Luke 17: 37 – OF CORPSES AND VULTURES
Luke 17:37 – “Where the body is, there the eagles will gather.” Matthew 24:28 – “Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together.” Another translation reads, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” Arndt-Gingrich thinks “vultures” is the correct translation. The context will probably disclose that this is the most accurate translation. What does this verse mean? To what does it refer? Where did it originate? How does it fit into the context of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I will explore parts of the synoptic gospels in search of answers.
Job 39:27-30 tells of an eagle that views his prey from his nest on high. Job concludes, “Where the slain are, there he is.” Probably there existed this saying in the form of a proverb for a long time in the Palestinian community. It migrated into the story of prediction of the end times in Luke and Matthew. There are about 30 references to “eagle, vulture” in the Bible. However, their distribution is not very revealing. Many of the references are found in the context of judgment, while a few are found in the context of apocalyptic visions, such as Ezekiel 1:10 and Revelation 4:7. If I can conclude that the apocalyptic visions serve to introduce the theme of judgment in the end times, then perhaps the eagle is a symbol of judgment in the end times. The eagle (vulture) would therefore be an eschatological symbol.
It is clear from the context of Luke 17:22-37 and Matthew 24:1-36 that the eagle is used as a concluding or summary statement in the context of New Testament apocalyptic. The Little Apocalypse of Mark 13 does not mention the eagle, but is taken over by Luke (21:7-36) and Matthew for their own development of eschatology. Apocalyptic seems to come naturally to the New Testament, for besides the more obvious Mark 13, the synoptic parallels and the Apocalypse of John, other new Testament writings, even from early Hellenistic communities, clearly demonstrate the influence of an apocalyptic world-view.
What is the origin of the synoptic apocalyptic? What is the origin of the eschatology of the synoptic gospels? New Testament scholarship at the end of the nineteenth century was already pointing out that the eschatology of late Jewish apocalyptic provided not only the background of the message of Jesus, but also the content. The apocalyptic tradition nurtured the New Testament in ways that New Testament research in the second half of the twentieth century has made it impossible to deny. Already the conclusion was reached in 1941 that “The world of apocalyptic ideas is the one in which the NT writers were really at home.” Other studies have demonstrated that with the shifting understanding of Israel’s self-identity came a shift in the understanding of Old Testament eschatology. With the development of the transcendence of Yahweh on the one hand, and the situation of the Exiles on the other, apocalyptists began to see the world dominated by principalities and powers that pose a challenge to the divine. This idea of dualism has since been central to apocalyptic, and shaped the eschatology that followed. Apocalyptic eschatology focused on the destruction of evil and the deliverance of the exiles. This is already seen in the work of Ezekiel, Zechariah, Haggai and Zephaniah. The Intertestamental period gave rise what became known as the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, writings that appeared to be wholly dedicated to promoting an eschatology of deliverance and the coming of a new day of the divine, that naturally flowed into the time of the formation of the New Testament. A third source of influence of apocalyptic ideas is the material that originated in the Qumran community of monks that came to be known as The Dead Sea Scrolls. The apocalyptic tradition of the Qumran is visible in the apocalyptic of the early Christian community. It has been said that “The Essenes prove to be the bearers and in no small part the producers, of the apocalyptic tradition of Judaism.” Their ideas of the end of the age and the coming of a new age, was influential, as was their idea of the separate destinies of the righteous and evil. The New Testament inherited an extraordinarily developed set of apocalyptic ideas, and remains today the primary source for the study of Christian apocalyptic.
