25 There will be signs
and on the earth:
anguish of Gentiles with no way out
because of the roar and rolling of the sea.
26 When people faint from fear and expectation in the whole civilized globe,
the “powers of the heavens” will be shaken.
27 Then they will see the son of adam coming in a cloud
and great glory.
28 When these things begin to happen:
Emerge from hiding.
Lift up your heads;
because it is so close,
29 He said a parable to them:
See the fig tree,
and all the trees?
30 When it sprouts already…
When you see this,
all by yourself you know:
already summer is near.
31 Thus also you:
When you see these things happen,
near is the Dominion of Elohim.
32 Amen I am talking to you:
This birthing most certainly will not pass away until everything happens.
33 The heaven and the earth will pass away.
My arguments certainly will not pass away.
34 Pay attention to yourselves,
lest they be weighed down,
and in drunkenness,
and in cares of daily life,
and it come upon you unexpectedly,
35 For as a trap it will come upon all those living on the face of all the earth.
36 Be awake,
in every moment requesting that you be strong enough
to flee all of these things,
those things that are about to happen,
and stand before the son of adam.
Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary
Richard W. Swanson
A Question or Two:
- Is the world ending or is it beginning?
- To whom would such a question make a difference?
A Few Longer Reflections:
“There will be signs.” So says Jesus. We are accustomed to Jesus (or religious people purporting to quote Jesus) saying such things, and they usually seem to be talking about things that are crazy, and apocalyptic, and wild-eyed.
If that is what this passage is about, I’m not interested. I distrust anything that yields the kind of apocalyptic certainty that I have seen too much of.
I think the signs in this scene tell a different story.
First of all, look at the signs that will be seen, not in the heavens where things are controlled by transcendent powers, but on earth where we live and carry out our careers, raise our families. The NRSV translates this sentence this way: on earth there will be “distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” This is a workable translation, but it obscures more than it reveals (which is strange, since the passage is an apocalypse, a revelation). To begin with, the roaring and rolling of the sea is metaphoric for the deep and dangerous chaos that the ancient Jewish world view saw surrounding and underlying all the world. In Genesis 1, God forms a dome to hold the chaos back, and establishes dry land in the midst of the waters to make it possible for people to live. But this picture of the world knows that chaos roils just under the surface of the most stable life. Jesus, in Luke 21, adds nothing to this ancient understanding, and changes not a thing.
The trouble starts with the phrase: “distress among nations confused….” The word, distress, translates the Greek well enough, though I use “anguish” instead. The first problem comes with translating ἐθνῶν simply as “nations.” The word is consistently used in Jewish texts to refer, not to nations in general (though it COULD mean that), but to the Gentiles in particular, to people who did not (and could not be expected to) know God. It is the Gentiles who are in anguish, and they are “confused.” This is again a serviceable translation, but the Greek word needs more. It reads ἐν ἀπορίᾳ, and the word “aporia” means more than “confusion.” The stem, por-, refers to a road, a path, a route that a person could follow. The prefix, a-, is an alpha privative, so the complex a-por-, means (in its metaphoric depths) that where there should be a road, there is none. That is why I translate ἐν ἀπορίᾳ as “with no way out.” That catches the metaphor better, I think, and it evokes a human situation that everyone recognizes.
And it matters that the people who have “no way out” are Gentiles. The stem, por-, is also used in Jewish texts to refer to following a path laid out by Torah, which is (says the psalm) is a “lamp unto my feet.” Torah provides a route to follow that will allow Jews to find safe passage through a chaotic and dangerous world.
And Torah is precisely what Gentiles DO NOT have, and therefore do not follow. Jews, ancient and contemporary, practice Torah, therefore, not to “earn favor” with God (a thoroughly un-Jewish notion), but to help Gentiles believe that, despite the chaos, there just might be a God. There might be a way to live stable lives, even when surrounded by danger. Jews have always known that the world needs signs of safety, and the argument for this has always been that Gentiles (who could not be expected to study Torah) are exhausted and driven to despair by a world in which there is no way out.
That means that when Jesus talks about “signs” he is not primarily pointing to apocalyptic oddities, but instead to ordinary reality. The world wears you out. Jews observe Torah in order to be a sign of hope for Gentiles who are worn out, and they observe it in order to preserve the world, despite destructive chaos. This is the original meaning of being the “salt of the earth.” It is an encouragement to Jews to do Torah as a way to keep the world from decaying into violence.
But that means that so far Jesus is not talking about anything crazy and new. He is saying what he had learned as he studied for his bar mitzvah: the world (all of it created and loved by God) needs you to do Torah. People need to see signs of hope and order if they are to dare to believe that meaning and truth and stability and safety are actually possible.
The next thing to notice is that the “powers of the heavens” will be shaken.
This is, as is clear enough, a reference to a world that cannot be controlled. The “powers of the heavens” refer, sometimes to the signs of the zodiac, sometimes just to the steady stars and the wandering planets that together mark the predictable progression of the seasons. But always the reference is to powers that are beyond your control. You can no more prevent the onset of winter than you can change the way things run in the inescapably real world.
These powers, in this scene as in many others, are metaphors more than they are simply stars marking season.
Notice that the quotation marks catch the enormity of what is happening. The basic order of the world, the powers that control our ordinary lives, are suddenly rolling and crashing like waves. In order to make sense of this metaphor, you have to ask what was the power that dominated ordinary lives in the ancient world.
The answer was Rome.
The Gentile world (especially Rome) has been driving the civilized world as it saw fit for centuries. Its power has become a force of nature. In the Roman home provinces, that meant that the pax Romana guaranteed a stable and prosperous life. In the outlying provinces it meant something different.
For the outlying provinces, the Roman Empire was an extractive industry. The provinces were mined for minerals, and slaves, and tribute that were sucked away to make Rome great, to build Roman glory. The process was brutal and remorseless.
It was just the way the world was.
All that will change when the world is turned right-side-up. The powers will indeed be shaken.
With this statement, this passage moves beyond ordinary rabbinic catechesis to the realm of long-awaited promise. Jesus is now saying what his grandmother and mother will have taught him to hope for: the world is now finally being turned right-side-up. “How long, O Lord?” asked the old prayer. “Too long,” answered God’s people. “Hungry ones God filled full of good things,” sang Mary, “Rich ones God sent away, empty.” (Luke 1:53)
“You have been held hostage to a system that needed you to be needy,” says Jesus. “Now your ransom will be paid and you will be free from the so-called ‘powers of heaven.'”
If that sounds disturbing, it may be because you just caught the spirit of Advent.