Commentary on Mark 13:24-37
Mark 13:24-37 represents the second half of the single longest speech by Jesus in the Gospel.
The significance of this must be noted. Toward the end of a sixteen-chapter narrative about Jesus, early first-century Jesus suddenly begins addressing his late first-century hearers, in the second-person and often in the imperative mood. This is why many commentators on Mark see this particular part of the Gospel as most closely corresponding to the situation for which the Gospel was written.
Jesus lived, was crucified, and was proclaimed resurrected in the first third of the first century. But the event of the Temple’s destruction, and the very long apocalyptic speech about it here in Mark 13, reflect the situation of the final third of that century. The so-called “little apocalypse” of Mark 13 is probably best understood as crisis literature, spoken in the voice of Jesus, but to a context forty years or so after the narrated events of the Gospel of Mark itself. Whatever the strange apocalyptic language of Mark 13:24-37 means, it must be understood as direct address and in relation to the reality of the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE.
The Temple crisis is important for Jesus’ apocalyptic speech in Mark. The destruction of the Temple represents a catastrophe of divine presence and continuity with the past. The Temple is a center of religious life, but also political and economic life, too. When we read apocalyptic texts generically, it is helpful to think of them as crisis literature.1 Something about a given moment calls into question the righteousness of God. Apocalypses reach deeply into the symbolic fund and mythic resources of a tradition in order to invoke divine transcendence in the face of such difficulty. While Mark 13:24-37 is not an apocalypse like Revelation or Daniel 7-12, it places apocalyptic forms and symbols in the context of Jesus’ direct speech to those experiencing catastrophe. For this reason, we benefit from comparing the apocalyptic type scenes and motifs in Mark 13 to similar texts in actual apocalypses from this same period.
Mark 13:24-27 launches us into an apocalyptic theophany, a type scene or form attested in apocalypses like 1 Enoch 1:8-9; 60:6; 90:19; T. Levi 4:1; 4 Ezra 7:36-38; 9:7-9; 13:9-13. In most cases the apocalyptic theophany contains (a) God’s coming/arrival, (b) cosmic disturbances, and (c) eschatological judgment and salvation. Mark’s version in 13:24-27 is unique on at least two counts.
First, the divine figure’s arrival (here, the Son of Man) is not the first part, but postponed after the cosmic disturbances. Second, Mark, for whatever reason, omits the two-sided scene at the end. There is not some standard apocalyptic judgment scene, just a gracious gathering of the elect from the four corners and the four winds. Mark’s Gospel seeks to refigure this apocalyptic type scene in light of this Temple concern so that its emphasis is not on the judgment of unrighteous, but a gratuitous gathering of the elect by the Son of Man riding in on Exodus-like clouds.2
Mark’s unusual Son of Man apocalyptic theophany is followed by a figural reversal on the fig tree, which is not new to Mark’s Gospel. In Mark 11:12-14 Jesus curses the fig tree for not bearing fruit right before his cleansing of the Temple. In Mark 13:28-31 the figure of the fig tree is rehabilitated — its leaves are a sign that summer, like the Son of Man, is near. In the final portion of the pericope, Mark’s Jesus gives the hearers (the direct address of “you” continues in imperative verbs of Mark 13:31-37), reason to continue a praxis of engaged watching. Just as servants keep at their tasks before the householder returns, so should Jesus’ followers in this moment of crisis sleep with one eye open (agrupneite = “field sleeping”) to the new thing God is doing.
The purpose of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse in Mark is not scary Nostradamus-like timetables or garish National Enquirer headlines, but a promising call to a praxis of wakefulness to keep on keepin’ on in the face of a “gathering” theophany. I personally like the way my colleague Martha Simmons puts it: “eschatology is where the sweet bye and bye meets the nasty here and now.”3 Mark’s Jesus gives an apocalyptic speech in the early 1st CE for a church needing a word in a late 1st CE crisis. And he speaks before his own cross and resurrection to encourage and empower in the face of Roman destruction and power.
As for us, contemporary hearers have themselves been traumatized enough of late. Though we live our lives in relative twenty-first-century comfort, some of us have known the oppressive trauma of race, gender, and class in North America. Many of us in the mainline church have been set on our heels as a once culturally ensconced church is becoming disestablished. All of us know the wrenching impact, albeit in different ways, of the post 9/11 security state that causes us to lurch from crisis to crisis and ever evolving forms of public violence. Jesus speaks to a church whose desire for justice, sense of identity and very future seem fragile and unfinished. We early twenty-first century Christians may just benefit, even in situations of relative or differentiated privilege, to overhear the kinds of promises that allowed them to live forward amid the fragments and ruins to watch for the new thing God is doing in Advent.
1. David Hellholm, “The Problem of Apocalyptic Genre and the Apocalypse of John,” Semeia 36, 13-64.
2. Readers can find a more carefully elaborated version of this interpretation in my commentary, Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014).
3. Martha Simmons, “Introduction,” in 9.11.01: African American Leaders Respond to an American Tragedy, eds. M. Simmons and F. Thomas (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 2001), x.