Proper 28

November 18, 2007
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 65:17-25
Reading 4: 
Luke 21:5-19
By Russell Pregeant

Luke 21:5-19 and Isaiah 65:17-25 complement each other in important ways, and both cry out for creative transformation in light of our contemporary experience. The apocalyptic framework of the Lucan passage can easily be enlisted in the cause of an other-worldly theology that inures us to the sufferings of life in this world, and the hyperbolic promises of the passage from Isaiah can not only feed unrealistic expectations for this life (a world without sorrow, v. 19) but also foster a reduction of hope to materialistic terms (long life, material wealth, and political security, vv. 20-23). But the this-worldly eschatology of the latter and the other-worldly apocalypticism of the former combine to invite the interpreter to a hermeneutical process of re-thinking traditional themes.

This passage and its parallels in Mark and Matthew, along with aspects of the book of Revelation, have held a seductive appeal to persons influenced by self-appointed doomsday “prophets” obsessed with calculating the end of the age. Such use of this material, however, is actually contradictory to its intended purpose. Jesus’ reply to the question as to the “when” of the eschatological events is anything but a timetable, as is clearly indicated by the statement that sets the context for the speech as a whole: “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!” and ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.” The signs that are enumerated do serve as a means of assurance of God’s ultimate victory, and this theme is reinforced by Jesus’ promises: he will give words of testimony to those who in the midst of coming persecution are called upon to defend themselves (v.14), and “not a hair of your head will perish” (v. 18) These promises, however, are necessary precisely because of a primary emphasis in the passage as a whole: in the times before the end, those who follow Jesus will be subject to persecution, betrayal by family and friends, and possible death. And in v. 19 we find the central message that the reader is expected to get: “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” The effect of the passage as a whole is therefore to discourage speculation and worry about the end of the age by calling upon the reader to endure the tribulations that will be the inevitable lot of those who witness for Jesus in the tumultuous times ahead.

The promise that “not a hair on your head will perish” in v. 18 stands in considerable tension with the concession in v. 16 that “they will put some of you to death.” One way or resolving the problem is to take v. 18 in a spiritual sense; another option is to take a redaction critic’s approach and accept that Luke (who added v. 18 to the Marcan text) did not think through the logical difficulties in bringing the two statements together (See Joseph A, Fitzmeyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, p. 1341). It is difficult to reduce the promise in v. 18 to spiritual protection only, however, and whatever we think of Luke’s attention to logic we still have before us a text that appears to make contradictory statements. Thus another way to approach the problem is to accept the tension as part the text’s mode of signification. On the one hand, to believe in God is to believe in a power that actively sides with the good and seeks to protect those who oppose evil. On the other hand, experience teaches us rather clearly that in many cases those who stand for what is right suffer extreme consequences and even death. But the tension between these two perspectives need not lead us to brand the text as simply incoherent; for we can also accept the tension as an invitation to hermeneutical reflection.

In the end, such reflection from a process perspective will likely lead us to conclude that what God offers us in terms of protection must come within the confines of divine power that is persuasive rather than coercive. But this is not necessarily to reduce the promise of protection to a spiritual dimension utterly disconnected from material reality. Although v. 16 stands as a solemn reminder that those who follow Jesus are by no means immune to tragedy, v. 18 can still provide assurance that God is present with us in our struggles to bring forth a better world. God’s presence with us in the failure of our causes is one dimension of our comfort, but the other dimension is that God is by no means resigned to those failures. For it is an essential aspect of God’s nature not only to imagine a better future but also to provide the relevant lures within the world of human experience to bring such a future about.

From a process perspective, however, that better future will not appear as a final, static state. We must therefore be prepared to re-interpret the Bible’s apocalyptic language as metaphor for the renewal of our societies on the historical plane, even as we must also affirm that God assures us of a fulfillment in that transcends that plane. The hyperbolic language of the passage in Isaiah 65 can serve as a poetic vision that reminds us of the ideals for which we hope and for which we believe God strives. The “new heavens” and “new earth” the prophet foresees signify the possibilities for human society when we open ourselves to God’s transforming power.

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).