Examining Luke 17:22-25

Tara Ingrid Ludmer


20 March, 2000

New Testament Studies 260-312B

These verses first struck me by their spectacular descriptiveness. Luke puts great emphasis on vision in his version of this Q material. In my translation, the word ‘see’ and the word ‘look’ both appear twice. The disciples will long to "see" a day of the Son of Man, and alarmists will call "Look here," and "Look there!" The lightning-flash is an intensely visual description – a signal by lightning would mean nothing to a blind person.

Vision can often be a signal clue for understanding. In fact, in Luke this section of the text appears among the teachings of Jesus about people’s relationship to God. In verses 17:11-19, preceding, Jesus taught about praising God. Following, in verses 18:1-8, Jesus speaks about crying out for justice to God. In between, in 17:22-25, Jesus teaches about the disciples yearning for the days of the Son of Man. [‘

This is in contrast to Matthew, in whom this pericope appears not in the context of teaching about the people’s relationship to God, but in a series of warnings about the end of days. Thus the emphasis on the visual in Luke implies the centrality of understanding what is taught. Even more, specifically it teaches about the relationship of understanding that people will have in the Days of the Son of Man. The Son of Man, in his day, will be like a lightning flash – on this Matthew and Luke agree. But while they both emphasizes the universality of the presence of the Son of Man, "from the east and shines as far as the west" (Mt 24:26), and "from one side to the other" (Lk 17:24), Luke adds an extra verb – "as the lightning flash that lights up the sky." Perhaps he is implying that not only will it be visible to everybody all over the earth, but that they will understand.

This understanding stands in sharp contrast to the situation of the Son of Man now. Jesus is in the world, but people over and over again fail to see and understand his significance. Then he will be seen and understood clearly, but now "he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation" (Lk 17:25).

The assertion that the coming of the Days of the Son of Man will be seen as clearly as a flash of lightning stands in sharp contrast with the preceding assertion that "the kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed," again because of the emphasis on the visual (Lk 17:20). This contradiction compels us to make a distinction between the kingdom of God and the Days of the Son of Man. What are the days of the Son of Man?

It is interesting because in the next part of chapter seventeen, the Days of the Son of Man are compared to the days of Noah and of Lot: they will be days of judgement. If they are really to be compared with what happened in the time of Noah and Lot, the judgement will be quite terrible – very few people escaped. Why, then, would the disciples desire to see it? Perhaps this is part of the contrast between the Pharisees and the disciples. The Pharisees want to see the kingdom of God, but the disciples understand and want to see the days of Jesus again even though they will be terrible. Later in Luke, Jesus returns to the theme of the return of the Son of man. "People will faint with terror at the thought of all that is coming upon the world; for the celestial powers will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud of power and great glory. When all this begins to happen, stand upright and hold your heads high, because your liberation is near" (Lk 22:26-28). Again Luke emphasizes the dual nature of the Days of the Son of Man. This helps us understand Luke 17:22-25, verses which are both very concrete and very mystical.

Will the desire of the disciples to see "one of the days of the Son of man" be a longing for liberation? According to Jesus, the disciples will suffer much: "Even your parents and brothers, your relations and friends, will betray you. Some of you will be put to death; and everyone will hate you for your allegiance to me" (Lk 21:16-17) The coming of Jesus represents their liberation from this oppression. Then the statement of Jesus to his disciples that they will long to see just one of the days of the Son of man is an affirmation of their commitment to Jesus and their willingness to suffer. It is not only a teaching about the weather conditions when the Son of man returns, but a prediction of the disciples’ loyalty and their suffering, as well as the promise that for them the return will be liberating even while for others it is terrible.

This theme of suffering is directly picked up when Jesus tells of his own travails, "but first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation" (Lk 17:25). It is interesting that the disciples' suffering is alluded to, but the suffering of the Son of man is explicitly stated. Jesus does not say why he must suffer, but the light of the future of the disciples helps us understand this by creating a parallel relationship between the disciples and Jesus. Jesus’ suffering is necessary for the suffering of the disciples to end with liberation.

In conclusion, Luke locates this material among Jesus’ teachings about human relationships with God. Its great visual descriptiveness makes it distinct and calls our attention to it so that we can understand the subtleties behind the deceptively short text. It teaches about the relationship of the disciples to Jesus, both now and in the future, and just as it sets up Jesus’ suffering as a model for the disciples’ suffering, it sets up the disciples as models for us. By following them the coming of the Son of man can be a liberation rather than a nightmare of disappearing loved ones.


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