Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Translation: "But in those days, with that distress, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be agitated.
And then they will be seeing the son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send the angels, and he will gather together his elect out of four winds from the uttermost parts of earth just as the uttermost parts of heaven.
From the fig tree learn the parable: When now its branch becomes tender and produces leaves, you know that summer is near. And in this manner, you, when you see these things happening, you know that he is near at the door. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things come into existence. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
But about that day and hour no one knows, not the angels in heaven nor the son, only the father. Discern! Keep awake! For you do not know when the time is. Just as a man is sent away from his house and gives his slaves liberty, each his work, and he commands the doorkeeper to keep alert. Therefore, keep awake! for you do not know when the lord of the house will come, either evening, or midnight, or cock-crow, or morning, or he may find you sleeping. Not coming suddenly, he may find you sleeping. But what I say to you, I say to all, keep awake!"
Background and situation: Most biblical scholars take the view that Mark was composed either during the Roman-Jewish War (AD 66-70), probably toward the end of that period, or shortly thereafter.
In the early part of the war, AD 66-67, the Jews had had some success. By AD 68, however, 60,000 Roman soldiers had crushed the revolt on the coast and in the north. The population of Jerusalem swelled as refugees flooded into the city.
These refugees were joined by other rebels and religious fanatics who saw the coming battle of Jerusalem in apocalyptic terms. God would not let Jerusalem be conquered! The Messiah would appear to save the city, the Temple, and the people! The atmosphere of Jerusalem was rife with religious fanaticism.
By AD 69, the Jewish rebels had withdrawn to the city of Jerusalem and were preparing to defend it against the coming Roman seige. First, however, they fought with their fellow Jews. The zealots and sicarii (the "knife men"), after some brutal infighting, took control of the city. They assassinated anyone who advocated surrender. They burned some of their own food supplies as further inducement to fight on instead of negotiating peace.
Our reading is a portion of the "little apocalypse" in Mark 13. The entire speech begins in verse 5 and extends to verse 37. Our reading begins at verse 24. This is the hopeful part! The lection begins with the cosmos in disorder (24-27), followed by a fig tree parable (28-33), followed by a "lord" parable (33-37).
An accurate description of reality: The powers of the cosmos are shaken. Stars fall out of heaven. The universe is in turmoil, discombobulated, turned upside down. This is an apt description of life in revolutionary times. The world is in crisis.
That being the case, the stage is set for the appearance of the "son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory." This recalls Daniel--"As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven" (7: 13).
The first thing the son of man does is to send his angels to gather up everything "from the uttermost parts of earth just as the uttermost parts of heaven." This is reminiscent of the anacephelaiososthai ta panta--the "gathering up of all things into the head"--spoken of by Iraneus, c. AD 160. The powers having fallen, the new age begins with complete heavenly and earthly renewal.
Parable of the fig tree: Jesus tells his listeners to "learn" the parable (parabole) of the fig tree. (This is the only use of mathete--"learn/follow"--in Mark's gospel.)
The parable suggests that one can gauge aspects of earthly time simply through observing nature. Leaves appearing on trees means that summer is near. Similarly, Mark understands the signs produced in revolutionary times to be indications of the Lord's coming. The tumult of the cosmos is a sign that he is near.
The fig tree is a symbol of the Temple throughout Mark. That the fig tree "produces leaves" is said by some to mean that the Temple is capable of renewal. This falters, however, when one remembers that the fig tree that Jesus had already cursed in 11:13 was "nothing but leaves."
More likely: Even when the Temple appears to be blossoming, such as, for example, during a time of nationalistic and religious fervor, it is still corrupt and incapable of renewal--perhaps especially then. It is at just such a time, the flowering of religious power that precedes its collapse, that the son of man is "near at the door."
What is revealed: What will soon be revealed is the way of the cross as opposed to the way of military and religious triumphalism. In other words, the messiah appears all right, but the messiah is a "crucified God" who, paradoxically, reigns from the cross. "This generation will not pass away" until it has seen this "crucified God" manifest. Quite true. In fact, it will happen in just a few days when Jesus is crucified.
This has nothing to do with chronological time. It is not about days and hours. "You do not know when the time is"--kairos in Greek, which means the "time of God." God's time is not necessarily at the end of the age. That is mere chronological time. God's time can be, and is, every moment of every hour.
The parable of the householder opens in a typical way. The householder is "sent away". In his absence, he gives his slaves "authority"--exousian, power, ability, liberty. They each have their own task, including especially the doorkeeper who watches for one who is "near at the door."
Suddenly, the "lord of the house" returns. He left a "man"--anthropon--and returns a "lord"--kyrie. The lord may come "either evening, or midnight, or cock-crow, or morning." These four designations of time are also known as the four watches of the Roman guard.
Each one of those watches points to a significant moment in the coming passion of Jesus. Evening is the time of the last supper (14:17). Midnight is the general time of Peter's denial (14:30). Cock-crow is the specific time of his denial (14:30, 72). The following morning, Jesus was handed over to the Romans (15:1). Mark's message is that the lord is near and will be made manifest in the cross.
Discern!: The last four verses of the lection exhort the followers of Jesus to "keep awake" and "watch." The first exhortation, however, is not gregoreite--"keep awake"--but blepete, which the NRSV translates as "beware," but which I think should be translated "discern." Blepete means "to see" or "to perceive." Jesus is exhorting his listeners to discern what is going on. Read the times!
The ensuing call to "keep alert" is in contrast to sleep. The struggle between staying awake and falling asleep will mark the disciples in the following story of Gethsemene. There, despite Jesus' explicit instruction, the disciples will fall asleep. For Mark, this is yet another failure of the disciples. Moreover, at each "watch," the disciples will fail again.
The exhortation to "keep alert" and "watch" is not unique to Mark, of course. In fact, it is one of the most common exhortations throughout the New Testament. It has nothing to do with reading tea leaves in an attempt to figure out "the day and hour." It has everything to do with discernment, to see the crucified God in his paradoxical triumph, and to wait and watch with expectation for the revealing of the Lord's presence here and now.
Image: Apocalypse again, Jan Richardson