“He told them this parable: ‘Look at the fig-tree and all the trees.30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
32 ‘Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
34 ‘Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.’” (Luke 21: 28-36)
The reference to a fig tree would normally suggest a parable about Israel, but the scale of association is immediately widened to include “all the trees.” That is to say, this prophetic utterance begins with Israel, but it widens its perspective to eventually include “the whole earth.”
There are a number of thoughts that connect here, like wires to a telegraph pole. The first is the fate of Jerusalem, over which Jesus both wept and prophesied destruction. The second was his own fate, to suffering and death, to which he had continually referred, despite the incomprehension of his nearest friends. And the third was the fate of “all those who live on the face of the whole earth.”
Now, in a profound sense, these three events are intrinsically linked, and Jesus underlines this connection as solemnly as possible: “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
So who is “this generation”? How can we connect the death of Jesus in about 30 AD with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the End of the World at some unspecified future date?
(Which will occur a week next Tuesday, if that fella got his sums right).
No amount of interpretive sleight-of-hand can fully satisfy here. Dates and schemes and discussion about “partial fulfilment” and so forth do no more than confuse the clear words of Jesus. None of the explanations given match the data, which take you back, squarely, to the events of that first Easter.
The key point to remember is that the phrase “this generation” would have been as provocative and challenging to the first readers of Luke’s gospel as it is to us.
That is to say, the phrase has to be understood spiritually.
The connecting link between the three events is found in the last verse quoted above: “Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
So the real question is: are you able to stand before the Son of man? Or rather: Are you standing up for him or standing against him?
The reaction of the crowd at Pilate’s trial, baying for blood, lay just a little while in the future. The Messiah of Israel was about to be rejected. And Jesus connected that event with the end of Jerusalem, and through that, to the end of history. And “on such a tiny hinge, the whole world turns.”
We are in the position of the false tenants in Luke 20, who are called upon to decide how to receive the son of their lord. And their future relationship with that lord depends upon their choice.
When John referred to “the lamb slain before the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8) he gave an eternal, (or rather, timeless) perspective to God’s sacrifice for us. It suggests that the cross of Christ is the way that God lives towards us, eternally,. Consequently, our response to that sacrifice is always called for, whether in the first or the twenty-first century, and we are judged on the decision we make.
Of course, it is easy enough to sidestep that decision by a variety of careless life-choices, so “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap.” There are three options for non-decision listed here. “Carousing” suggests an active hedonism, a seeking of pleasure to the exclusion of all else. “Drunkeness” here suggests a kind of stupefaction, a total inattention to what’s going on. “Anxieties” sounds a little more responsible to those raised to a Protestant work ethic (!), but they are nonetheless listed here as a distraction from the serious business of standing before the Son of Man.
And “this generation” will be called to account, when the Day closes suddenly, like a trap.