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Mark 13:24-37

Mark 13:24-37 is part of Jesus’s last discourse to his disciples before his crucifixion. In most of this discourse (v.5-37), he is giving a formulated farewell address that would be familiar to audiences of antiquity. Leaders usually gave these types of addresses to their followers before they exited a drama or narrative, and most often contained, “exhortations to vigilance, predictions of things to come, commissions or prohibitions, and authoritative pronouncements.”[1] This proves true in Christ’s own goodbye monologue; however, he gives special attention to the “things to come” that will portend the destruction of the temple. For in verse 2, Jesus nonchalantly mentions that the temple will suffer obliteration, and so his speech is primarily answering the disciples’ question asked in v.4, “what will be the signs that the destruction of the temple is about to occur, and when will it happen?”

The disciples are interested in this question for two reasons. First, the temple was central to Israel’s identity as a covenant people of God, and, hence, its destruction would represent a schism between God and God’s people. Second, the worshippers in the temple believed that the human-divine interaction that happened in that sacred space physically held creation together, and protected it from total annihilation.[2] A rather solipsistic notion no doubt, yet one which was common among the children of Israel during this era. Our section, however, focuses on the last three forecasts made by Christ during his ominous departing oration.

The first of the three (v.24-7) is a prediction of cosmic convulsion and supernatural apocalypticism. Before the temple falls, some event will cause the sun to go dark, and the stars to plummet from the heavens. Second, there follows some obscure musings about God’s immanent judgment being akin to the fruit of a fig tree (v.28-31). I take it to mean that we must remain prepared for the day of the Lord, for if we are not ripe at the precise moment of it’s coming, we, like the immature fig, will not be harvested. The last section is a warning (v.32-7). It cautions the reader that the exact day of judgment cannot be known. Hence, the faithful should not speculate the moment of day of the Lord, but remain vigilante and attentive to the appearance of God’s Reign.

In my read, the last part of Christ’s departing words is the most helpful to 21st century readers. This is not say that the first two are completely arcane or inane; indeed, with the possibility of nuclear war and the slow destruction of the earth via global climate change, the cosmic apocalypticism in these verses are more relevant than I’d like them to be. Likewise, the fig parable points toward the importance of discipleship, even though that concept remains vague in the context of these verses. But the third section applies most readily to our current situation.

The last words that Jesus says to his disciples and “to all” of his followers who hear the Gospel of Mark are essentially, “stay woke” (v. 37). Judging from the mini-parable about a master going away and leaving the slaves of his house in charge, one might initially think Jesus is warning us to be ready for his return (v. 34-6). And one can read it that way. However, I think there is a more germane interpretation especially for our time.

Essentially, I’d like to argue that what we ought to hear in Christ’s “stay woke” is not a demand for passivity; one which grants us the privilege of waiting around while creation goes to hell in a handbasket with the assurance that Christ will, at some point, come back and save us from ourselves. No. We are not so lucky. And discipleship is neither so removed from the world, nor is it as easy as sharpening our “spiritual gifts” or any other ephemeral pop-Christian attribute you can think of. Don’t get me wrong—spiritual disciplines are important and provide us the energy to do the work God’s call us to. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. My point is that Jesus’s “stay woke” is vastly more outward-looking if we critically engage the mini-parable of the master’s house and his slaves’ duties during his absence. Ostensibly, we are the slaves in this parable, and Christ is the master.

At the outset, though, let’s admit this parable is problematic. I will engage this text on its own terms, but I believe it’s important to first take responsibility of the text’s icky parts and history of interpretation before doing so. We are not outside history, and neither is the text. Thinking the Christian/God relationship as one of slave/master is irresponsible. To begin, as Wesleyans we understand our relationship with God is more complex and intimate than a unilateral relationship where one party has all the power. We are, after all, given the gift and burden of “choice” or free will. The slave never gets to choose. Second, I’d like to avoid this comparison because there was a time in America where people justified and perpetuated the enslavement of men, women, and children, by citing Paul’s slave/master allegory for the Christian/Christ relationship. Despite these negative associations, however, I believe the text can be read fruitfully.

My main take away from the parable in relation to Christ’s “stay woke,” is that there is work to do, and we are the ones who must do it—i.e., God is not going to do the work for us while we sit on our laurels. When the “master” (Christ) leaves, the “slaves” (we) are left to figure out how to run the estate on their own. Sure, the slaves are left with instructions and guidelines (v.34), but the master is away. He or She cannot ensure each task is completed, nor can they micro-manage every detail of operations. Indeed, by leaving, the master has expressed great trust in his or her servants. For the work is building God’s New Creation, and this work does not simply stop when Jesus is out of the office. Hence, Christ’s order to remain vigilant is a commission. It says “do my work, make my estate here as it is in heaven.” This command is political. The estate is not the church in this story, it is the world; God is not for the church, but for the world. God is the world’s creator, and its master. As God’s church, therefore, we too are for the world, and are to make God’s New Creation, here and now, even when the master is away.

So, what does this mean, contextually speaking? One item of relevance is boldness and truth-speaking from the pulpit. Recently, a friend told me that after years of not going to church he decided to attend a Sunday service while on a business trip. He said he left assured more than ever that he’s not ready to attend church regularly. The priest had drawn a blatantly political text, but instead of doing the text justice, the priest equivocated for half an hour. He failed to mention the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, which had happened only the day before. He failed to side with those who resisted the white supremacists. And he failed to condemn our president for creating an environment where Neo-Nazis and other hate groups feel confident enough to express their opinions openly.

There are, of course, other ways to build and cultivate God’s New Creation besides preaching. However, now more than ever, people—especially young folks not usually in church on Sundays—are in need of moral and religious leadership that is principled and brave and consistent. If they wander into your sanctuaries, please offer that to them. Do not forget that the Master entrusted you with the well-being of this property. And ask yourself, “do I really want the Master to comeback and find it in its current state?”

Stay woke, friends.

—Jesus (Mark 13:37)

[1] C. Clifton Black, “Mark,” in New Interpreters Bible: One Volume Commentary (Abingdon Press, Nashville TN, 2010), 672.

[2] Ibid.