Sunday, November 26, 2017

Images of Hope, Suffering, and Vigilance

Below is a rough translation and some preliminary comments regarding Mark 13:24-37, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent in Year B.

Apocalyptic texts are difficult – by design and intention, I imagine. Because of that, they push back against attempts to make them neat packages. I don’t think it is possible or necessarily even desirable to leapfrog back to the original moment and dismiss the effective history of apocalyptic texts. They have shaped and have been shaped by many interpretations over the years. While we might wish some of the misinterpretations or misuses of the texts had never happened, I think that wildness is part of the power of an apocalyptic text. If a text’s meaning could be neatly packaged, I think it would be an historic artifact of an apocalyptic text, not an apocalyptic text itself. The text’s own inner disturbance resists the kind of exactitude or objective distance that many of our interpretive habits try to impose on it. (That may be true of all texts, in some ways, but it seems particularly true with apocalyptic texts). So, while I believe it is possible to maintain a discipline when studying this text, I also believe that the nature of exegesis as an art, rather than as a science, becomes really clear with texts like this. Only it is not an art created in a sequestered studio or displayed in a pristine gallery. It is street art, spraypainting in a hurry so as not to get caught, knowing that the profound meaning of one’s graffiti may well be painted over in taupe tomorrow. But, still, it is a message of the moment, a message of power, that needs to be given.

The one thing I say strongly about apocalyptic texts is that it is simply ruinous to treat them like things, whether we treat them like puzzle pieces or timelines or some other packaged commodity. I suggest we let the wildness be wild, let the lack of neat wrappings be missing without having to supply it. It is a challenge for both the exegete and the preacher to let the text have its say. For the exegete that may mean raising questions more than answering them. For the preacher that may mean eschewing all of the packaging one is taught in Homiletics classes and letting a wild text lead to a wild sermon, without treating the congregation like fragile glass. To me, apocalyptic texts are songs that end with a V7 chord, that may not resolve to the root. Do we have the courage to let that happen in a sermon?

Okay, I’m done. As usual, your comments are welcomed.

24 Ἀλλὰ ἐν ἐκείναις ταῖς ἡμέραις μετὰ τὴν θλῖψιν ἐκείνην ὁ ἥλιος σκοτισθήσεται, καὶ ἡ σελήνη οὐ δώσει τὸ φέγγος αὐτῆς,
But in those days after that affliction the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give her light,
σκοτισθήσεται:  FPI 3s, σκοτίζω, 1) to make dark, deprive of light. In NT only passive to be darkened.
δώσει: FAI 3s, δίδωμι, 1) to give 
1. The phrase “that affliction” is interesting. Mark uses it in the parable of the sower (4:17) to describe what causes the seeds that fell on the stone and had sprung up quickly to wither because they had no root, and in v.19 of this chapter. Matthew likewise uses it in his parable of the sower and apocalyptic text. Luke does not use it. John uses it 2 times, speaking of the pain of childbirth and forthcoming affliction in 16: 21 and 33. Acts uses it several times, Paul/pseudo-Paul use it often, in ways that we might speak of “persecution,” not some far off end-time ordeal. By the time the reader gets to the book of Revelation, it is a word that has accumulated varied meanings. This is far too common a word, and tragically too common an experience, for end-time theorists to draw a connective line between all the uses of the word and plot them on a timeline as a single unfolding event. Affliction is more like an ongoing part of human experience throughout time, including whatever one sees as the ‘end time.’
Here, the “affliction” is a specific experience, which, I think, is around the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.   
2. It seems odd that the darkness of the sun is in the passive voice, but the darkness of the moon is in the active voice. It would be interesting to see how 1st century science (as known by someone like Mark) and the lingering mythologies of Helios and Selena play into these references. The comment from I Corinthians 15:41 may give us a glimpse of the 1st century mind about the heavenly bodies: “There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differs from another star in glory.”

25 καὶ οἱ ἀστέρες ἔσονται ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ πίπτοντες, καὶ αἱ δυνάμεις αἱ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς σαλευθήσονται.
And the stars shall be falling out of the heaven, and the powers which are in the heaven will be shaken.  
ἔσονται: FMI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
πίπτοντες: PAPart npm, πίπτω, 1) to descend from a higher place to a lower  1a) to fall (either from or upon)  1a1) to be thrust down 
σαλευθήσονται: FPI 3p, σαλεύω, 1) a motion produced by winds, storms, waves, etc  1a) to agitate or shake
1. “The powers that are in the heaven”: Now that’s a phrase to ponder, isn’t it? Does it refer to a 1st century mythical understanding of the skies? Does it refer to a proleptic sense of gravity, the effect of the moon on the tides, the correspondence of changing constellations and changing seasons, the various events that cause the night to be longer in one season and the day in another? It strikes me that sea-faring, nomadic, and herder folk had to be very savvy when it came to daily, monthly, seasonal, and annual patterns in the skies. As for the conjectures that connected these observable effects with causes, perhaps that is where mythology supplied and still may supply some purpose and meaning.

