post-resurrection situation, Mark was familiar with Christian prophets “who came ‘in Jesus’ name’ and spoke in the first person as the voice of the risen Lord, using the revelation- formula, ‘I am.’ Just as there were Jewish prophets who saw the threat to the temple in 66-70 as an indication of the last days and the eschatological intervention of God (cf. Josephus, War 2.17.18…), so there were Christian prophets who spoke in Jesus’ name and with his revelatory formula, ‘I am.’”
Boring’s interpretation of the warning against being led astray is particularly relevant to our current situation in the church, with innumerable self-styled Christian spokespersons offering applications of the Bible’s apocalyptic scenarios to contemporary events and claiming to have definitive pronouncements on moral questions. The church has suffered persecution from without in many times and places throughout history, but it has also suffered greatly from self-inflicted wounds—that is, from forces within its fold who so corrupt its message as to undermine what is most humane, nourishing, and redemptive about it. Many of those who inflict these wounds today can of course point to specific biblical passages to make their case, even as they violate the spirit of Jesus’ life and ministry.
In such cases, a process understanding of the nature of tradition can serve as an effective counter-force. “The pure conservative,” Whitehead famously wrote, “is fighting against the essence of the universe.” Applied specifically to the phenomenon of tradition, this dictum reminds us that in a processive universe all aspects of reality undergo constant transformation—whether for good or for ill. Our job is thus not to impede change but to enable creative transformation. Recovery of the past can be a valid way of dealing with contemporary problems, but only if it is linked to an acute sense of how the historical process has brought about genuinely new circumstances that demand new responses. The God of the biblical tradition is no atavist tied to established patterns but rather a dynamic creator who continually re-shapes those patterns to meet new situations; and the church should honor that process of constant revolution.
It is easy enough to drag up biblical passages reflecting the patriarchal and homophobic consciousness of the ancient world. To do so, however, is to ignore more central aspects of the biblical tradition that lead us in a different direction. Sometimes, ironically, it is those who think they are most faithful to the inherited faith who are guilty of the most serious subversions of it—who are, that is to say, the false prophets of whom we must beware.
Literalist readings of apocalyptic texts, rampant in our contemporary society, are not only simplistic; they also ignore the moral force of the apocalyptic genre. When we read Mark’s account of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem, for example, it is important to look beyond the mere fact of the Jewish leaders’ rejection of Jesus and ask about what Jesus stood for in moral terms. If we do so, we will be drawn not only to passages such as last week’s gospel lesson, in which Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes’ economic exploitation of widows is central, but also back to earlier parts of Mark, such as chapter 10, in which Jesus not only has harsh words for the rich (vv. 17-27) but also condemns hierarchical social patterns in general (vv. 41-45). In addition, we should allow theses emphases to inform the way we view Jesus’ predictions of his death and related calls to humility and self-sacrifice, even to the point of death (8:31-9:1; 9:30-37; 10:32-40).
The gospel of Mark as a whole is a clarion call to faithful discipleship even in the face of severe danger and persecution, as 13:9-13 makes abundantly clear—a fact that is underscored by the stark ending of Mark’s story, which lacks any post-resurrection appearances. And it is precisely these aspects of Mark’s witness to Jesus that makes the apocalyptic element necessary: apart from some kind of resolution, the story would end as a heroic but unredeemed tragedy. Mark’s point is that Jesus’ followers will suffer in the short run but be vindicated in the end. Their vindication, however, is not merely for their confession of Jesus as a matter of dogma; it is rather a vindication of their courage in standing for what Jesus himself stood for—which is to say, their courage in pursuit of justice.
I have chosen the alternative reading from Daniel for two reasons. First, the selection proclaims the resurrection of the dead, a theme that does not come up directly in the Markan passage but appears later in the chapter. Second, the book of Daniel as a whole is testimony to the connection between the apocalyptic genre and justice: it is precisely those who were martyred in the Jewish struggle for freedom from the Seleucid kingdom in the Maccabean War who are raised from the dead. And the matter is quite similar in the New Testament as well. As Leander Keck comments,
"The New Testament views of death are not at all concerned with the preservation beyond death of the identity and achievement of the middle- and upper-class individuals, as are many books today. Rather, because the new Testament is open to a broader range of reality it implies that the starting point for a theology of death and resurrection is moral outrage against the world in which there appears to be no justice on which the weak can count, a world in which sucklings are bombed and rabbis gassed. The central issue is not whether [human beings have] an essence that survives death but whether the God in whom [they believe], however falteringly, has enough moral integrity to “make good” with the life [God] called into existence."
The issue of everlasting life is debated within process thought. Some thinkers are content with an affirmation of objective immortality (the endurance of all experience in God’s life), while others find reason also to affirm subjective immortality (the continuation of the individual as an experiencing entity). The “bottom line,” in both cases, is the preservation of value, and process thinkers are unanimous in believing that God in some way vindicates both those who are “persecuted for justice’ sake.” Whatever lies beyond death for the individual, the value of their lives is preserved. Without at least this affirmation, life is indeed irredeemably tragic.
On another note, literal readings of the apocalyptic scenario are impossible in a process framework, since there can be no absolute end-point to the historical process. As long as earth endures, there must be change and novelty, and beyond this planet’s life span God continues the work of creation and redemption in other worlds. What we can hope for on this earth, however, is to reach greater approximations of perfect justice as time goes on. And, like Jesus’ original disciples, we are called to work and sacrifice to that end.
To believe that value endures is a process-theistic way of affirming the integrity and faithfulness of God. Two verses in Psalm 16 might be used to complement this theme. In v. 8, the psalmist declares, “I keep the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.” And in v. 11 we read, “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Neither verse is explicitly about either objective or subjective immortality, but both affirm God’s faithfulness to faithful worshippers. The emphasis upon pleasure, moreover, coheres with the process understanding of reality as aesthetically based. Even when the faithful face trial and tragedy, there is a kind of “pleasure,” a deep sense of satisfaction in knowing that God is with them, and this implies a sense of the endurance of value. To do what is right in God’s eyes—that is to say, what is objectively right—creates a sense of ultimate well-being, of harmony with the universe, that neither suffering nor death nor the historical failure of a righteous cause can erase.
Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25
The latter portion of the reading from Hebrews, 10:19-25, could complement the Markan text though the theme of endurance, even though this motif appears explicitly only in later portions of Mark 13 (e.g., v. 13). In concrete terms, such endurance would undoubtedly embrace such matters as provoking “one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together…[and] encouraging one another, all the more as you see the Day approaching.”