The Eschatological Discourse
Mark 13: 1-37
John Hemer MHM
MHM - Mill Hill Missionaries
This paper was given as part of a series of post Easter talks by Fr. John Hemer, Biblical Scholar and Theologian of the Mill Hill Missionary Institute at the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel & St. George, Enfield, England in April and May 2003.
On the occasions I have visited Lower Manhattan and the World Trade Centre I have never failed to be impressed. Firstly by the sheer size and beauty of many of the buildings. All this money, all this power, all this assertive self confidence do give a feeling of security. Visiting the Wall Street stock exchange left me with a certain amount of disgust that ultimately people’s jobs and livelihoods in Bogota or Jakarta could be secured or destroyed on the strength of the nod of a head here. But it was also fascinating, as the generation of huge sums of money always is, and yes, it did give a certain sense of well being, the sense that at least my world will be safe for the foreseeable future. The soaring lower Manhattan skyline symbolised economic security not just for New Yorkers, but for all of us who benefit somehow from modern global capitalism. And I must admit to being taken in by it, to feeling a certain awe which goes against my (admittedly rather lukewarm) political convictions.
When watching the events of September 11th live, there was a horrible moment when the whole of lower Manhattan filled with smoke and dust. The pictures were being taken from quite some distance. What had happened was that the first tower had collapsed, but at first the BBC commentator had no idea this was the case, and she said that it seemed some sort of a device had been detonated at ground level. Although sitting 3000 miles away in a living room in Liverpool, I felt fear and tightening in the pit of my stomach. Perhaps my world was not so safe. I remember saying to myself: “My God this is almost apocalyptic.”
In Mark Ch. 13 we read of the disciples being awed and taken in by another urban complex of buildings:
Jesus is not in any way awed by the impressive Temple complex. He will not endow it with any significance beyond its historical function as the place where the covenant is celebrated and people make their peace with God. Pretty important yes, but not possessing any eternal significance. And he doesn’t want his disciples to be moved in that way either. Because if they give the building an absolute significance now, they will give similar significance to the events which bring about its destruction. They will think, in other words, that the end of the Temple means the end of the World; that’s what we call the apocalyptic imagination. Of course they are still caught up in this. Matthew’s version makes it clearer still. The disciples ask: "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?"
Why should they equate the destruction of the temple with the end of the World? Although the Temple had once been destroyed, nothing could appear more permanent than this site which had been used for worship for nearly a thousand years. At the time of Jesus, Herod had embarked on an impressive programme of rebuilding and enlarging. Everything speaks of grandeur and permanence. Josephus describes the amazement with which pilgrims would react to the polished white stone of the building, even seeing it from a considerable distance.
The Temple signified God's rule in the world. It was the place where the rule of heaven flowed onto the earth. Worship began there with Abraham's sacrifice. It was clearly a spot which God had chosen specially. It was also seen as a cosmos or a world in miniature. The real world was full of imperfection, but within the Temple bounds was a perfectly ordered world. It was the perfect prototype of which the world was but a poor copy, it was the 'original.' Any suggestion that this was to come to an end would automatically trigger off in people's minds the idea that the world also was going to come to an end.
So Jesus goes on to tell them:
We could almost say it’s people’s natural tendency to see in these events a divine, a universal significance. Many have looked for confirmation of the imminent end of the world in our present time, Jehovah's Witnesses base their missionary outreach on the need to inform people of this. The reason they are at our doors on Sunday morning is to tell us that these things are imminent, and that they can prove statistically there are more wars and disasters now than ever before. The disciples are to do no such things. They are to realise that they are just the random events of history, and in terms of God’s plan for the world they mean precisely nothing. They are random, meaningless events, they have no further sacred meaning, just as the attack on the twin towers was, theologically speaking, a random meaningless event. People have also tried to give this a sacred meaning. Gerry Falwell, the prominent televangelist is quoted as saying: “God is doing some very interesting things in our days.”