26 καὶ τότε ὄψονται τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐρχόμενον ἐν νεφέλαις μετὰ δυνάμεως πολλῆς καὶ δόξης.
And then they will see the son of the man entering in clouds with great power and glory.
ὄψονται: FMI 3p, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes 
ἐρχόμενον: PMPart asm, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
1. The Son of man entering in clouds: Mark is employing a familiar image from the 2nd century BCE portion of Daniel, which I believe was part of a new eschatology among Jews regarding how God deals with evil. (I think it was a theological crisis when the temple, the king, and the land were all imperiled. Those were the three visible signs of God’s presence and blessing. Was God dead? Was God being unfaithful to the covenant? Or, is God’s justice on a timetable all its own? I think this is the kind of peril that brought innovative theology into play during the time of Alexander the Great’s Empire and its dismantling after his death.)
In Daniel 7:13-14, “one like a son of man” comes with the clouds of heaven and is given dominion, glory and kingship. Notice that Mark’s Son of Man appears “coming in clouds” but there is nothing about whether he actually descends to the ground. What he does is sends messengers to gather the elect.
2. They will see: The pronoun/subject is implied in the 3rd person plural form of the verb. Curious that it is not “you will see.”

27 καὶ τότε ἀποστελεῖ τοὺς ἀγγέλους καὶ ἐπισυνάξει τοὺς ἐκλεκτοὺς [αὐτοῦ] ἐκ τῶν τεσσάρων ἀνέμων ἀπ' ἄκρου γῆς ἕως ἄκρου οὐρανοῦ.
And then he will send the angels and gather the [his] elect out of the four corners from end of earth to end of heaven.
ἀποστελεῖ: FAI 3s, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed 
ἐπισυνάξει: FAI 3s, ἐπισυνάγω, 1) to gather together besides, to bring together to others  already assembled 
1. The angels are “gathering the elect,” using the same verb that Luke 13:34 uses to describe the hen, who “gathers” her brood for protection.
2. The elect: Mark only uses this phrase three times, all in this chapter – vv.20, 22, and here. In the NT, the word is used to signify Jesus as the chosen one of God (I Peter 2:4), as well as people like Rufus (Rom 16:13) or “the elect lady” of II John 1:1 and 1:13, and mostly for the church. 
3. I suspect phrases like “four corners” and “end of earth to end of heaven” (no definite articles in this phrase) are 1st century sayings, like “from stem to stern,” signifying “all over.” The elect have been scattered during the affliction. 

28 Ἀπὸ δὲ τῆς συκῆς μάθετε τὴν παραβολήν: ὅταν ἤδη ὁ κλάδος αὐτῆς ἁπαλὸς γένηται καὶ ἐκφύῃ τὰ φύλλα, γινώσκετε ὅτι ἐγγὺς τὸ θέρος ἐστίν.
Yet from the fig tree learn the parable: When her branch becomes tender and produces the leaves, know that the summer is near.
μάθετε: AAImpv 2p, μανθάνω, 1) to learn, be appraised 1a) to increase one's knowledge, to be increased in knowledge  1b) to hear, be informed
γένηται: AMS 3s, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being  2) to become, i.e. to come to pass, happen
ἐκφύῃ: PASubj 3s, ἐκφύω, 1) to generate or produce from 
γινώσκετε: PAI 2p, γινώσκω, 1) to learn to know, come to know, get a knowledge of perceive, feel
ἐστίν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
1. Mark’s only other use of “fig tree” is the episode in c.11, when Jesus sees a fig tree that had leaves but no fruit, cursed it, and then they see it withered the next morning. It is curious that, given the proximity of that event to Passover, some people have said that either Jesus or Mark lacks an understanding of fig trees, because it was not supposed to have fruit at that point. This verse seems to demonstrate that “Jesus/Mark know fig tree patterns just fine, thank you.”

