December 27, 2012
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Matthew 24:15-28.
“When you see the desolating abomination spoken of through Daniel the prophet standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, a person on the housetop must not go down to get things out of his house, a person in the field must not return to get his cloak. Woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days. Pray that your flight not be in winter or on the sabbath, for at that time there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will be. And if those days had not been shortened, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect they will be shortened. If anyone says to you then, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will arise, and they will perform signs and wonders so great as to deceive, if that were possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told it to you beforehand. So if they say to you, ‘He is in the desert,’ do not go out there; if they say, ‘He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For just as lightning comes from the east and is seen far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”
This is Jesus’ continuing response to his disciples’ question about what sign will be given of his coming and the end of the age. Keep in mind that Matthew was writing after the destruction of Jerusalem.
The abomination spoken of in Daniel was the statue of Zeus erected in the temple by the conquering Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes who purposefully desecrated the temple in Jerusalem. The defilement had taken place before Daniel was written, but it was written about as future event that Matthew presents as a prophecy of the destruction of the temple by the Romans.
The flight to the mountains may refer to a tradition that Jewish Christians fled Jerusalem for the city of Pella in the Transjordan at the time of the Jewish-Roman war 66-73 C.E. Barclay believes that this is Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and his warning that its residents flee to the mountains. In actuality they did not and endured a terrible famine during the Roman siege. Josephus, the Jewish-Roman historian of that time, estimated that 1.1 million people died and only 97,000 were still living when the Romans entered the city and carried them away into enslavement. Were these the elect, those whom God loved? It hardly seems so.
The Messiah, the Son of Man, will not be found in some secret place by one or a few. Just as during his public ministry, Jesus will come again in full view, as vivid as lightning and in the open as signaled by vultures overhead that circle a dead creature. It’s interesting that some translations like the Douay-Rheims Version uses ‘eagles’ instead of ‘vultures,’ offering a different interpretation. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary asserts that his alludes to Job 39:27-30, which ends with, “From thence he [the eagle] watches for his prey; his eyes behold it afar off. His young ones greedily drink blood; where the slain are, there is he.”
This concept of the tribulations of the end time obviously was important to Matthew, Mark, and Luke as all three include this passage. The apocalypse and the end time were vivid, recurring themes in the Hebrew Bible. The early Christians expected the end time and Jesus’ second coming at any moment, a particularly urgent message in Paul’s letters — the earliest writings of the Greek Bible.
Franciscan Richard Rohr in The Good News According to Luke has an interesting perspective on this same passage as it occurs in Luke. He asks what we would do if we knew that the world were going to end. We would live each day as if it were to be our last. There is a paradox embedded in such an attitude. One is that we would live life to the fullest not in fear, taking seriously our God-given potential in responsibly creating the kingdom of God by loving one another in peace and harmony. However, he points out that it also means that we not take ourselves too seriously, that nothing is so important that we can’t let it go. “When you realize that everything is important, and yet it it all passing away, the no individual event matters that much.”
As Rohr writes, “The call of the Lord is always to live in the present….That why the gospel was always presented in that tension of the end time.” Because that leads us to living in peace and harmony with one another. So, we arrive at the same end point, the kingdom of God. That was always the point of Jesus’ teachings.