By Herb Montgomery
"Then he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed all of them—it will be like that on the day that the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, anyone on the housetop who has belongings in the house must not come down to take them away; and likewise anyone in the field must not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it. I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.” Then they asked him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (Luke 17.22-37)
What must be kept in mind from the beginning is that just as Matthew 5-7 is a Sermon on the Mount given by Jesus to his “disciples” and Luke 6 is a sermon on the plain spoken to “the people,” so the Olivet discourse given to “the disciples” in Matthew 24 is a Temple discourse given to “the people” in Luke’s gospel (Luke 21) , as is the passage we are looking at this week spoken to both a Pharisee and Jesus’ disciples in Luke 17.
Where I believe the majority of modern commentators run into problems is that they try and force Luke 21 and Luke 17 (as well as Matthew 24) into either being primarily about the destruction of Jerusalem or primarily about the Second Coming. They are primarily about neither, but rather about the coming of the Nonviolent Kingdom and Reign of Christ on earth as it is in heaven. Two quick words of caution for both audiences. First, I want you to know from the very beginning that I believe in a literal second coming of Jesus that is still in the future, although I believe the passages in the gospels that are traditionally believed to be speaking of Jesus’ second coming are really speaking of the coming of the Bar Enasha (the Son of Man and the new community centered in him; see Daniel 7.13,14 which is also about the coming of Christ’s Kingdom, not the “second” coming.) and the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom instead.
In other words, the second coming and the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom are not the same event in the gospels. Christ’s Kingdom, according to Jesus, was actually established on this earth through the events of the first coming of Jesus, although His kingdom today is in its obstructed form. Also, secondly, the destruction of Jerusalem (which actually was the result of Judaism’s rejection of a nonviolent Messiah and the possibility of a nonviolent Kingdom, and their choice of violent, militaristic revolution against Rome instead) would now be a part of the history that would surround the coming of Christ’s nonviolent, enemy-embracing Kingdom.
That means certain pieces of these passages may refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in so much as it plays a part in the overall scheme of the prophecies, yet these prophecies are not primarily about the destruction of Jerusalem, but the coming of Christ’s nonviolent reign on earth. This will become clear as we progress through the passage.
Let’s start to unpack the passage this week. Please keep in mind, problems arise with these passages only when we try to make these words primarily about either the destruction of Jerusalem, or the literal second coming, rather than the establishment of Christ’s nonviolent Kingdom on earth.
“Then he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.”
Within the cultural context of Jesus’ message of nonviolent, enemy embracing, enemy love, and forgiveness, was a document highly regarded by the Pharisees entitled The Rule of the Messiah (or The Rule of the Congregation, depending on your source). [which suggested that] the coming of the Messiah, and the establishment of the kingdom of the “Son of Man” (see Daniel 7.13,14) would be ushered in by a violent war between the Messiah and Israel’s enemies. [Jews believed] Jerusalem would be established through the violent destruction of Jerusalem’s enemies.
When Jesus uses the phrase here, “the days of the Son of Man” of which the disciples would long for, Jesus is referring to the contemporary beliefs surrounding how the kingdom of the “Son of Man” would be established. Jesus clearly says that a coming of the “Son of Man” that looks like The Rule of the Messiah that “you will not see.” It won’t be happening like that at all. On the contrary, he says that because of Jerusalem’s rejection of a nonviolent Messiah in favor of a violent one, Jerusalem will now be the victim of destruction at the hands of her enemies, rather than the other way around.
This was a blatant contradiction of the contemporary beliefs of the coming of the Kingdom of the “Son of Man” as presented in The Rule of The Messiah. To give you a taste of how this document reads, after the mass destruction of Jerusalem’s enemies, there is a banquet spoken of, of which it reads:
“At a session of the men of renown, those summoned to the gathering of the community council, when God begets the Messiah with them: the chief priest of all the congregation of Israel shall enter, and all his brothers, the sons of Aaron, the priests summoned to the assembly, the men of renown, and they shall sit before him, each one according to his dignity. After, the Messiah [War Lord] of Israel shall enter and before him shall sit the heads of the thousands of Israel, each one according to his dignity, according to his position in their camps and according to their marches. ... And when they gather at the table of community or to drink the new wine, and the table of the community is prepared and the new wine is mixed for drinking, no-one should stretch out his hand to the first-fruit of the bread and of the new wine before the priest, for he is the one who blesses the first-fruit of the bread and of the new wine and stretches out his hand towards the bread before them. Afterwards, the Messiah of Israel shall stretch out his hands toward the bread. And afterwards, they shall bless all the congregation of the community, each one according to his dignity. And in accordance with this precept one shall act at each meal, when at least ten men are gathered.”
It is this document, this portrayal of how the Kingdom of the “Son of Man” will be ushered in, that Jesus repeatedly contradicts in passages such as Luke 14 and in his last supper in Luke 22. But the comparison of these will have to wait for another time.
What Jesus is sharing in this passage in Luke 17 is that not only will Jesus’ Kingdom not be established with this type of violence, but because of Jerusalem’s rejection of enemy love, enemy forgiveness, enemy embracing, and nonviolence, in Jerusalem’s future now lies her own destruction, rather than that of her enemies.
