The ‘coming’ of Jesus in Mark 13

With the turn of the lectionary year, next Sunday we are in the first Sunday of Advent in Year B, and our gospel reading of Mark 13.24–37 plunges us straight into the questions around the anticipation of Jesus’ return at The End. (It is worth noting that there is no compelling (theo)logical reason why this should be connected with Christmas. The incarnation is described in terms of God’s coming to his people in the person of Jesus, for example in the opening of Mark or the Benedictus in Luke 1; but the return of Jesus at the end to complete the work of the kingdom of God, and finally unite heaven and earth, is never described as the ‘Second Coming’ in the New Testament, and instead  is consistently paired with the Ascension rather than the incarnation.)

Our passage comprises the two closing sections of Mark 13, which is parallel to the first part of Matt 24 and is known as either the Olivet Discourse (since it is set on the Mount of Olives) or the Little Apocalypse, because there are connections in structure and language with parts of the Book of Revelation. It is striking that, where the parable of the sower in Mark 4 (which seems relatively straightforward to the modern reader) provokes expressions of puzzlement and prompts a request for explanation by the disciples, this teaching seems to be received with perfect comprehension—whilst it leaves us baffled and confused. This should sound a warning note to the contemporary reader!

There are three main ways this has been read:

1. The ‘traditional’ approach, which goes back at least as far as Jerome in the fourth century, that this is primarily about the ‘end of the world’ though with specific predictions about the destruction of the temple mixed in.

This has a number of problems to it:

The main one is Jesus stern saying in v 30 ‘Amen I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.’ There is some wriggling about the meaning of genea embedded in an NIV footnote as ‘race’—but all other uses of this in Mark (and the other gospels) make it clear that it really does mean ‘this generation’, that is, the people alive at the time Jesus was speaking. Mary Ann Beavis, in her 2011 Paideia commentary, say that this saying ’emphasises the authority of this discourse; the word of Jesus has the stature of the word of God, which is flawless and precedes the creation of the heavens and the earth’ (p 201)

What is wrong with surveillance capitalism?

Mark Ireland writes: Our dependence on technology has been highlighted by the lockdown, as many congregations have discovered the benefits of Zoom, YouTube and Facebook. However, two events in the news recently have shown the digital revolution has dangers as well as benefits, in a world where knowledge is power.

In the UK the exams fiasco has shown the danger of making life-changing decisions about people on the basis of computer algorithms. Algorithms, which have the aura of impartiality, will always be unfair for some since they are based on probabilities. They also tend to have biases embedded within them because of the limited world-views of those (predominantly white males) who develop them. Distortions also creep in when the data is itself flawed, having been inputted by poorly paid, isolated workers in the gig economy, as Simon Cross highlighted (Church Times Comment, 7 August).  

In the USA a Congressional Committee has interviewed the CEOs of the four big tech companies (Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook) and concluded that too much power has been concentrated into the hands of too few, and regulation is needed. The chair commented that Google has evolved from being a turnstile giving access to the internet into a walled garden designed to keep competitors out, either putting competitors out of business or taking them over.

Over the last few weeks I have been reading Shoshana Zuboff’s timely and prophetic book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Profile Books, 2019), in which she shows how Google and Facebook use their knowledge about the most intimate details of our lives gleaned from our search histories on the internet, from reading all our emails, from the things we ‘like’ on Facebook and the fitbits and healthapps we use, not only to predict our behaviour and sell advertising individually targeted to us, but also to sell that information to those who mould and change our beliefs and our behaviour.

This financial model has brought huge profits but incentivises companies to increase the knowledge they have about us, by whatever means. The concepts of personalisation and the connected home, where machines anticipate our every need before we realise it, extends surveillance into ever more intimate spaces, as we let computers record and screen our conversations via gadgets like Alexa and Echo.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 transformed the attitude of big government to the big tech companies. Having previously attempted to regulate them in the name of privacy, suddenly the US government and others realised that the best way to prevent future global terror attacks was to harness the tech companies’ knowledge, monitoring the world’s population on a much more sustained and intrusive level, to detect behaviour and personality types before a crime was ever committed.

The ‘parable’ of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25

The gospel reading in the lectionary for the last Sunday before Advent (now known as ‘Christ the King’) is Matthew 25.31–46, the so-called ‘parable of the sheep and the goats’. But it isn’t actually a parable (since there is no suggestion that ‘the kingdom of heaven is like this’), and isn’t really about sheep and goats … Continue Reading

Who is welcome in the people of God?

I write a column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible and the ideas that it expresses. The first one was on the phrase ‘Word of God’, and second on ‘Justice’, the third on ‘Mission’, the fourth on ‘Apocalypse‘, and the fifth on healing. This one, to … Continue Reading

Should church buildings close during lockdowns?

When the first lockdown was announced on 23rd March this year, it was followed fairly swiftly by the announcement from Church of England bishops that, going beyond what was legally required or requested, that church buildings should be shut definitively. Not only were there to be no physical gatherings of congregations, clergy were not to … Continue Reading

Do we have a theology of the laity?

Following my article exploring whether there is a real theological distinction to be made between the ‘clergy’ and the ‘laity’, there was some interesting discussion online, and out of that John Griffiths passed me the article he wrote on the theology of the laity, which was published in The Reader Magazine (now titled Transforming Ministry) … Continue Reading