Mark begins his gospel in this way. “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Yet the gospel did not actually begin with Jesus Christ. It begins with the announcement of the sudden appearance of John the Baptizer preaching in the wilderness. The announcer is none other than the anonymous prophet who has been given the name Deutero-Isaiah. He was certainly one of the prophets on the leading edge of apocalyptic eschatology in the Old Testament. He announces that John the Baptizer has arrived to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Mark says that John came “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (1:4). Mark has Deutero-Isaiah in common with Luke and Matthew. This must have been one of the pre-Markan stories that was circulating. John the Baptizer attracted “all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem.” They came, they confessed their sins, and they were baptized. John said to them, without any prompting, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (1:7-8). Mark tells us nothing more of the preaching of John, except that he confronted King Herod, saying, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”(6:18). The implication of verses 7-8 is that John’s water baptism is not sufficient. The coming One will in some way re-baptize them with the Holy Spirit. What this means is not clear. It does suggest that something is coming towards them, or that they are moving towards something, that will go beyond a baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Mark shows no interest in amplifying the message of John the Baptizer. Immediately, John baptizes Jesus, and his role comes to an end. Since Mark’s interest is in “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” it is understandable that John is quickly side-lined. For Mark, the gospel message is completely Christocentric; it is nothing less than the Passion of Christ. For him the Passion determines everything; the end determines the beginning. Therefore, there is no room for another messenger. “Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased.” (1:11). This is personal address. “ Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here.” (16:6). From end to beginning, the Passion of Jesus Christ is the center of the gospel.
But John the Baptizer came to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Mark leaves us to wonder whether the tragic fate of John the Baptizer by itself constitutes the preparation of the way. I think it is most likely that Mark was aware of oral and written traditions about John the Baptizer and his disciples that existed before he wrote his gospel. I consider it significant that he elected not to make use of those traditions. Upon John’s imprisonment, Jesus began his own preaching. He preached the gospel of God. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” (1:15). This initial announcement by Jesus places him definitely within the apocalyptic tradition of the New Testament. The end of the ages has arrived. Something new begins. To participate in that which is now at hand, one must repent and believe. Thus far, the preaching of Jesus and the preaching of John are almost identical. Jesus appears, picking up where John left off. Both John and Jesus began their proclamation at about the same age, 30 years old. (Luke 3:23). I would like to pose the question: where did John and Jesus receive the content of their preaching? The sources do not permit an answer. I believe that they shared a common source from which derived their preaching and teaching. Even the pre-Markan sources do not shed light on this. What can be said with certainty is that both John and Jesus lived at a time when Jewish apocalyptic was the dominant theology. Kasemann said many years ago that “apocalyptic is the mother of Christian theology.” This is certainly true for the New Testament and its formation. I do not believe that it would be unreasonable to suppose that John and Jesus were influenced by, and promoted the apocalyptic ideas that shaped their thinking.
Luke begins his gospel differently. He acknowledges that before he wrote, “many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us.” (1:1) He is clearly aware that traditions have developed ahead of him and that there were extant many compilations of narratives of the story of Jesus Christ. Luke testifies to an eye-witness tradition of the “ministers of the word.” What could that “word” be? Paul sheds light on this; he too received that tradition. “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (I Cor. 15:3-5). That is to say, what Paul received was the tradition of the Passion of Christ: his death, burial, and resurrection. The Passion story seemed to have taken shape, or many different shapes, and was passed on through the Palestinian community (Mark) and also the Hellenistic community (Paul). While each synoptic gospel had its own theological view point, there seems to be agreement that the ministry of Jesus was but a prelude to the Passion of Christ. It was his Passion that would put an end to the present age and bring in the kingdom of God that had come “near.” Paul’s uniquely Christocentric eschatology shows little interest in the teachings of Jesus. (Rom. 8:38).
Luke himself sets out “to write an orderly account” in which he will present the truth of those things. Perhaps Luke is saying that those accounts that existed were not orderly, that is, there might have been collections of stories, sayings, memories, and other material that had not been given final form as in the case of the gospel of Mark. Luke might have thought, if he had the gospel of Mark in front of him, that this gospel was simply an abbreviated rendering of the origins of the Christian story. Luke’s presentation of the birth of John and Jesus is already infused with the apocalyptic of the times. It contains prophecy, angelic visions and announcements, the encounter of humans and angels. For Luke the arrival of John and Jesus is the culmination of eschatological promises and hopes of the prophets of the Old Testament.
