Thursday, November 14, 2019

Rereading Apocalyptic Stories


Imagine walking into the Sistine Chapel, looking up at the ceiling, and whispering to yourself, "Wow!" only to have someone behind you say, "Yeah, but it will all be gone some day!" Then, you spin around to see what sort of pessimistic jerk would say such a thing, and you discover that it's Jesus.

In Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 21:5-19), Jesus was walking around the Jerusalem temple, when he overheard some people remarking about how beautiful the sacred structure was. As if unable to help himself, Jesus spouts off, "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." He's right, of course, but does he have to say it? Does have have to ruin the moment? Or, to ask a spiritually meaningful question, why would Jesus respond like that?

One approach is to assume that those who were speaking about the temple had misplaced affection for the structure. John's version of Jesus seems particularly antipathetic toward centralized worship, and it's reasonable to believe that Luke's Jesus shared some of that sentiment. Maybe Jesus' comment was a criticism of the current religious dynamic, which depended, according to that logic, too heavily on physicality and not enough on spirituality. That sounds like an argument that an Essene--a sect that many believe Jesus' teachings reflected--would make.

Accordingly, perhaps Jesus' teaching to us is that we place too much emphasis on buildings and altars and vestments. Most of the Episcopalians I know love their church building and the altar guilds who make sure that everything is adorned just so. We could all use a reminder that our worship of God may be enhanced by those physical things but it does not depend on them.

Another approach is to think about this passage from a historical perspective. Toward the end of the first century, the Jerusalem temple was destroyed. In response to a widespread Jewish rebellion, the Romans destroyed the temple in 70AD. There was intense persecution, and many Jews and Christians were killed. By the time Luke's version of the gospel was written, it is likely that this event had already taken place. Jesus' remarks--whether understood as genuine future-prediction or a historical revision to reflect events that had already taken place--likely should be tied to this particular historical event.

Accordingly, Jesus' words are intended to offer hope to those who read them. The temple was destroyed, and people were being killed, but the end hadn't come yet. "How long, O Lord?" the ancient cry was repeated. And Jesus' answer is, "Even longer, but don't lose hope." To us, therefore, the message is the same. We may not face another destruction of the Jerusalem temple, but the chaos that comes to this life is not a sign that God is losing but that God's intervention must be sought and hoped for as fully as ever.

The mistake, however, seems to come when people read passages like this one and separate them from their original historical context and begin to wonder what particular moment in our future they may represent. Language about the end of the world seems to become a reason for people to predict when the end will come. There is nothing in this passage that tells us the end is near. In fact, it's quite the opposite: Jesus said, "These things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately." This passage is not about end-prediction. It's about warning us not to fall into the trap of thinking either that the end must be near because things have gotten bad or that we have no reason to hope because the end is delayed for so long.

Apocalyptic nuts make me want to tune out whenever Jesus says something about the end times. But that instinct reflects the extent to which I have allowed them to reinterpret a message of hope and encouragement as one of fear and narrow-minded prediction. I need to reread passage like this one and look not for a literal explanation but for the spiritual significance that was intended by the author.

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