Historical Cultural Context
To read this Gospel passage with respect for and sensitivity to Mediterranean culture, an American believer needs to keep a few things in mind.
First, many scholars agree that Luke is writing his Gospel around A.D. 80 or 85. Jesus has already died, risen, and ascended. The city and Temple of Jerusalem are already destroyed. Acts of the Apostles records the difficulties experienced by believers after Jesus died.
Thus the events that Jesus “foretells” in today’s reading have already occurred for Luke’s first readers. Putting them on Jesus’ lips is how Luke enhances Jesus’ reputation as someone who knows the will of God and knows the forthcoming, perhaps even the future—which would boggle the first-century Mediterranean mind.
Second, throughout his Gospel Luke presents Jesus as a “prophet mighty in word and deed” (Lk 24:19), particularly a healing prophet who preaches repentance and leads those whose lives have lost cultural meaning back to the proper purpose and direction in life.
In essence, a prophet is a spokesperson for God, one who is holy or separate, and one who acts aggressively against sin. The prophet usually proclaims God’s will for the here and now; the message is very present-oriented. “Repent!”
Third, Mediterranean culture is basically and primarily present-oriented. “Give us today our bread for today,” they pray, unlike Americans who would pray for a month’s or year’s supply in order to get on with life.
Even if one chooses the acceptable, alternate translation: “Give us today tomorrow’s bread” the peasant vision covers a wide-ranging present but nothing more.
Luke’s Jesus affirms: “Truly, I tell you, this generation [the one contemporary with his ministry] will not pass away until all things have taken place” (Lk 21:32). But that one and many additional generations have passed away, and all things still have not taken place.
Fourth, in the Mediterranean world only God knows the distant future and the distant past. Prophets know the distant future only if God has revealed it to them. The only way to know whether a prophet is authentic is when the prophecy is fulfilled (Deut 18:21).
Luke’s presentation of the earthly Jesus foretelling the fall of the city and Temple of Jerusalem along with persecution of his disciples is enhanced by the fact that these have occurred and continue to occur. Because these events have come true, Jesus is judged reliable in other predictions, especially about the “coming Son of Man” (Lk 21:27ff).
In addition to the distinctive present-time orientation of our ancestors in the Faith, two other cultural characteristics deserve notice: family persecution (Lk 21:16) and deception (Lk 21:8).
Family persecution. In the turbulence stirred by the Judean revolt against Rome, Jesus’ disciples who were earlier urged to “hate family” (Lk 14:26-27), leave them behind (Lk 18:29), and join Jesus’ new, extended family (Lk 14:26-27) are now persecuted by those rebuffed blood relatives. Jesus himself was handed over by one of the Twelve (Lk 22:3), his fictive-kin group, for all purposes, his family (Lk 8:21).
Deception. Because prophecy required fulfillment in order to be authenticated, those who listened to prophets were hard pressed to tell who was truthful and who was lying (see Jer 23:9-40; 28:1-17). Many might not live long enough to witness the prophecy’s fulfillment. For this reason Jesus cautions his disciples against being deceived (Lk 21:8) by those who will prophecy in his name! Do not follow them!
The final comment is familiar if troublesome to American believers: “by your endurance you will gain possession of your lives” (Lk 21:19). Stick to it. Offer it up. Suffer. Persevere. Take-charge Americans would want to do more! What else can they do in difficult times?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to find out more.
**From Saint Louis University