Unknown: Therefore ‘Watch’

The readings for Sunday, November 15, 2015, Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time,
Cycle B, are Daniel 12:1-3; Hebrews 10:11-14, 18; and Mark 13:24-32.

There are three versions of Jesus’ last sermon or discourse — Mark, Matthew, and Luke. It is generally accepted that Mark’s version is the oldest of the three, and that Luke and Matthew used Mark’s version, changed it and expanded it for their own Gospels. The discourse begins as Jesus comes out of the temple. One of his disciples calls his attention to the fine stonework of the temple,  “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And so they were.  In a prophetic oracle Jesus then pronounces doom on the temple. Four disciples ask him to expand on his prophetic statement. In response, Jesus launches into his final discourse. Part of this discourse or sermon is this Sunday’s gospel reading.

In an earlier part of the discourse Jesus had already spoken of false Christs, apostasies, wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, the necessity of spreading the gospel to all nations, persecutions and judicial trials of Christians, betrayals of Christians by family members, martyrdom, and a general hatred of Christians by society at large. It should be kept in mind that Mark is writing about the year 70 A.D., when all or most of these tragic events had already been experienced. The destruction of the temple which is foretold here was happening or had been completed by the Roman army in the year 70. Mark attributes to Jesus a warning for disciples, that is, Christians, to flee from Jerusalem. They actually did flee to Pella, a city on the east side of the Jordan. They fled either shortly before or during the several years of the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans. The siege and the destruction, plus the persecution of Christians in Rome a few years prior to this time, seem to have been the motivation that led Mark to write his Good News that the end was at hand. Like Paul before him, so Mark expected Jesus to return immediately.

As today’s gospel reading begins, the Marcan Jesus says, “In those days the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. The stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” The imagery of this section depends on “predictions” of Old Testament prophets. New Testament prophets, including the authors of our gospels, adapted this imagery once used to herald the Day of the Lord God, which did not come, to the expected Day of the Lord Jesus. Mark expected this day to come in his lifetime!

Next Mark goes to imagery from the Book of Daniel, about 165 B.C. “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.” In Daniel 7, the young prophet has a vision of four horrible beasts coming up out of the sea. Then he sees “one like a Son of man,” that is, a human being, “coming with the clouds of heaven.” He came to the Ancient of Days (God), and to him was given “dominion, glory, kingdom so that all nations would be subject to him.” The authors of the Book of Daniel explain that this Son of man is a symbol of God’s holy people. New Testament authors interpreted this Son of Man as Jesus Christ coming to judge the whole world and establishing his eternal kingdom.

The Marcan Jesus continues, “…and then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.” The angels are seen as subject to the Son of Man, Jesus. The concept of gathering God’s people is widely used in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 30:4; Isaiah 11:11; 27:12; Ezekiel 11:17; 37:13-14. Mark continues in words attributed to Jesus, “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know he is near, at the gates.” And if anyone doubts that Mark was not convinced that the end was at hand, read on! “Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”

At the end of today’s gospel reading, Mark attributes to Jesus a statement that should impress anyone claiming that she or he knows the date of the end of time and the return of Jesus, “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Could anything be plainer? And yet, they keep coming, both the sincere and the frauds. Is the end near? Who knows? This we do know — that our own personal end can be at any time. Hear the words of the Church Father Origen, died 254 A.D., “All who…live the gospel…care little about whether the end of the world will come suddenly. Instead they keep in mind only that each person’s death or end will arrive at a day or hour unknown….” Therefore the final word of this gospel reading, “Watch!”