Differences Explained

The readings for Sunday, November 29, 2015, First Sunday of Advent, Cycle C, are
Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:12—4:2; and Luke 21:25-28, 34-36.

On the first Sunday of Advent in any year, whether from Cycle A readings (Matthew), or Cycle B (Mark), or Cycle C (Luke), the Sunday Gospel is taken from Jesus’ last discourse in one of these three Gospels. This year the focus is on the Gospel of Luke. There are great differences in the three versions of Jesus’ final discourse. The differences are governed by the differing theologies and traditions of the three authors. The Gospel of Mark, generally dated about 70 A.D., contains the oldest version of Jesus’ last discourse. Mark, like St. Paul before him, expected an imminent end of time and the return of Jesus as final judge. The fact that Jesus did not return when expected was surely a factor influencing the changes and additions found in the versions of Matthew and Luke. These were composed fifteen to twenty years after the Gospel of Mark.

The part of Luke’s version of the last discourse of Jesus omits what led to Jesus speaking on the subject of the end of time and his return. He was sitting with some of his disciples in the outer court of the temple in Jerusalem. The disciples pointed out the splendid stonework of the temple. Jesus informs them that not one stone will be left upon another — total destruction. The disciples want to know when this destruction will take place, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign when this is about to take place? This question launches Jesus into his last discourse. As noted above, the end time and return of Jesus did not take place as Christians had been led to expect by sections of Paul’s Letters and the Gospel of Mark. Therefore the first section of Luke’s version warns against an imminent end, “…but the end will not be at once.”

Next Luke includes the standard expressions of catastrophe borrowed by Mark from the Old Testament.  These were expressions used by Old Testament prophets to warn their people of the impending wrath of God which would strike sinners and especially those who broke God’s covenant with his Chosen People. The standard catastrophes are listed: international wars, great earthquakes, famine, disease, terror-inspiring signs in the sky. Such disasters are common to the human race since its beginning. They have always happened and it seems they will continue to happen. One example: Luke is writing about the year 85. The disastrous  “great earthquakes” and eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. were a fresh memory. Even as people would do today, so the people of the first Christian century would have seen the wrath of God in these events.

Now Luke turns to other personal experience of the Christians of his time, persecution through arrests, trials, martyrdom. That’s the bad news. There is also good news. They will not be abandoned by him for whom they suffer. In their defense at their trials, “I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” Luke surely has in mind the horrendous persecution of Christians in Rome instigated by the Emperor Nero in the sixties of the first century. Luke adds a devastating note. Christians will be betrayed by their own families and be hated by all because they bear the name of Christ, that is, as Christians. There are further instructions about the siege of Jerusalem and a command to flee into the country. All this happened ten to fifteen years before Luke composed his gospel. He knew whereof he wrote through his own experience and the experience of others.

Most of the documents of the New Testament deal with the subject of the expected return of Jesus. There are great differences, even contradictions, among the various authors  — from St. Paul to the gospels, to the Book of Revelation and the Pastoral Letters. What did they really know? As Old Testament prophets attempted to predict the Day of the Lord God and its details, so the New Testament authors attempted the same with the Day of the Lord Jesus. None of them seem to heed the advice attributed to Jesus in Mark 13:32, “Of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels…, nor the Son, but only the Father.” As it was then, so it is now with predictors of an end. So what do we do with the warnings of the gospels about a judgment to which we will all be called?  Consider Luke’s advice closing this Sunday’s gospel. Avoid debauchery and drunkenness because that day can come upon us suddenly — a reference to our death. So “watch at all times…that you may have strength to stand before the Son of Man.”