“They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit.”
[Please see Part 5 for a full treatment of this section.] Suffice it to say here that Jesus is saying that the Kingdom will not come through a violent insurrection against Rome as Jesus’ contemporaries were expecting.
“For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.”
I believe Jesus is saying here that the Kingdom of the “Son of Man” rooted in Daniel 7.13,14 would not come the way The Rule of the Messiah had spoken, but rather it would be a light in the heavens, lighting up the dark night sky, “from the east as far as the west.” It would be radically more inclusive than they had understood or were willing to embrace. It would include those in the east as well as those in the west, as a light to both, bringing reconciliation, restoration, and healing.
“But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation.”
In this passage, Jesus clearly believes he will be rejected rather than embraced. This makes the next passages extremely insightful.
“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed all of them—it will be like that on the day that the Son of Man is revealed.”
Look at these stunning parallels Jesus is making:
Noah had preached 1) of a coming destruction, 2) of a way to prevent that destruction, and was 3) rejected by his generation, which 4) lead to that generation’s destruction.
In the exact same pattern, Jesus had come 1) warning of a coming destruction upon Jerusalem if they continued on their current path of an eye for an eye retaliation and violence toward their enemies; 2) presented a way to prevent that destruction through embracing his “narrow path” of nonviolent, enemy embracing, enemy love, and forgiveness; just like Noah, was 3) being rejected by his generation; and 4) this rejection would also end in the generation of Jesus’ day being annihilated by Rome.
The parallels between the days of Lot and Jesus’ ministry are just as stunning. Jesus, just like the messengers in Lot’s day, had come to Jerusalem warning of a coming destruction. Jesus came with a way to escaping that destruction by abandoning the way of eye-for-an-eye retribution and retaliation against Rome, and instead, embracing the path of nonviolent, enemy love.
Just as Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed by fire, so too would Jerusalem face destruction by fire as a result of remaining on the path of violent revolt.
Jerusalem would see this too late, and would become aware; it would be “revealed” to her in the midst of this fiery destruction that Jesus was right. There is a violent path that seems right to mankind, but the end thereof is death. Jesus’ Kingdom, the way of nonviolence, would be seen (would be revealed) to truly be the way of life when Jerusalem’s reluctance to let go of violence would end in her going up in smoke—a smoke that would ascend forever and ever.
“On that day, anyone on the housetop who has belongings in the house must not come down to take them back; and likewise anyone in the field must not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.”
This passage is so closely related to Jesus’ words in Luke 9.23 that it is a wonder that so many scholars have missed it:
“Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it’” (emphasis added).
This is another clear case of where today there will be those who see in this the destruction of Jerusalem, as well as those who argue for an application of the second coming. I’m submitting that it is primarily about neither, but rather about the two paths we have been seeing continually in each of the eight final prophecies of Jesus concerning Jerusalem. Remember, the choice was nonviolence or nonexistence. It was a choice between two paths: 1) nonviolent, enemy embracing, enemy forgiving, enemy love; or 2) eye-for-an-eye retaliation and retributive, violent resistance against the Romans.
Luke’s use of these words of Jesus is unmistakable. To come down off the rooftop to “take back” one’s belongings that are being threatened is to try to resist Roman occupation through violent insurrection. The word Jesus uses here for those who come down to “take them back” is the Greek word “airo.” It is the same word used early on by Jesus in His Sermon on the Plain: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away [Airo] your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods [Airo], do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Jesus was warning of a time when Rome would come and Airo the possessions of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and even then, Jesus was saying the Kingdom response’s would be to NOT “Airo” [take] your possessions back through violent insurrection but to turn the other cheek, love, and turn those possessions into a gift.
I’m reminded of Victor Hugo’s priest, who instead of “taking back” [Airo] the candlesticks Jean Valjean had stolen, simply gave them to him as a gift, thus bringing radical transformation to the heart of a thief. To come down to “take back” one’s goods was to “turn back” to try and fight against Rome’s soldiers through violent retaliation in an endeavor to “save” one’s life, to try and make one’s “life secure” through violent means against the threat of violence from Rome. This is the exact opposite of what Jesus has been saying ever since Luke 6. To be willing to let go of Jewish pride, and of a vision of the Kingdom rooted in the destruction of one’s enemies; to seek the eternal welfare of the Romans over and above making one’s own life secure; to abandon the tribal nationalism of Judaism in favor of losing one’s life, even for the coming of the nonviolent, enemy-embracing Kingdom of the “Son of Man”—THIS is what it means to choose between “taking goods back” or “turning back” to violently protect possessions and one’s life, and learning the way of nonviolent noncooperation. Jesus equates the path of violent retaliation against a Roman attack as akin to when Lot’s wife turned back to try and save her possessions from destruction.
Jesus then drives the point home:
“I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.”
