Friday, February 3, 2012

All Will Be Torn Down (part 2 of 4)

Interestingly, it is Matthew’s presentation that becomes the guide, in many Bible translations, that provides the summary heading for various sections.  For example, in a number of translations, this paragraph of Matthew twenty-four is headed by “Signs of the End of the Age.”  This makes sense, as the disciples have asked “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”  However, even though the disciples do not ask the question this way in either Mark or Luke, not making mention of the end of the age, the same paragraph is often headed with “Signs of the End of the Age.”  This demonstrates the way in which our very non-Jewish (Greek-influenced) conceptions of the end of the world have somehow become equated to such an expression by a Jew in the first century, though it is has no such connection.  Beyond that, we can see that the conflation of end of the age and end of the world are read into Mark and Luke, becoming the controlling paradigm by which those two accounts are heard, even though, according to the words of the disciples that are on offer by those two evangelists, the end of the age is nowhere in sight. 

Again, it becomes helpful to let the weight of evidence be our guide.  Since the foundational narrative, that being Mark, which is significantly expanded upon by Matthew (due to either written materials in the author’s possession, a more robust oral tradition, or a more vivid imagination) does not resort to such language, and Luke, which also builds on Mark, does not have the disciples posing their question in such a matter, it is best to distance ourselves from the end of the age language.  We do this even though we know that, in its usage, it does not point to the end of the world, as it is difficult to shake ourselves free from long-ingrained sensibilities.       

Though it is not present in Mark or Luke, the notion of Jesus’ coming, as it frames the discourse on offer by Jesus and influences the way that we read and perceive Matthew’s twenty-fourth chapter, is something with which we also must deal.  Much as we tend to hear “end of the age” in the light of our “end of the world” sensibilities, we also tend to hear speech about the coming of Jesus in terms of His coming to earth from heaven.  We do this because we are reading post-ascension, and because, being inhabitants of this world whereas Jesus is off in heaven somewhere, any talk of Jesus’ coming must be talk of Him coming from heaven to earth. 

Now, before even addressing the issue, as best as is possible, from the mindset of a first century Jew, let us look at this issue as a matter of common sense.  When Jesus speaks in terms of not being seen until He comes, He is alive and kicking.  Remember, we have to hear these things in their narratival context.  Though Jesus has made mention of His death and Resurrection, such as is found in the seventeenth chapter of Matthew when He says “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.  They will kill Him, and on the third day He will be raised” (17:22b-23a), this isn’t exactly something that is clearly understood by His disciples.  In fact, Matthew says “they became greatly distressed” (17:23b).  Prior to that, in the sixteenth chapter, when Jesus says something similar, “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him” (16:22a).  So, returning to the realm of common sense, since Jesus is with them when He says these things---He has not been crucified or resurrected, and He has not ascended into heaven (though this written record does come after all of these things have taken place), we cannot have the disciples presuming these things as part of their query.  While the hearers heard it and we read it with knowledge of these things, the narrative does not push us to hear the disciples’ question as post-earthly-life-and-ministry of Jesus.  Yes, this can become convoluted and confusing, but it is incumbent upon us to make our best attempt to inhabit the story as it is on offer, positioning ourselves to hear Jesus live and in person, as one of His disciples.  Doing that, we are then not posing a question to Jesus, about His coming, from a post-ascension perspective that has Jesus coming back to earth.  That would merely gets things out of order.  At this point, as far as His disciples are concerned, Jesus isn’t going anywhere. 

Yes, He’s talked about His coming death and resurrection, but we cannot force the disciples to have already come to terms with what those words truly meant.  In fact, this is where Luke provides us a wonderful glimpse into the mindset of the disciples of Jesus, through His Emmaus-road presentation in chapter twenty-four of His gospel.  There, downhearted and dejected disciples, who were clearly struggling to cope with Jesus’ death and what it meant, say “we had hoped that He was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (24:21a).  Not only was there no expectation of a resurrection, though Jesus has been reported to have spoken, in advance, of His being raised, there was certainly no hope or expectation of an ascension, and there was obviously no prevailing ideology that had Jesus returning to earth from heaven.  As far as they knew, He was dead, which also meant that He was a failed messiah.  So in terms of rightly dealing with Matthew’s narrative, the movement of the story does not allow us to have either us or the disciples themselves injecting a hoped-for return of Jesus to earth into their question about His coming.  It simply does not fit. 

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