On November 15, I posted Apocalypse Now? in which I stated that “there is one line, however, that we must return to in another post – ‘truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place’ - for it is a promise difficult to interpret and the source of a lot of (genuine and understandable) confusion. To what things does Jesus refer? What generation does he describe? We have the promise, but is this line a promise gone awry? More on this in the future.” A reader, Beth Cioffeletti, said that “all of the readings for today are disconcerting. I look forward to what you have to say about "this generation". I don't know what to think about it!” Since my original post, and Beth’s response, I have been thinking about how to respond and how to do justice to this passage both historically and theologically. A couple of conferences, Thanksgiving and the end of semester left me with little time, but I have been pondering the passage since the middle of November, eager to respond.
The best approach, it seems to me, is to cut right to the chase with the issue raised by the line from Mark 13:30, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place,” and it is a straightforward issue: was Jesus mistaken? Some have claimed that this is indeed the case, that Jesus was not aware of when the end would come and that he was simply wrong in that it did not occur immediately following the events of the Passion as he supposed it would. This points to his human fallibility - he was wrong! Others have argued that he was even unaware of the events that were to unfold in Jerusalem and it was his disciples, the Church post-resurrection, who made sense of his death as a salvific, atoning death. On this count, Jesus was mistaken about who he was as well as the apocalyptic events that he thought were about to unveil themselves.
I think, however, that there is another approach and it involves returning to foundational questions: what is a prophet? What is the task of a prophet? What is apocalyptic thought? How do apocalyptic maxims function with respect to the “end”? These need to be clear before we can make sense of Jesus’ words. If Jesus was a prophet – which I believe – then he must fulfill the task of the prophet. Popularly, this is thought of as making predictions about the future, but the prophet has a more basic role: to speak the word of God. Sometimes this involves the prophet in prediction, but more often it involves the prophet in calling the current generation to repentance and back to God, to wake up and stay alert to God’s Word and Spirit. Yet, even when it does concern the future, is it “prediction” in the popular sense? Do the prophets of God ever work within a “timeline,” in which they speak deliberately and concretely about June 12th, 2087, for example, as the “last day”? They do not.
Prophets speak in the idiom of symbol and there is “an irreducible disparity between this symbol and the actuality of events” (Ben F. Meyer, “Jesus’ Scenario of the Future” in Christus Faber, 56). Jesus spoke God’s word in announcing the coming end and it seems that this is not equitable with a determinate knowledge of historical events or how they will unfold. The apocalyptic end is always announced in the tense of imminence: soon and very soon all these things will take place. It is possible that in participating with the Divine, the prophet glimpses what is to come, what is to be, the eternal now, which is beyond notions of human chronology. Meyer cautions that “we should not naively imagine that any prophet ever had before his inner eye the kind of scenario that history, on cue, might literally follow” (“Jesus’ Scenario of the Future,” 55). So why then does Jesus speak of “this generation” and “all these things” which must take place before it passes?
Prophets, apocalyptic or otherwise, can only speak to the generation in front of them. What would it mean to say to Jesus’ present generation, “some fifty generations from now all these things will come to pass”? Every generation must prepare for its own passing, and each of us must be ready to stand before God. Yet, that is not intended to indicate that I do not think Jesus thought the apocalyptic end – “all these things” - was not imminent. I believe that Jesus believed, and taught, that his Passion and Resurrection would set in motion the imminent establishment of the Kingdom of God, which was construed as fulfilling the apocalyptic scenario outlined in Mark 13 and elsewhere in the Gospels. That Jesus, as prophet, was not given a human timeline does not mean he was wrong. His Passion and Resurrection have established the Kingdom, but the apocalyptic scenario has not yet fully come to pass, and the way in which God brings it to pass, and when, is something opaque to us, something for which we yearn and long. If Jesus imagined that the end in its apocalyptic fullness would be established with the events of his Passion and Resurrection in days or perhaps weeks, God’s plan has unfolded throughout history in a new and different way, extending “this generation” to include our ancestors, ourselves, and perhaps even many more generations to come.
What did generations prior to us make of this prophecy? Our answer rests in the presence and reality of the Church and the millions upon millions of Christians who grasped (and grasp) Jesus’ hope as a promise fulfilled and a promise still to be fulfilled. They saw God’s timeline as unfolding in ways mysterious and puzzling - as Paul writes in another but related context: "how unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" (Romans 11:33). But Christians also saw this time as an opportunity to preach the Gospel, to serve the poor, and to grow closer to God. I cited Meyer earlier describing the disparity between the prophetic idiom of symbol and the actuality of events; he ends his essay by stating that “this disparity is not well described as error. None of the prophets were mistaken, least of all the greatest of them” (“Jesus’ Scenario of the Future,” 56). This is what I believe.
But what do you think? Is this special pleading regarding the literal meaning of these words? How does this impact the relationship between Jesus' humanity and divinity - keeping in mind that Mark 13:32 also has Jesus say that "about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father"?
John W. Martens