Where the body is, the vultures will gather

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Matthew

Mt 24:23-28.

23 If anyone says to you then, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it.

24 False messiahs and false prophets will arise, and they will perform signs and wonders so great as to deceive, if that were possible, even the elect.

25 Behold, I have told it to you beforehand.

26 So if they say to you, ‘He is in the desert,’ do not go out there; if they say, ‘He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.

27 For just as lightning comes from the east and is seen as far as the west, so will the coming [parousia] of the Son of Man be.

28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.

Mt 23:28
ὅπου ἐὰν ᾖ τὸ πτῶμα, ἐκεῖ συναχθήσονται οἱ ἀετοί.

Luke

Lk 17:31-37.

31 On that day, a person who is on the housetop and whose belongings are in the house must not go down to get them, and likewise a person in the field must not return to what was left behind.

32 Remember the wife of Lot.

33 Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it.

34 I tell you, on that night there will be two people in one bed; one will be taken, the other left.

35 And there will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken, the other left.”

36 There will be two men in the field; one will be taken, the other left behind.[1]

37They said to him in reply, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the body is, there also the vultures will gather.”

Lk 17:37
καὶ ἀποκριθέντες λέγουσιν αὐτῷ· ποῦ, κύριε; ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· ὅπου τὸ σῶμα, ἐκεῖ καὶ οἱ ἀετοὶ ἐπισυναχθήσονται

Exegesis

Matthew vs. Luke

Matthew uses the word for "corpse" (πτῶμα) while Luke uses the word for "body" (σῶμα). Speaking of the "body" rather than the "corpse" seems less graphic and more appealing to me.

On the other hand, Matthew's introduction to the saying provides a much better context for interpretation of the verse: "So if they say to you, ‘He is in the desert,’ do not go out there; if they say, ‘He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For just as lightning comes from the east and is seen as far as the west, so will the coming [parousia] of the Son of Man be." The example of how easily vultures find their next meal, without prior knowledge of where it will be, assures us that that we do not need to travel to any particular location in the world prior to the parousia.

Luke precedes the saying with a one-word question: "Where?" From the context of some being taken and some being left behind, it might mean, "Where will the people be taken?" Or it might mean, "Where will you appear in glory?" The lack of clarity in the question robs the saying of some of its effect, but, under either interpretation of the meaning of the question, the answer is, "'Where' does not matter. When the time comes, it will be obvious. Vultures don't assemble until there is something to be eaten; when there is something to scavenge, then they gather together."

Who are the vultures?

The saying is something of a riddle. To solve the puzzle, we may try to identify two realities in the spiritual life to substitute for "corpse" and "vultures." No substitution is without difficulties.

corpse vultures evaluation
Jesus disciples The picture of Christian disciples feeding on the dead body of Jesus is not very pretty. Who wants to be called a vulture?
sinful humanity judgment This solution reverses plurals and singulars. The singular "corpse" becomes plural "humanity," while the plural "vultures" becomes the abstract singular, "judgment."
Body of Christ raptors who carry off some and leave others Scavengers eat the whole corpse. They don't leave much behind.
Body of Christ raptors who gather together in one place As long as we shift focus away from the purpose of the gathering (totally consuming carrion), the image of great birds gathering together from the four winds is impressive.
Age of Evangelization All of humanity The death of the old creation is the birth of the new.

I think this is one of those times when the scholarly maxim against treating parables as rigid allegories comes into play. The scholars teach that, as a general rule, Jesus only intends to make one main point in His parables, so that it may be a mistake to glean other meanings from narrative elements necessary for telling the story used in the parable.

In this case, the one point seems to be that Christians don't have to be told in advance "where" the rendezvous with Jesus will take place at the end of all time; the gathering of the children of God around Jesus will be as spontaneous and effortless as vultures finding their next meal. Apart from providing this assurance that all will find their way to Him, Jesus almost certainly intended no other meanings drawn from what we know about dead bodies and vultures.

Just as vultures flock together when food is available, so Christians will flock to Jesus when He returns in glory.

The single point of the parable
What vultures do resembles The Christian response to the Parousia
Vultures flock together when food is available. Christians will flock together when Jesus returns.
Vultures don't know in advance when their next meal will be. Christians don't know when Jesus will return.
Vultures don't read books or maps to find food. Christians don't need to draw maps or calendars to find Jesus when He returns in glory.
The errors of allegorization
Everything a vultures is is the same as What a Christian is
Vultures feed on dead and rotting flesh. Christians feed on something dead and rotten.
Vultures are filthy animals. Christians are equally filthy.
Vultures compete with each other in a feeding frenzy. Christians compete with each other.

A proverb?

One of my favorite sayings is, "There is more than one way to skin a cat." I have no idea where I picked this up. I have never skinned a cat, nor do I want to learn the different ways of skinning cats. All that it means to me is that, in practical matters, there are always different ways of achieving the same goal. When I use the phrase, I'm not thinking about cats or skinning at all, but something entirely different--how to get a rusty bolt unstuck, how to tune a carburetor, how to repair a damaged part, etc.

The saying about vultures flocking to eat together may well have been a proverb in Jesus' day. I imagine that both He and His listeners understood the immediate application of the proverb to the situation they were in and did not worry about who or what was dead and who or what was playing the role of the scavengers. We trip over the saying because it is not a proverb in our culture.

A reasonable resolution

John Topel, "What Kind of a Sign are Vultures? Luke 17,37b," Biblica, Vol. 84 (2003) 403-411; emphasis added.
"For the plurality of recent commentaries, when the Son of Man appears the disciples will be as sure of where he is as vultures are sure of the place of the cadaver, i.e. they will no more need a special sign than do the vultures" (404).
"Contemporary exegetes who relate the proverb to its immediate context in 17,34-35 assert that Jesus is telling the disciples that the quest for a certain place is unnecessary. They will no more need a special sign than do the vultures: they will recognize the Son of Man wherever he appears with the same surety with which the vulture finds the carrion. In that way, Jesus' proverbial response echoes the response he gives to the Pharisees' question: the specific place is irrelevant" (410).
"There are no prior signs of the arrival of the final reign of God. They will know the when and where of it, but only after the process has irreversibly begun" (411).

References

  1. NABRE footnote to 17:36: "The inclusion of Lk 17:36 'There will be two men in the field; one will be taken, the other left behind,' in some Western manuscripts appears to be a scribal assimilation to Mt 24:40.

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