Mark 13: 28-37 – Sayings and Parables of Jesus Christ

At the conclusion of the discourse we have a series of sayings and two parables all of which deal with the theme of vigilance and watchfulness. The section consists of a parable of the fig tree (Mk 13: 28-29), two sayings on the certainty and nearness of the consummation (Mk 13: 30-31), and another saying on the uncertainty of the time (Mk 13: 32), followed by a call to watchfulness (Mk13: 33). Next come the parable of the servants and the absent master (Mk 13: 34-36) and the final exhortation to all to watch (Mk 13: 37). It is possible that many of the sayings in this section were uttered by Jesus in different circumstances and that the two parables too had different points of reference originally. Their present position at the end of the discourse in Mark chapter 13 can be attributed to the evangelist who brought these disparate sayings together and adapted the parables to the context for the purpose of emphasising the motif of watchfulness.

The opening words of Mark 13: 28 make clear that the parable of the fig tree is adapted to the situation of the discourse: “from the fig tree learn the parable (lesson).” The Palestine where most of the trees are evergreens, the fig tree loses in the winter and shows signs of life again only at the beginning of summer. The appearance of leaves on the fig tree then is a sure sign that summer is near. What can be observed in the fig tree is thus presented as a parable (lesson), namely, the proximity of summer. Does this parable refer to the Parousia (Mk 13: 24-27) or to the preliminary signs described in Mark 13: 5-23? The application of the parable in Mark 13: 29 shows that the parable refers to the signs preceding the final consummation. The Parousia of the Son of Man (Mk 13: 24-27) is not a sign of the end but the end itself and therefore the words “when you see these things taking place” (Mk 13: 29) can only apply to the signs preceding the end (Mk 13: 5-23) and not to the end itself. Furthermore, there is correspondence between the wordings of Mark 13: 29 “when you see these things taking place” and the initial question of the disciples’ in Mark 13: 4 “when will this take place?” The parable therefore is to be understood as relating to the events which precede the end and which indicate its nearness.

The solemn assurance of the next verse (Mk 13: 30) not only confirms what is said in verse 29 of Mark’s gospel, but seems to go beyond it. The expression “all these things” in Mark 13: 30 relates the verse to the second part of the original question of the disciples (Mk 13: 4b) and answers it. In Mark 13: 30 the evangelist thus seems to understand that the complex of events described in Mark 13: 5-29 will take place in his own lifetime. In other words, the conviction of the evangelist and his expectation of an imminent Parousia (cf. Mk 8: 38; 9: 1) which he shared with his Christian community, seem to be implied in the words of Jesus which he reports in Mark 13: 30. Although the expression “this generation” has a pejorative nuance elsewhere in Mark’s gospel (cf. Mk 8: 12, 38; 9: 19), in Mark 13: 30 it is used primarily in reference to time. The solemn assurance given in this verse is further strengthened by the saying in Mark 13: 30. This verse can be understood as a general statement applicable to all of Jesus’ sayings. In its present context, however, it refers to the preceding prophecies. The absolute truth of Jesus’ words, which is more durable than the apparent durability of heaven and earth, guarantees the realisation of the event foretold. An Old Testament background for Mark 13: 30 may be recognized in the contrast between the permanence of God/ His Word/His Salvation and the passing away of heaven and earth (cf. Ps 102: 25-27; Is 40: 6-8; 51: 6). In Mark 13: 28-31 the emphasis then is on the nearness and certainty of the event foretold earlier, and the evangelists’ purpose in all this is to encourage to be ready and watchful.

Vigilance is all the more necessary because of the uncertainty of the precise day or hour (Mk 13: 32). In other words, the obligation to watch gets its force from the fact that no one – man, woman, angels or the Son – knows when that day or hour will be. The expression “that day” is a formula of the Old Testament repeatedly used by the prophets in reference to the day of Yahweh’s appearance (cf. Amos 2: 16; 8: 3, 9, 13; 9: 11; Mic 4: 6; Zeph 1: 7-10, 14; 3: 11, 16; Zech 9: 16; 12 – 14). In New Testament too we find the expression in 1Thessalonians 5: 1-11; 2Thessalonians 2: 1-12 etc., where it refers to the Parousia of the Lords. Mark 13: 32 categorically state the impossibility of knowing the day of the hour of Parousia. That day is fixed by the Father and is known only to Him; even the Son does not knoe the precise moment because he is only the Son and as such subordinate to the Father. What is needed therefore is not calculation or concern about the precise day of the Parousia but vigilance (Mk 13: 34-37).

The ‘Call of Watchfulness’ in Mark 13: 33 is the same as in Mark 13: 5, 9, 23 and it betrays the pastoral concern if the evangelist for his community. The need for vigilance (Mk 13: 33) is illustrated by the parable of the servants (Mk 13: 34) and its application (Mk 13: 35-36). The parable in Mark 13: 34 id similar to the parable of the watching servants in Luke 12: 35-40 and to the parable of the talents in Matthew 25: 14-30. The point of these parables in Luke and Matthew is not watchfulness but responsibility. The Markan parable in Mark 13: 34 seems to be a variant of Luke 12: 35-38 or Matthew 25: 14-30, and is adapted to the context where the theme of watchfulness is emphasised. The four division of the night mentioned in Mark 13: 35 follow the Roman usage whereas according to Jewish reckoning there were only three watches of the night. In the Markan re-interpretation the parable of ‘the Master and the Servants’ is understood Christologically. Christ is the Master of the house who goes on a journey and his return is the Parousia. The servants who are given authority and responsibility during the absence of their master are the disciples. They are to keep vigil and be watchful for the return of their Lord (Mk 13: 35-36). In Mark 13: 37, the evangelist extends it to all Christians the admonition given to the disciples: “What I say to you, I say to all: watch.”

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