Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Luke and the Kingdom of God

Today we're going to look at just one small difference between Mark's 13th chapter and Luke's 21st chapter, as a way of looking at the nature of Luke's gospel as a whole. If you haven't been reading this blog all along, first of all 'shame on you' and second here's where I'm coming from.

- Mark writes the difficult 'apocalyptic' message of his 13th chapter during the time that Jerusalem is under siege, ending with the temple being utterly destroyed.

- Luke (this is true for Matthew also) is writing anywhere from 10-20 years later. So, for Luke, the destruction of the temple is a done deed and any expectation of 'the Son of Man coming in the clouds' at that particular junction in history is gone.

- Scholars call this 'the delay of the parousia' and many New Testament texts seem to be dealing with that fact.

- Luke's 21st chapter is a repetition of what Mark says in his 13th chapter, but with some differences.

My conclusion is that whatever differences we see between Mark's 13th chaper and Luke's 21st chapter are reflective of Luke's theology, his inspired message, his way of telling Christ's story. And 'intertextuality' is my way of trying to respect Luke's unique voice, in opposition to the 'homotextuality' of Left Behind Theology that pretends that each of these books and every reference to the 'end times' say virtually the same thing or, at least, fit onto one big meta-narrative timeline that lurks in the shadows behind all of these separate texts.

Today, we're going to look at one particular difference between Luke and Mark, which we'll use as a window into Luke's larger message. We'll begin by comparing a verse that follows their words regarding how the fig tree is a sign of summer and how Jesus' disciples ought to be just as savvy at reading the signs of the times as they are at reading the signs of changing seasons.

Mark 13:29 says "So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates." The 'he' in this verse is implied. In the orginal Greek, there is no pronoun, but the verb 'is' is in the 3rd person singular, so the implied antecedent is 'the Son of Man.'

Luke 21:31 says, "So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near." Ah! Luke does not rely on the implied 'he', but quite explicitly names this moment of expectation as an expectation of the Kingdom (or 'reign') of God. Hmm... What to make of that small change?

[First of all, please understand that I'm not one of those 'gotcha!' people who thinks every little difference means the whole Bible is hooie. I think that's one of the stupidest things I've ever heard, to be honest, and I think what they are struggling mightily to disprove is not the Bible or any truth found in the Bible, but the 'verbal, plenary inspiration' view that we talked about earlier. Second, I think the whole 'verbal, plenary inspiration' view is equally wrong-headed and prevents us from appreciating the rich texture of the Scriptures, especially when we have a clear difference between Luke and Mark that is an opportunity to understand, not a problem to be defended. I ascribe to neither homotextuality nor homotextualphobia.]

So, this slight difference raises the question of how it is that Luke understands "the kingdom of God." So, let's put it as a game quiz.

Luke sees "the kingdom of God" as

a. A present reality.

b. A future reality.

c. A near reality.

d. A little bit of all of the above.

Hmm... how to answer a question like this? Word study! Yes, that is one way. A word study of this phrase reveals that Mark uses the phrase quite a bit, Matthew prefers 'Kingdom of heaven,' although I would argue that it means the same thing, and Luke uses the phrase a LOT. Luke also says a few really interesting things about the Kingdom of God. Like telling the disciples that some of them would not taste death before they saw the Kingdom of God (9:27). I've heard rumors that most of those disciples are, in fact, dead. Or, when Jesus tells the disciples to go out and proclaim that the Kingdom of God has come near (10:9 and 11). Or when Jesus says, "But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (11:20).

Yes, doing a simple word study- or, in this case, a phrase study- shows that (d) would be a strong answer above, but more importantly it shows that the 'right' answer would depend on the situation and context of each use.

Another way of learning from Luke's small change of the implied 'he' to 'the kingdom of God' would be to consider what Luke seems to understand as the change that Jesus is bringing into the world. When we pray, using the Lord's Prayer, "May your name be hallowed; may your kingdom come; may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" what does Luke think we are asking for?

I'm not a Luke scholar per se, but I think immediately to the birth narrative of Jesus, that is unique to Luke. (That is key: The story we read every Christmas is unique to Luke among the 4 gospels. Matthew also has a birth narrative, but tells it differently. So, this is where we really start to see Luke's uniqueness come through, which may help explain some of the other, small changes that Luke might make when telling a story he has in common with Mark and Matthew.) When Mary (young woman, virgin, pregnant) goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth (old woman, post-menopausal, pregnant), Mary says something that we've come to call 'the Magnificat' (after the Latin word for 'magnifies'.) Mary says that the child in her womb will bring about some big changes- bringing down the high places, lifting up the lowly, filling the poor with good things and sending the rich away empty. When, later, we read in Luke's 21st chapter that when the catastrophes taking place are harbingers that "the kingdom of God is near," then we ought to be thinking that this radical transformation of the social order that Mary envisioned is still a promising reality.

Likewise, the same kind of vision is operative when Jesus preaches his first sermon in Luke, 4:16-20, which is another story that is unique to Luke. That's where Jesus reads from Isaiah 61, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me..." and after reading and rolling up the scroll and sitting down says, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." Yowzah! That scripture happened to say that Jesus would bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, release to captives, and so forth- the same kind of transformation that Mary saw coming.

So, if we avoid the homotextual approach to these end-time discourses in Mark 13 and Luke 21, allowing instead for each of them to have their own integrity and voice, it opens Luke up for us to hear in a profound way.

I don't know how you can construct a timeline of 'the' second coming, when Mark, Matthew, and Luke seem to understand it differently.

- Mark has Jesus appearing at the end of the catastrophe of the temple's destruction. Perhaps Mark saw this 'coming' as a symbol of hope-- like when the previous temple was destroyed 200 years before that and the symbol of 'the Son of Man coming in the clouds' sustained the people-- rather than a literal ending of the Roman empire and beginning of all things new.

- Matthew sets this event within one long discourse that ends with the story of the sheep and goats. (You'll have to read last week's posts to see what I think about that!)

- Luke speaks of the Kingdom of God as a 'here', a 'not quite here but almost', and a 'coming' reality.

Trying to put of these texts on an "End of Time Timeline" is like nailing jello to a wall. It can be done, I suppose, but how stupid is that? A Timeline is simply the wrong way to approach the Kingdom of God. In fact, I think it is more revealing of us and our tendency to want to control, than it is of God's intentions.

So ... I need to go and paint the basement. We'll talk more tomorrow. I may use one day to walk you through the process of "responding" to these posts, since that seems to be a great mystery for many of you. Ah well.

1 comment:

  1. Some days - life goes by so fast. Like when I picture my 17-year old growing up and leaving for college within a year.

    Some times - life goes so slow. Like when my house was flooded (twice) this summer and it took almost five months for the carpet to be installed and the boxes and furniture to be put back in there place.

    It seemed like eternity for my life to get back on track. All in good time, I kept hearing through the many events and happenings during the summer. These signs of slowness are just reminding me I'm not in control.

    My heart is bursting to lay everything in order quickly before my daughter leaves. Making sure I've taught her everything she needs to know and that I've spoke my peace for the many times I've disciplined or gotten mad at her.

    I'm torn between wishing that reality would slow down or hurry to arrive. -Kim


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