One curious factor in this: Luke’s gospel appears to have two different beginning points. He begins first at 1:5, in the days of Herod the King. Thereafter, he presents the birth of John the Baptizer and Jesus. That section runs 1:1-2:52. Luke then appears to write a new beginning at 3:1, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius. It is clear that these are the same time periods, but that Luke is trying to separate the events of birth from the events of ministry. I cannot account for this. This second “beginning” treats the ministry of John the Baptizer. Like Mark, he uses Deutero-Isaiah to describe John’s arrival and function. (3:4-6). John’s preaching begins immediately upon his arrival. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance.” (3:7). His preaching is clearly apocalyptic. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (3:9). In anticipation of the new age which is about to dawn, a new ethic is required. “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and him who has food, let him do likewise.”(3:10-11). “Collect no more taxes than is appointed you.” “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” (3:13-14). John announces that after he comes one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Luke is the only gospel writer to include fire in this statement. He obviously goes beyond Mark in a number of ways. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”(3:17). I wonder if this prophecy of the threshing floor is a veiled reference to Luke 19:45-46, the Cleansing of the Temple? The Temple of Jerusalem was built upon a threshing floor that David bought and paid for. He set up an altar there, and later after the death of David Solomon built the Temple upon the threshing floor. (I Samuel 24:18-25; 2 Chron. 3:1-2). If this is so, the cleansing of the Temple, making room for the arrival of the Divine, would fit into the framework of apocalyptic themes upon which the Passion of the Christ is built. The Cleansing of the Temple is already a separation of the wheat from the chaff, a theme of judgment that is at the foundation of the apocalyptic eschatology of the gospels.
Jesus began his ministry after he returned from the wilderness where, after forty days, he was tempted by the devil. The story of the temptation, a study of the conflict between the righteous and the evil, in which righteousness is victorious, is one of the themes of apocalyptic. The devil, the counter-divine, does not have the power to defeat the divine. “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.” (Luke 10:18-19). “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Luke 11:20). Clearly the eschatological warfare has begun with the preaching of John the Baptizer and Jesus. When he returned from the wilderness his first stop was “in their synagogues.” It was in the synagogue at Nazareth that Jesus first declared his mission, quoting from Isaiah 61:1-2. He was convinced that the Spirit of the Lord was upon his, and that his ministry was foretold in that prophecy. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (4:22). John the Baptizer, however, was not convinced. While he was in prison he sent two of his disciples to Jesus to ask him, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” To this Jesus replied, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the good news preached to them. And blessed are those who take no offense at me.” (Luke 7:18-23). This is what Isaiah predicted. This is the kingdom of God that has come near. This is apocalyptic eschatology as it is being fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus.
I began my meditation by trying to find a possible or likely context in which Luke 17:37 originated. Earlier in the chapter Jesus had said to the Pharisees that the kingdom of God was not coming with signs that one could see. It was already in their midst. (17:20-21). He changed the theme when he addressed his disciples, perhaps privately, from the kingdom of God to the Son of man. The Son of man will come as suddenly as lightning, after he has suffered and has been rejected “by this generation.” The people who judge the Son of man will themselves be judged. Luke 17: 22-37 allows insight into the thinking of Jesus. Just as the kingdom of God is already in their midst as judgment, “so it will be on the day when the Son of man is revealed.” (17:30). In the person of Jesus of Nazareth the judgment is already taking place. He separates the wheat from the chaff; one is taken, another left. Even his disciples did not know when nor where. So they asked him, “Where, Lord?” He replied, “Where the body is, there the eagles will be gathered.” Where the corpse is, there the vultures will be gathered. This very puzzling verse must have been a proverb known to the community. Those who heard it would have understood it in the same way that the first readers of the Apocalypse would have understood what it meant. Luke 17:37 may have been a statement that only the insiders, the disciples who asked him, might have understood. Corpses are gathered in cemeteries. In Luke 7:11-17, Jesus stops a funeral procession from reaching the cemetery by raising the dead son of the widow of Nain. Cemeteries are symbols of what has come to an end. The vultures that are gathered there are those for whom the end has arrived. “Where the body is, there the eagles will be gathered.” The evil generation has come to an end. The evil age has passed. The end has arrived in the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The divine has vanquished the counter-divine. “The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Henceforth theology is eschatology. These words of St. Paul are full of insight. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith, as it is written, He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Romans 2:16-17.