Luke appears to be the first author of the Christian Scriptures to presume Jesus’ Parousia won’t take place during his lifetime. Paul and Luke’s two gospel predecessors - Mark and Matthew - faithfully held onto the hope that Jesus’ Second Coming was just around the corner. By the mid-80s, Luke has given up that hope. He takes for granted he and his readers will live their whole lives, die natural deaths, and only then experience their personal Parousias.
Once Christians begin to believe Jesus isn’t coming back anytime soon, they’re forced to look at their lives of faith from a different perspective. As a once-upon-a-time assistant high school track coach, I know the difference between sprinters and distance runners. Their training isn’t the same. Luke is attempting to turn early Christians sprinters into marathoners. That’s one of the factors influencing today’s gospel pericope.
Though the evangelist still believes Jesus will return one day, that belief should no longer be the focus of our behavior. Luke continually tries to take the eyes of his readers off Jesus’ Parousia and refocus them on their daily lives. Since they’re going to be “in it” for the long run, he warns them to “be on guard lest your spirits become bloated with indulgence and drunkenness and worldly cares . . . . Pray constantly for the strength to escape whatever is in prospect, and to stand secure before the Son of Man.”
Because of this new emphasis, it makes sense, for instance, that, when in 9:23 Luke copies Jesus’ command from Mark about carrying one’s cross, he adds one significant word: “daily.”
Yet even when Paul composes the earliest Christian writing we possess - I Thessalonians - he also finds it necessary to stress the importance of paying attention to our daily activities. “May the Lord increase you,” he writes, “and make you overflow with love for one another and for all, even as our love does for you.
Now, my brothers and sisters, we beg and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that, even as you learned from us how to conduct ourselves in a way pleasing to God - which you are indeed doing - so must you learn to make still greater progress.”
In some sense, the only difference between Paul and Luke’s morality is that the former’s community has one eye on giving themselves to one another and one eye on the heavens, expecting Jesus’ imminent return, while the latter is focusing both eyes on their relationships with others.
It should be clear by now that whether Jesus returns in one minute or in one million years (as Teilhard de Chardin suggested), we should be concerned with loving one another.
Even without Jesus in the picture, Jeremiah agrees on the love aspect of life. Active during a period when Jewish kings left a lot to be desired, the prophet looks toward a future in which a better king will appear. At that time, Yahweh will “raise up for David a just shoot; he shall do what is right and just in the land.” Things will be so good during his reign that people will begin calling Jerusalem “Yahweh is our justice.”
Remembering that biblical justice is the way our sacred authors speak about the proper relationships we build with God and those around us, Jeremiah is promising that when that perfect king appears, he’ll follow Yahweh’s lead and concentrate on perfecting those relationships.
No matter what the future holds, unless we’re found giving ourselves generously to others, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble, whether later today, or at the end of our lives.