Picking up where we left off at the end of my previous post on the problem of the parousia, we now turn to what Benedict describes as “the text which lies at the heart of the problem–Jesus’ eschatological discourse describing the fall of Jerusalem in Mark 13 along with its parallels in Matt 24 and Luke 21.
Benedict begins by pointing out that Matt 24 is the only of these texts to depict the coming of the Son of Man in sudden fashion: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man” (24:27). In fact, Matthew is the only gospel to employ the term parousia.
He then turns his attention to a trio of texts–Matt 24:29-31, Mark 13:24-27, and Luke 21:25–each of which uniquely connects the fall of Jerusalem and the parousia temporally. Benedict tells us, “So far as our problem is concerned, it is extremely important to note how these two aspects–the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the parousia–are temporally related.” After pointing out that what Luke portrays “is not the end of the world but the start of a new stage in salvation history,” he turns his attention to Mark, the more challenging of the texts given the problem we have posed. “By contrast, Mark appears to present a direct temporal link between the fall of the city and the consummation of the world.” Benedict proceeds to explain that the issue is actually more complex than this, but he wraps up his discussion by acknowledging, “Nevertheless, the impression persists that the trials and tribulations entailed in the destruction of Jerusalem are connected in time with the events of the end of the world.” As a token of this, he adds later in the book, “Even in his own age, Paul believed that he had in fact offered the Gospel to the whole inhabited world. The demand that the Gospel would be preached to all the world seemed thus already fulfilled in the generation of the apostles, what the Markan Jesus calls ‘this generation.’”
As Benedict is always so good at doing, he moves to summarize and tell us what we ought to take home from his discussion: “What ought we to think of these internal divergences within the Synoptic tradition and the issue which they concern?…In the first place, the single Gospel is heard only in the quartet of the four evangelists (for John belongs there too!). The word of Jesus persists only as something heard and received by the Church.” We find Benedict stating here what he has said in many other places, which is but a echoing of Dei Verbum and the Catechism: the inerrancy of biblical texts is not to be found looking at them in isolation, but rather within the unity of the entire Word of God contained in Scripture and Tradition and lived by the Church. Hence, if Mark’s text seems to present problems, we need to look at what the other Evangelists say on the topic and evaluate Mark’s central purpose in light of that knowledge.
When it comes to the timing of the parousia and whether the early Church erred with an expectation that Christ would return in the apostolic era, Benedict argues, “The decisive point is surely that the New Testament writings leave open the nature of the difference between literary schema and reality in this connection: “Schema and reality are differently related by different authors, but none of them makes the bold claim to an identity between the two. Since what interests them is not the question of exact chronological succession or a possible causality of development but the inner unity of the whole, they are able to present their material in schematic blocs, united by schematic connections. It can only be laid out in some way that the governing affirmations of their message suggest.”
By distinguishing “schema” from “reality,” Benedict moves us away from a rigid literalism that would, in the name of reading the Bible “at face value,” miss its primary message conveyed through the literary artistry of the various sacred authors. “What interests them,” Benedict observes, is not the issue of what precise moment the Second Coming will take place. Rather, “the governing affirmations of their message” suggest something different, something we have seen in Paul’s writings on the parousia in previous posts. In dealing with the Second Coming, the biblical authors subordinate the question of timing to the question of how Christians ought to behave regardless of when Christ returns. For all we know, some biblical authors may really have thought Christ would return in their day, as many texts seem to indicate. But what Benedict helps us to see is that they are not asserting or teaching this issue of timing any more than the author of Genesis was trying to teach the timeframe of the world’s creation. Jesus may return today, or he may return millennia upon millennia from now, but Christians of all ages have to be awake and prepared no matter what. For, even if Christ doesn’t return to earth in our lifetimes, this fact remains: we each will be meeting him within a number of minutes to a number of decades, and the precise moment of this meeting will likely occur most unexpectedly.