The project of demythologising these events, of removing apocalyptic meaning lies at the heart of the Gospel. A priest once told me that if the church ever decides to ordain women he will know that the end of the world is near! Surely what lies behind this is that given his understanding of priesthood and the role of women in society, if this happened, his world would come to an end. It is so easy to make the leap: My world comes to an end, therefore The World has come to an end. People quickly mythologise events and invest them with a significance they really don’t posses. Jesus warns the disciples not be pulled into the world which others want to create, not to bestow apocalyptic meaning on events which really have no such meaning. Rather than these things being a sign of the end, This is the beginning of the birth pangs. (13:8)
He begins to answer the question with a series of warnings. This century has had its fair share of people claiming to be the Messiah: David Koresh in Waco, Texas; the Rev Jim Jones in Guyana. But people like Hitler, Stalin, Mao while not appropriating the title 'Messiah' have in fact set themselves up as such. There has been a great propensity among people of our own age to look for 'The Answer'. It is this that Jesus is talking about, and he simply warns against it. In all three synoptic Gospels Jesus begins his answer to the disciples' question in this way, so he wants to emphasise the threat from deceivers or Antichrists. Any disastrous events might seem like the end, but they are not, and the disciples must ignore the various fanatics who see in these things the in-breaking of the end. The best commentary on this is 2 Thess 2:1 foll.
Some of Paul's readers had been persuaded that the end was here, and the letter is to show them that this is not the case.
Jesus himself is no doubt aware that the various resistance movements simmering away in Palestine will come into open conflict with the Romans at some stage. He can see that wars and rumours of wars will soon be on the horizon. It’s also likely that Mark is writing while the Jewish revolt of 66-70 is going on, and he wants to make sure his readers see no more significance in the events than they have. For many in Judea, how people behaved in this conflict was the test of how loyal they were to God. People were required to join the resistance as a proof of their loyalty. Rebel leaders would use the argument that this war was the end time in order to recruit others. In other words, they will claim that this ushers in the kingdom of God. Jesus here makes a counter claim, that this has nothing to do with God’s kingdom or his purposes. If the Christian community refuses to take sides in this war they will be in trouble, both with the Jewish authorities and with the Romans: You will be beaten in synagogues, you will be brought before governors and kings. (9) Refusal to take sides, refusal to throw in their lot with Jewish nationalism or Roman imperialism means that you will be universally hated on account of my name. (13) This is the consequence of the teaching and behaviour of Jesus. We have seen throughout the gospels that he was critical of the ‘Jewish cause’. This, not because it was Jewish, but because he saw people’s simplistic nationalism as a betrayal of the deep truth of the Jewish scriptures. In a more subtle way he also makes it quite clear that he is not awed or impressed by Roman might, and that the party of Herod are every bit as mistaken as the dagger-wielding zealots. The result of this will be universal hatred. All the various Jewish parties claim to have God on their side fighting for their cause. Those who trust rather in the name of Jesus will be hated by everybody.
Jesus makes quite clear that people are not to stay and fight, are not to join the resistance, but to clear off to the hills. There would be pressure brought to bear, people would be admonished (and in fact were) that fighting the Romans for Jerusalem was fighting for God’s cause, a holy war. Jesus basically says “that’s all nonsense, don’t fall for any of that holy war, last battle between good and evil sort of baloney. Get out, save yourselves while you still can.” The call to rally to the defence of Jerusalem sounds like the call to a holy act of self-sacrifice. Jesus is saying that it is nothing of the sort, it is suicidal defence of something which has had its day and will be destroyed. Defending Jerusalem is not standing up for God, it’s merely defending one expression of Jewish culture, which in his opinion has outlived its usefulness.
What actually happened at the siege of Jerusalem is that people did not run, but huddled into the city and perished in a most horrible way. Josephus tells us that 1.2 million Jews perished in this four year conflict. There is no record of any Christians dying since they heeded the Lord’s warning and escaped to Pellas as soon as it began.
Jesus debunks the apocalyptic solution to evil. How does he overcome evil then?