29 οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς, ὅταν ἴδητε ταῦτα γινόμενα, γινώσκετε ὅτι ἐγγύς ἐστιν ἐπὶ θύραις.
Likewise also you, when you may see these things becoming, know that he/it is near at the door.
ἴδητε: AASubj 2p, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes  2) to see with the mind, to perceive, know 
γινόμενα: PMPart apm, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being 
γινώσκετε: PAImpv 2p, γινώσκω, 1) to learn to know, come to know, get a knowledge of perceive, feel 
ἐστίν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
1. I know that the verb “becoming” is awkward here, but I want to show that it is the same verb as the branch of the fig tree becoming tender. Frankly, I think the KJV phrase “it came to pass” picks up well the experience where the agency of actions is not evident. (Some refer to moments like these as the ‘divine passive,’ where God is the implied agent. Maybe. Perhaps it is a 1st century way of expressing the current popular response, “Wow, that just happened.”)
2. The door, the gate, the entrance: There seems to be a subtle shift of focus with this term. Whereas the Danielic reference to the son of man appearing in clouds was something of a rescue or at least a vision of sustenance in a time of suffering, the tone after this reference to he/it someone/something being at the door seems to be more threatening to the listener who is to stay awake and to be ready. Is that which is at the door a rescue or a threat?
3. Translations disagree over whether the implied subject of the verb ἐστιν (is) should be “it” (YLT, KJV, NIV) or “he” (ESV, NRSV). Grammatically, either one is permissible.

30 ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἡ γενεὰ αὕτη μέχρις οὗ ταῦτα πάντα γένηται.
Amen I say to you that this generation may not pass until all these things which may become.
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
παρέλθῃ: AASubj 3s, παρέρχομαι, 1) to go past, pass by  1a) of persons moving forward  1a1) to pass by 
γένηται: AMSubj 3s, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being
1. For “become”: See v.30, n.1.
2. The verbs ‘pass’ and ‘become’ are subjunctive, placing this whole phrase in the conditional mode. I see two possibilities for translating and interpreting this conditional mode. It could be something like, ‘not this until that,’ as reflected in the NIV’s “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” In that case, the ‘until’ is the condition but everything else is strongly indicative. On the other hand, the condition could be ‘maybe this and, if so, then that,’ as reflected in Young’s Literal Translation, “this generation may not pass away till all these things may come to pass.” If Mark is writing this text in the midst of unfolding events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem, then perhaps the conditional voice is the best that he can offer to represent Jesus’ teachings in a fluid situation.

31 ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ παρελεύσονται, οἱ δὲ λόγοι μου οὐ μὴ παρελεύσονται.
The heaven and the earth will pass, but my words will not pass.
παρελεύσονται: FMI 3p, παρέρχομαι, 1) to go past, pass by 1a) of persons moving forward
παρελεύσονται: FMI 3p, παρέρχομαι, 1) to go past, pass by  1a) of persons moving forward

32 Περὶ δὲ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης ἢ τῆς ὥρας οὐδεὶς οἶδεν, οὐδὲ οἱ ἄγγελοι ἐν οὐρανῷ οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός, εἰ μὴ ὁ πατήρ.
But concerning that day or the hour no one has known, neither the angels in heaven nor the son, except the father.
οἶδεν: PerfAI 3s, εἴδω, ἴδω, an obsolete form of the present tense, the place of which is supplied by ὁράω. The tenses coming from εἴδω and retained by usage form two families, of which one signifies to see, the other to know.
1. The verb “has known” is in the perfect tense – a past action with present effect.

33 βλέπετε ἀγρυπνεῖτε: οὐκ οἴδατε γὰρ πότε ὁ καιρός ἐστιν.
Look be awake; for you do not know when the time is.
βλέπετε: PAImpv 2p, βλέπω, 1) to see, discern, of the bodily eye 
ἀγρυπνεῖτε: PAImpv 2p, ἀγρυπνέω, 1) to be sleepless, keep awake, watch  2) to be circumspect, attentive, ready
οἴδατε: PerfAI 2p, εἴδω, ἴδω, an obsolete form of the present tense, the place of which is supplied by ὁράω. The tenses coming from εἴδω and retained by usage form two families, of which one signifies to see, the other to know.
ἐστίν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
1. Both βλέπω and εἴδω are verbs grounded in the act of ‘seeing.’ And, as with the English word, its meaning ranges from actively looking to perceiving/knowing.
2. Readers of Paul Tillich (me!) will want to infuse καιρός with more meaning than may be warranted here. It could just refer to the day and hour of v.32.

