Historical Culture Context
Vigilance and Prayer
Luke cautions against carousing, drunkenness, and worldly cares (Lk 21:34), which weigh a person down and distract from pressing issues. Americans may snicker at this trio of distractions and conclude that our ancestors in the Faith were not very different
The ordinary peasants, who constituted about 95 percent of the population of first-century Palestine, lived at a subsistence level and would hardly have the means or the opportunity to carouse, to get drunk, or to dream about and pursue creature comforts. They regularly worried about where the next meal was coming from and whether there would be enough for everyone. In other words, they were intensely focused on the present moment and the challenge of staying alive.
No, this kind of warning would be directed particularly to the elites, who had both the leisure and opportunity to carouse and get drunk and to allow themselves to be consumed by “worldly cares.” Luke addresses especially the wealthy who are greedy, who refuse to share (see Luke 12:13-34, esp. 12:15) with the needy, as this culture honorably requires. Indeed, at every mention of the “rich” in Luke’s Gospel it is advisable to cross out that word and pencil in “greedy.” That is what irks Luke and Luke’s Jesus and, indeed, all the people of Luke’s Gospel.
Such people will be caught quite by surprise when the Son of Man returns in judgment! No wonder Luke urges: “Keep yourselves awake.”
Religious prayer is a form of communication directed to a person who is perceived as controlling the general order of existence. In the Bible, this is God. The cosmic signs and earthly catastrophes that Luke has described are clearly under God’s control. Hence while Americans would be prone to check with their intelligence-gathering and weather satellites, radio telescopes, astronomers, meteorologists, or the CIA to identify and evaluate cosmic signs and imminent earthly catastrophes, Luke’s advice to believers is to “pray [to God] that you may be strong enough to escape from all these things.”
Our ancestors in the Faith who were the first to hear or read Luke’s warnings were mired down in present concerns. Peasants fought to survive; the elite sought to make life even more elite. Americans tend to think so much about the future that they totally miss the present. Digital wristwatches remind all of us of how fleeting the present moment is. The advice of Luke’s Jesus suits listeners of every era: “Keep awake!” so that you can escape the final calamity.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University