From the beginning, Jesus has been contrasting two paths: the narrow path of nonviolent noncooperation, which could create a whole new world; or the wide path of violent retaliation, which leaves the whole world blindly escalating toward annihilation. Here Jesus personifies each option by two in a bed and two grinding meal. The one who chooses the path of violence will be “taken” away,” while the one who chooses nonviolence will be “left.” The one who seeks to “make their life secure” will be “taken,” they “will lose it.” While those who choose the path of nonviolent noncooperation, those who are willing to “lose their life” will be “left,” they will “keep it.”
“Then they asked him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”
The question is asked “Where? Where will they be taken, Lord?” And Jesus’ answer is most likely the one phrase in the entire passage that would have created the greatest paradigm shift in the entire conversation, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” Here, Jesus is referencing Ezekiel’s prophecy in Ezekiel 39 and combining it with Isaiah’s prophecy in Isaiah 25. Space does not permit me to quote both of these passages at length, but I would like you to go back and read each of these for yourself.
Ezekiel 39 is the prophecy that Israel will be restored, while Israel’s enemies are destroyed. In verses 17-19, Ezekiel prophesizes, “As for you, mortal, thus says the Lord GOD: Speak to the birds of every kind and to all the wild animals: Assemble and come, gather from all around to the sacrificial feast that I am preparing for you, a great sacrificial feast on the mountains of Israel, and you shall eat flesh and drink blood. You shall eat the flesh of the MIGHTY, and drink the blood of THE PRINCES OF THE EARTH—of rams, of lambs, and of goats, of bulls, all of them fatlings of Bashan. You shall eat fat until you are filled, and drink blood until you are drunk, at the sacrificial feast that I am preparing for you. And you shall be filled at my table with WARHORSES and BATTLE CHARIOTEERS, with WARRIORS and all kinds of SOLDIERS, says the Lord GOD.”
What Jesus is doing here is amazing. He is taking Ezekiel’s prophecy concerning the fate of Israel’s enemies, turning it on its head (Jeremiah 18.5-10), and using Ezekiel’s imagery to prophesize about what would actually happen to Israel herself at the hands of her enemies because of her failure to forsake violence and embrace the nonviolence of Jesus as their Messianic hope. Just stop and think about that. Isaiah prophesized in Isaiah 25:
“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for ALL PEOPLES a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over ALL PEOPLES, the sheet that is spread over ALL NATIONS; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. For the hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain.”
Isaiah prophesized of the restoration of Israel, which would include all peoples of every nation, kindred, and tongue. Yet those of Jesus’ day would rather embrace the eschatology of The Rule of the Messiah, which spoke of Israel’s enemies being annihilated by the Messiah, leaving only the Jewish nation itself. Jesus is combining both of these “banquet” prophesies (Ezekiel’s and Isaiah’s) alongside of the “banquet” prophecy of The Rule of the Messiah, and then gives the final blow, “there the vultures will gather.” The word here for “vulture” could be translated as “eagle” equally as well as “vulture.” Rome’s national symbol was the eagle. Surely the eagles of Rome would soon be circling Jerusalem if they continued to refuse the path of nonviolence.
Luke’s continuing context confirms our interpretation of Jesus’ words. Luke follows all this up with Luke 18, where Jesus gives the parable of the unjust judge, who refuses to be moved, for those who might feel that Jesus’ nonviolence doesn’t seem to be working, saying that they should not give up, and they should keep praying and keep loving.
Then Luke has Jesus once again contrasting the two paths (narrow/life vs. wide/death) of violence and nonviolence: the two in bed and the two grinding grain, with the two who went to the temple to pray.
What is deeply profound is that Jesus places the Pharisees, who consider themselves more favored by God than anyone else, in the category of the ones who are “taken,” while the Jewish tax-collector, who sought the path of “mercy,” is in the category of those who would be “left.”
Much to ponder for sure.
In Luke 17.6, Luke records the words of Jesus:
“The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you.’”
Mulberry trees in this region were over twenty feet tall, but something as small as a mustard seed could uproot it, according to Jesus. What was this seemly insignificant, small means of accomplishing such a significant task? Jesus was clear. Faith in Jesus’s teaching on enemy love, enemy forgiveness, nonviolent, enemy embracing, noncooperation, to believe in nonviolent enemy love as the means whereby we can change the world, is to practice a faith with mustard seed qualities. Jesus was clear:
“For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.”
Today our world is enveloped in the darkness of violence. It would be good to remember that the darkest part of the night is just before the dawn. Christ’s nonviolent Kingdom will light up the dark night sky from the east to the west, showing us a better way, the way that leads to life. I want to close this series with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ arose and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ There is something in the universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying, ‘Truth crushed to earth will rise again.’” (The Gospel Messenger; 1958)
This is the same hope given to us in Jesus’ sermon on the plain (Luke 6) and repeated throughout the final eight prophecies of Jesus concerning Jerusalem in the Gospel of Luke. The Kingdom has come! It is among us! Christ’s way of nonviolent noncooperation combined with Truth and enemy love, places the means of significant world change, of healing, restoration, and reconciliation in the hands of each of us.
May the world of enemy inclusion, forgiveness, and love continue to grow through us today. We are not irrevocably fated for nonexistence. We can choose the path of nonviolence and love.
Till the only world that remains, is a world where enemy-embracing, enemy-forgiving, enemy-loving, nonviolent love reigns.