34 ὡς ἄνθρωπος ἀπόδημος ἀφεὶς τὴν οἰκίαν αὐτοῦ καὶ δοὺς τοῖς δούλοις αὐτοῦ τὴν ἐξουσίαν, ἑκάστῳ τὸ ἔργον αὐτοῦ, καὶ τῷ θυρωρῷ ἐνετείλατο ἵνα γρηγορῇ.
As a man abroad having left his house and having given to his slaves the authority, to each his work, also commanded the doorkeeper in order that he would watch.  
ἀφεὶς:  AAPart nsm, ἀφίημι, 1) to send away  … 3e) to go away leaving something behind  
δοὺς: AAPart nsm, δίδωμι, 1) to give 
ἐνετείλατο: AMI 3s, ἐντέλλομαι, 1) to order, command to be done, enjoin
γρηγορῇ: PASubj 3s, γρηγορέω 1) to keep awake, to watch
1. Translated woodenly, as I do at this stage of my work, this ends up being an incomplete sentence. One can remedy that by making ὡς into “it is like,” instead of simply “as.”
2. If we are interpreting this traveler as the Son of Man who is to return at an unknown hour, there are two types of good servants here: Those who have authority and a commission to work their proper tasks; and those who are porters and commissioned to stay awake and watch the door. To paraphrase Paul, “If all are porters, where will the house cleaning be? If all are watching the door, who is keeping the fire burning?”
3. This seems to be a curious place to toss in a mini-parable.

35 γρηγορεῖτε οὖν, οὐκ οἴδατε γὰρ πότε ὁ κύριος τῆς οἰκίας ἔρχεται, ἢ ὀψὲ ἢ μεσονύκτιον ἢ ἀλεκτοροφωνίας ἢ πρωΐ,
Therefore watch, for you have not known when the lord of the house is entering, whether evening, or midnight, or cock-crowing or morning.  
γρηγορεῖτε: PAImpv 2p, γρηγορέω 1) to keep awake, to watch
οἴδατε: PerfAI 2p, εἴδω, ἴδω, an obsolete form of the present tense, the place of which is supplied by ὁράω. The tenses coming from εἴδω and retained by usage form two families, of which one signifies to see, the other to know.
ἔρχεται: PMI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
1. Here and in v.26 I translate ἔρχομαι as ‘entering’ because it is in the middle voice.
2. Now the question becomes who the target audience of Jesus’ words is. Who is the implied “you” in the 2nd person voicing of the imperative “watch” here and by the pronoun ὑμᾶς (pronoun for “you”) in the next verse and the emphatic πᾶσιν (all of you) in v.37? Who are the porters to whom Jesus is speaking? In v.34 the job of watching seemed to be assigned to the doorkeeper, while others went about their proper work.  
3. As in v.32, οἴδατε (have not known) is in the perfect tense.

36 μὴ ἐλθὼν ἐξαίφνης [ἐξέφνης in some mss.] εὕρῃ ὑμᾶς καθεύδοντας.
Having come suddenly may he not you sleeping.
ἐλθὼν: AAPart nsm, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
εὕρῃ: AASubj 3s, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with
καθεύδοντας: PAPart apm, καθεύδω, 1) to fall asleep, drop off to sleep 

37ὃ δὲ ὑμῖν λέγω, πᾶσιν λέγω, γρηγορεῖτε.
But this I say to you, I say to all, keep awake.
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
γρηγορεῖτε: PAImpv 2p, γρηγορέω 1) to keep awake, to watch
1. By now, the division of labor in v.34 has fallen by the wayside and “all” are called to be porters, keeping awake and watching the door. I find this a little confusing, not as a singular idea but as an idea within the flow of the whole text.
 2. This pericope began with the “affliction,” after which the sun would be darkened and the moon lightless. Needless to say, that would be quite the wake-up call, which contrasts with the idea that the porter would be sleeping out of boredom and caught unawares of when the departed one would return.
3. There are lots of moving parts here. I hope my comments about the wild nature of apocalyptic texts above is real, and not just a way that I am trying to “make it okay” for the structure of this text to be elusive as a whole.  


  1. really helpful!

    just don't know exactly how it will come together for Sunday at this point, but a great contribution!

  2. Thanks for this exegesis... As Tom Blair has said, I'm not sure how this is going to come together on Sunday morning, but I've got more to work with now... :)

  3. Thanks Tom and Kayelar. My the Spirit give you ... something between now and Sunday.

  4. Glad to be back in the Gospels for Advent... I'm taking a break from Narrative and preaching this text tomorrow. This was super helpful (per usual) and I'm working with the imperative to stay awake... using the current and very real need to #staywoke... that we don't fall asleep out of boredom but self preservation.
    Thanks as always!!

    1. Thanks, Shawna. You are always so gracious. And I'm using #staywoke soon.

  5. First time I’ve read your blog... love your approach. Great help for Sunday. Neil

    1. Thanks, Neil. Blessings on your Advent journey. MD

  6. So heaven and clouds seem related. The overarching structures are falling apart, the thlipsis (pressure? walls closing in?) is happening, and a new 'heavenly' reality is entering the scene - crucified and risen one? Not the fixer of the powers, but the life renewer?

    1. Hi Bill,
      I like the way you've put crucifixion and resurrection together as twin pillars for holding the destructiveness and renewing qualities together. That's working for me. MD


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