The signs of the times

In yesterday’ post we discussed the biblical and Lucan use of the idea of judgment and the coming kingdom. Today we will consider “the signs of the time” a verse that is just outside our Sunday reading: He also said to the crowds, “When you see (a) cloud rising in the west you say immediately that it is going to rain—and so it does; 55 and when you notice that the wind is blowing from the south you say that it is going to be hot—and so it is.

The illustration (vv.54-55) seems to point to the weather patterns in the Near East. The Mediterranean Sea was to the west and winds from that direction brought rain. The desert was to the south and winds from that direction brought heat. It is not clear whether these words were spoken on the same occasion as the preceding verses. There is no direct connection. Matthew gives a similar saying in response to a request for a sign. Still, it is interesting to note that here, while Jesus is encouraging, exhorting people to “see,” he again uses the accusatory “hypocrite.” Jesus has only used this expression once before in Luke’s gospel: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,’ when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye” (Luke 6:42).

By calling them hypocrites Luke suggests that they share in the blindness of the lawyers (scholars of the law) who have “taken away the key of knowledge. You yourselves did not enter and you stopped those trying to enter” (Luke 11:52). Jesus concludes by saying that the people must interpret (12:56) and judge for themselves what is right (v.57)

“Interpret” (v. 56 twice) is a bit of a stretch as a translation of the Greek word dokimazo. The basic meaning of this word group is “to test”. The definitions given by Lowe & Nida [2:66] are:

  1. to try to learn the genuineness of something by examination and testing, often through actual use
  2. to regard something as being worthwhile or appropriate
  3. to regard something as genuine or worthy on the basis of testing

The second meaning seems to best fit our verse. The people “regard the appearances of earth and sky as worthwhile or appropriate.” That is, I think, they will take the time to check the direction of the wind. They plan their planting or harvesting or picnics or travel accordingly. They take seriously the direction of the wind and let that determine their actions. Are we are observant regarding the signs of our times?

Part of Culpepper’s (Luke, New Interpreters Bible, p.269) reflections on these verses:

To what do we pay close attention, and to what do we turn a blind eye?…

Jesus’ sayings challenge us to examine the inconsistencies between attention and neglect in our own lives, but the underlying challenge is to consider whether these inconsistencies reveal a pattern of prioritizing the insignificant while jeopardizing the things of greatest value and importance. Have we given as much attention to the health of the church as we have to our golf score? Have we given as much attention to the maintenance of our spiritual disciplines as to the maintenance schedule for our car? Where in the scale of our attention to detail does our devotion to the teachings of our Lord rank?

The signs of the time are everywhere, and so was spiritual blindness. Not reading this weather correctly is dangerous. Having issued warnings of approaching division and the nature of the times, Jesus calls on the multitudes to make one more judgment. He actually calls for their reflection: ”Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” The picture is a simple one. The judgment in view is a legal, civil dispute (given Jesus mentions settling accounts prior to reaching the “magistrate.”) Failing to settle accounts you will end up in the hands of a praktor, a kind of sheriff, tax collector and general financial official. In this context the praktor is a sort of bailiff in charge of the debtors’ prison. Jesus’ advice is simple: settle up accounts and avoid prison. In fact, his imagery is graphic, for those who fail to settle accounts and are found guilty will be “thrown” to prison.

In Luke this is a key moment on the journey to Jerusalem. The disciples and the people are the ones on the road (13:58) who must make their decision now, before it is too late. If they do not settle things with their adversary – in this case the prophet who calls them to conversion – then it will be harder for them when judgment comes.

Jesus closes by assuring them that negligent debtors will certainly have to pay the debt, down to the very last copper coin. The use of the Greek double negative ou me makes his statement emphatic – you will never get out without payment.v

Image: Created by AXY, License: CC BY-NC 4.0

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