Apocalypse and inequality: first century and today


Scripture: Mark 13: 1-9; 24-27 Nigel Bunce


Jesus’ message in Mark Chapter 13 connects the idea of apocalypse to today’s societal inequality. We call on governments to take action to reduce inequality, but will Christians accept higher taxes to make these changes? It depends on whether we really believe that the Kingdom of God has drawn near. In which case, it’s our task to bring it to reality. Photo: Thomas de Luze, unsplash.com

Today, I’ll try to connect apocalypse and inequality by way of Jesus’ apocalyptic message in Mark Chapter 13 and today’s concerns about inequality in society.  The question is: Will Christians accept higher taxes to remedy inequality?

Origins of apocalyptic thinking

Apocalypse refers to the end of the age (or the end of time). It seems to have first appeared in Jewish literature in the Book of Daniel.

At the apocalypse, the “Son of Man” would descend on clouds from the heavenly realm. This human figure would be the Messiah. The time seemed ripe for the Son of Man to come in Jesus’ day. So much had gone wrong.

Apocalypse and inequality in the 1st century

Just as today in Canada, there was great social inequality and hardship.  The rich got richer while small farmers were losing their land. They couldn’t repay the money they had borrowed to pay for seeds. Today’s reading follows on immediately after the story of the poor widow who gave all the money she had to pay the mandatory Temple tax. 

The Temple elders lived sumptuously on the backs of the poor. The Romans were occupying the Holy Land.  Surely, this must be the time for God to send the Messiah? To be God’s agent. To set wrongs to right in a new age of peace and justice. First century Jews believed the new age of righteousness would come here on earth. God would even raise the righteous dead to enjoy this realm of bliss.

Judgement Day

Conventional Christianity views the end of the age differently. On Judgement Day, God will judge all souls from every age, past and present. Righteous souls will live for ever with God in the afterlife. Sinful people will face eternal torture.

However, I find Chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel at odds with the rest of the book. I recall Jesus’ first words in Mark’s Gospel [1:15]. “The time is fulfilled. The Kingdom of God has come near” Not “will come near one day”. Not “will come in the afterlife.” But “has come near, right here, right now.”

Yet in Chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus comes across instead like a televangelist, haranguing the audience about Judgement Day. Micah Kiel (2016) calls much of Mark Chapter 13 ‘apocalyptic boilerplate’. Its themes had been common in Jewish literature for centuries before Jesus.

Did Jesus really predict the destruction of the Temple?

Set on Mount Zion, the Temple’s magnificent white stonework was visible for miles. Jesus said that one day it will all disappear. Every stone will be thrown down.

Historically, the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple after the Jewish revolt in CE 70. That was almost exactly when Mark wrote his Gospel. So, did Jesus actually predict that, 35 years before it happened? Or did Mark put that contemporary information into Jesus’ mouth? 

A modern analogy

Around the year 2005, someone describes some tourists visiting New York several years before. The tourists admire the World Trade Center in the financial district. “What magnificent buildings. They stretch right into the sky,” they say.

But perhaps our writer from the year 2005 would have had their tour guide say. “Ah yes. They are indeed magnificent, but one day they will fall. Nothing will be left of them.”

Apocalypse and inequality today

Let me return to my theme of inequality today. There are so many inequalities right now. As in Jesus’ day, many of them fall heaviest on the poor, often today in racialized communities. Lack of adequate housing. Inadequate sick leave and child care for low income workers. Getting clean water to First Nations under boil water advisories.

Lack of dental and drug coverage in our health system. Dire conditions in long term care. Social conditions that make MAID seem like the only way out for those in long term care, and for other marginalized people. Yet, the real ‘sin’ is that the rest of society knows about these issues, but decides to look away.

Paying to reduce inequality

Small ‘l’ liberal people call on government to address these problems. They all need money. But this raises hard questions for us as Christians. How will we react if government actually starts to implement the necessary changes and raises our taxes to pay for them?

Mainstream, i.e., wealthy, Canadian society is living in a fantasy land. We want – even expect – government to fix all problems. But without any impact on our own prosperity.

Politicians fail to level with us. At election time, they promise all kinds of new programs, without any sense of how to pay for them. Perhaps they muse that the rich can pay. CEOs who make millions every year. But the truth is that there aren’t enough of them, even if CRA could get them to pony up.

Has God’s Kingdom really drawn near?

To fix, or even to begin to fix, some of the problems I have identified, we would all have to accept tax increases large enough to make significant dents in our standards of living.

Earlier, I quoted Jesus’ first words in Mark’s Gospel – God’s kingdom had drawn near. Drawn near, but not actually arrived. My belief was, and is, that these words are a call to action. To bring the kingdom closer. This isn’t the cuddly Jesus who fits into our comfort zone.

Not “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.” Because,  most of us would rather think about a messianic figure who calls on us to be kind to our neighbours. But, sometimes it’s important to hear an ancient prophet cry out about the fragile nature of the world (Powery, 2015). 

The challenge of apocalypse and inequality

Every week, our Prayers of the People ask us to pray for the poor, the homeless, the hungry, and so on. It’s what we do and believe as Christians. But I have to ask again. How would we react if the government raised taxes so as to bring God’s Kingdom closer, here on earth?

That’s a challenge. It’s also a choice that speaks precisely to one’s beliefs. Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled. The Kingdom of God has come near.” So, do we work in the here and now to bring the Kingdom closer, even to our own discomfort?

Or do we wait for Judgement Day, to be asked how we treated other people. But, if we believe in conventional Christian doctrines about Judgement Day, those of us who fail the test face a pretty bleak future in the afterlife.