This chapter and its parallel in Matthew 24 are just flat complicated passages. I remember as a high school senior sitting in Bible class with a very insightful and even-keeled teacher trying to sort out the exact ins and outs of this passage. We were not very successful. What pertains to the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple to Rome in AD 70? What is talking about the return of Jesus sometime in the future? Did they think both would happen simultaneously? Was Jesus using the same techniques the Old Testament prophets like Daniel did in which they conflated several events together that though spaced out over hundreds of years would end up being fulfilled in very similar ways? And none of these questions get into the millennial madness the “Left Behind” folks can do with a passage like this.
I had more questions that answers back then. I have reread this passage many times since then, and I still have more questions than answers.
But here is what I know. The most important part of the chapter is not the identification and timing of the events mentioned in this chapter. What is most imperative to hear and understand is the way Jesus ends this teaching:
So watch out for yourselves that your hearts may not grow heavy with dissipation and drunkenness and the cares of this life, so that that day comes upon you suddenly, like a trap. It will come, you see, on everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Keep awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will happen, and to stand before the son of man. (21:34-36)
Jesus is coming again. The Kingdom will come in fulness. There is judgment ahead. There are bleak days ahead too, this passage seems to imply (though, lest we blindly adopt some tribulation concept, when has that not been true?) Our job in the midst of all of this is to watch our hearts and make our hearts ready, much more than it is to watch the news headlines for clues of the second coming (besides Jack Van Impe has that one covered!) More tragic than blind eyes that cannot read the “sign of the times” is a calloused, worldly heart that is not ready for the real life that is to come.
Jesus mentions three stumbling blocks to watchfulness in this passage:
Dissipation: According to the World English Dictionary, one “dissipates” by living a life of excessive indulgence in physical pleasures, especially things that are expensive, wasteful, and distracting. Maybe that vacation we couldn’t really afford because we just had to “get away from it all?” But is this also the mind candy of the multi-billion dollar entertainment and celebrity industry so that our hearts long to be like them, look like them, and live like them? Dissipation makes the heart less sensitive.
Drunkenness: Literally, this means to be of altered mind because of alcohol. But why do people drink? Lots of reasons. Beyond the pressure-driven binge drinking of adolescence, maybe the most common reason to drink is to anesthetize the pain of an unpleasant life. The truth is we can achieve that same numbness with any numbers of “drugs.” Some of us use food. Others shopping. Still others the distraction of television. Drunkenness impairs our vision.
The Cares of This Life: What a shame to spend a life building and rebuilding barns when they are lost in the end? We certainly need to be responsible with the roles we have to play in life, but these too can become all-consuming. For some of us this is our career. I wonder if my yard is really as important as I some times make it. Or the car. Why do we run around so frantically trying to be sure everyone likes us, when there is divine approval that is even more important? The cares of this life busy our hands and waste our energy.
Instead, Jesus talks about a heart anchored in the age to come, eyes fixed on the goal ahead of us, and hands that pray. Watch out!