Historical Cultural Context
Looking At Time
More than thirty years ago the Pontifical Biblical Commission instructed readers of the synoptic Gospels to pay careful attention to the three stages of tradition in which Jesus’ teachings have been handed on: stage one–Jesus himself; stage two–the apostles’ preaching; stage three–the evangelists, who composed their Gospels more than forty years after Jesus died.
In 1993 the same commission published a document entitled “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” in which it praised the insights from cultural anthropology that can shed so much fresh light on the Bible and make the characters and story lines culturally plausible.
These “Sunday by Sunday” reflections attempt to describe the most plausible Mediterranean historical and cultural scenario for the Gospels at any of the levels. The scenario for today’s selection helps a reader to see at least two of them rather clearly.
Readers need an appropriate “time” scenario to read these verses. While Americans are normally future oriented, peasants are too deeply mired in present concerns such as “daily bread” to think about the future at all.
Mediterranean culture is primarily focused on the present, albeit a wide present including tomorrow and yesterday.
Yet verses 35 to 48 clearly have a future thrust.
With each generation of believers, the original statement recedes more and more into the past and makes the future seem increasingly distant from the gospel point of view.
The question, therefore, is: Does this future thrust derive from Jesus or from Luke or both? And how far into the future does each one see?
Jesus and Time
In the Gospels Jesus often shows himself to be counter-structural in his culture. Where the culture holds one value orientation, Jesus proposes an alternative.
Peasants were intensely oriented to the present moment; elites (e.g., the Sadducees) and scholars of the tradition (e.g., the scribes) were primarily oriented to the past. Hardly anyone was oriented toward the future.
The “future” thrust of these verses, which call for watchfulness and fidelity, contrasts strongly with the typical peasant’s spontaneous response to the present moment. When the cat’s away, the mice will play. When the master is gone, the servant who feels so inspired will beat other slaves, eat, drink, and get drunk (Lk 12:45).
In his typical counter-structural stance, Jesus urges at least a little concern for the future, a rather proximate future. In his parables he speaks of the unpredictable but sure return of the master. He also says: “The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Luke and Time
Writing his Gospel approximately fifty to fifty-five years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Luke, like his readers, is all too familiar with a common lament.
The risen Jesus was expected to return again, but his return is delayed now for some fifty years. Some are dying, others are frustrated, and still others begin to throw care to the winds.
Luke, therefore, calls for continued vigilance and fidelity: “Have your belt cinched tight (freeing the feet for swift movement) and your lamps lit” (Lk 12:35), for “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Lk 12:40).
Americans are quite definitely and primarily future-oriented, and frequently neglect the present. American believers could benefit by imitating the present-orientation of their ancestors in the Faith. This is the kind of balance that Jesus sought in his own culture.
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
**From Saint Louis University