The End of the World

Arch of TitusBy Ched Myers, for the 25th Sunday in Pentecost (Mark 13:1-8)

Note: This is the last of a series of Ched’s brief comments on the Markan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, originally posted during year B, 2015. 

The final two Sundays in Ordinary Time and the first two Sundays in Advent comprise what I call the “apocalyptic season of turning” in our church calendar. Traditionally the gospel readings speak of the end of the “old order” and the coming of a new world anticipated in Christ. This is appropriate not only as a transition into a new liturgical year and lectionary cycle, but also as a reminder that “in Christ there is a new creation; the old has passed away; behold, the new has come!” (II Cor 5:17).

As noted in last week’s comments, Jesus culminates an escalating series of conflicts with the authorities by making a dramatic exit from the Temple grounds for the last time (13:1), effectively bracketing a Jerusalem narrative that began with his “exorcism” of the Temple (Mk 11:11ff). Note the intentional symmetry between the disciples’ awe at the Temple edifice Jesus has just repudiated and their earlier surprise at the cursed fig tree (symbolizing the nation):

“Master, look!” (11:21)
“Teacher, look!” (13:1)

Dominant social institutions are always “bigger than life,” and indeed Herod’s Second Temple was considered one of the architectural wonders of the ancient Mediterranean world. It determined Judean cosmology, politics and economics. So when Jesus calls for its destruction (13:2), the disciples understandably respond with terrified questions about the “end of the world” (3:4)! To articulate his alternative vision, Jesus turns to the language of apocalyptic.

The “Little Apocalypse” represents Jesus’ second great sermon in Mark (13:5ff), and alludes to events in Mark’s own historical moment: the Judean Revolt of 66-70 C.E. * To Palestinian Jews loyal to the Temple-State, the terrible social and political upheaval of the war with Rome no doubt portended “signs of the end” (see 13:4). But from Mark’s perspective, the rebellion merely represented the “beginning” of yet another cycle of violence (13:7f). With the Roman siege of Jerusalem imminent (13:14a), rebel recruiters were going throughout Palestine summoning patriotic Jews to Jerusalem’s defense (13:6,21f). For Mark only one voice could compete with their persuasive call to arms—that of Jesus. His apocalyptic sermon, with its cautionary refrain to “Watch out!” (13:5,9,23,33) suggests that Mark’s community was critical of both imperial collaborators and nationalist warriors. Its nonviolent stance, refusing to cooperate with either Judean guerillas or Roman counter-insurgency, earned it persecution from both sides of the war (13:9-13).

The disciples, representing the anxious concern of a community caught in war, pose a double question to Jesus (13:4):

When will this be
and what will be the sign that these things are to take place?

The sermon’s two parts provide Jesus’ response accordingly: the first half (13:5-22) addresses the “time,” the second the “signs” (13:23-37). Both parts reiterate the counsel of the prophet Daniel, who two centuries earlier during the Maccabean revolt had urged the faithful to resist both the imperial beast and the delusions of militant nationalism (Dan 7-11). At the heart of the sermon is Jesus’ call to abandon Jerusalem (13:14b-20) because of the apocalyptic conviction that a truly just social order cannot be established by the sword. The disciples are instructed to “wait and watch” for the fall of the Powers (13:24-27) and a genuine transformation of the world (13:28ff).

Unfortunately, this Year C we only get the introduction to the Little Apocalypse, as next Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King. But I’ll comment on the entire first half of the sermon, which is structured in two parts around the exhortation to critical awareness:

When you hear of wars and rumours of wars… (13:7)
…the one enduring to the end will be saved. (13:13)

When you see the desecrating sacrilige… (13:14)
…unless those days were shortened, no one would be saved. (13:20)

Of particular concern are the seductive claims of those calling for the final Messianic war:

Watch out that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying “I am he!” and will lead many astray. (13:5f)

If anyone says to you, “Look, here is Messiah!” … do not believe it. False Messiahs and false prophets will arise and show signs and wonders to lead astray, if possible, the elect. Watch out, for I have told you all this beforehand. (13:21-23)

The Christian community should not be sucked into the fevered vortex of “wars and rumors of wars,” and the promises that this armed struggle will put an “end” to the old order (13:7). Jesus parodies these claims, asserting that they represent “only the beginning” of troubles (13:8; see Is 26:17; Jer 22:23; Hos 13:13; Mi 4:9f). **

Next comes specific instruction to a community enduring fierce persecution from both sides of the war. Jesus confirms that his followers will be “delivered up” both to Judean synagogue councils and imperial governors (13:9). In the midst of this holocaust disciples must remain focused on the good news of God’s sovereignty, and trust that the Spirit will accompany them in their trials (13:10f). Mark’s realism recognizes that this persecution will split families and that the community will suffer defections (13:12f; see Mi 7:6). But Jesus is not asking his disciples to undergo anything that he will not himself face in this story: he too will be “delivered up” while his own “family” betrays him.

The “desecrating sacrilige” (see Dan 11:31; 12:11) and Mark’s cryptic editorial comment (“let the reader understand”) in 13:14 refers to the final Roman siege of Jerusalem. In the tradition of Jeremiah (Jer 21), Jesus calls for his followers to abandon the defense of the Temple-State as a lost cause. The conditions described in 13:15-18 certainly reflect the plight of wartime refugees. The so-called “war of independence” is, in Mark’s opinion, a disaster, serving only to victimize everyone (13:19f). With a final exhortation to endurance, the first half comes to a close (13:21-23; see Dan 12:1). The second half of the sermon goes on to employ the language of high apocalyptic symbolism in order to address the request for “true signs” of the end of the world (this text came up at the beginning of the Year B cycle in Advent 1).

Apocalyptic vision looks for the end, not the mere recycling, of the politics of violence and injustice. As we approach Advent, this sermon urges us to do the same in our weary world.

* The historical background is as follows: In June of 66 an insurrection against Roman rule began in Jerusalem, culminating decades of widespread social unrest and percolating armed insurgency. Temple sacrifices on behalf of the emperor were halted; both the Judean clerical aristocracy and Roman cohorts were driven out of the city; and the public archives (including records of debt) were burned. The rebellion spread to the surrounding provinces, and in November the Roman counter-attack began under Gallus, Roman Legate of Syria. But the imperial forces were successfully repelled by nationalist fighters, and for a few short years many parts of Palestine were effectively liberated from Roman rule. A provisional government was set up in Jerusalem, despite fierce internal power struggles, and the rebels began preparing for the siege that would surely come. A massive Roman counterinsurgency commenced the following summer, immediately retaking most of Galilee and moving south in a vicious scorched-earth campaign. Because of civil war in Rome, however, the military effort stalled, so that the final assault on Jerusalem did not begin until the spring of 70 under Titus.

** These warnings continue to resonate today, as the church is perpetually confused by the “fog of war” and its propaganda; see my “Mark 13 in a Different Imperial Context.”

2 thoughts on “The End of the World

  1. Pingback: “Staying Awake in a Crapulent Culture”: Why We Should March for Climate Justice this Weekend | Radical Discipleship

  2. Pingback: Pâstâhowin: The Cosmic Consequences of Breaking Covenant – Radical Discipleship

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