ASK FATHER: What does Jesus mean by “where the body is, there also the vultures will gather” (Luke 17:37)?

From a reader…

QUAERITUR:

At the end of His teaching on the the Day of the Son of Man in St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says something that has always left me puzzled. What does Jesus mean by “where the body is, there also the vultures will gather” (Luke 17:37)?

Okay, let’s have a stab at this.

First, Fathers of the Church, such as Jerome and Augustine have their allegorical discussions.  I won’t go into them just now.

The Lord uses this image twice, Luke 17:35 and Matthew 24:28. The contexts are slightly different. The parallel of Matthew 24 is Luke 21. So, it seems that this is a phrase that the Lord used more than once, in different contexts. There are slight differences in the grammar, but the meaning is pretty much the same.

This comes around in the Church’s traditional liturgical calendar on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, the end of the liturgical year.  I do not think that it every is read in the Novus Ordo, from either Luke or Matthew.

In Matthew, the Lord is talking about the Abomination of Desolation and the Great Tribulation. His prophetic language and images are about the proximate destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. It is clear he is talking about Jerusalem, because in the end times, it isn’t going to make any difference if you take what is in your house or you stop to get your mantle. It won’t make a difference if people flee to the mountains of Judea. That would only make a difference if it was the coming of the Romans, not the end of the world. The Abomination of Desolation (described in Daniel 9) is the desecration of the Temple that would occur after the death of the Messiah when the Romans came. Look to Josephus’ account of the destruction of Jerusalem to learn of the tribulation.

Christ talks about the sign of the coming of the Son of Man. When you see certain signs you know that something is coming. When the fig tree puts out its leave, you know what time of year it is, summer is near. But Christ is still talking also about Jerusalem not the end of the world. Even the talk about “stars will fall from heaven” in the Old Testament is used by the prophets to describe the destruction of cities. The image of “coming on the clouds” is also an image of divine judgment against a wicked city. And he says that this generation will not pass away but these things will come to pass. Moreover, the Jews saw the Temple as a microcosm of the whole universe, with an ocean (a big basin for purification), a court decorated with plant life for the land, and the inner part decorated with stars and planets, etc., for the heavens. The Temple is the entire created universe. The destruction of the Temple was like the destruction of the entire cosmos for the Jews in that time. So, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans is aptly put in terms of the end of the world.

That image of the fig tree putting out leaves means you know that summer is coming. In fact, it is inevitable that summer is going to come. The sequence is determined.

The image of the carcass or body and the eagles or vultures is another determined sequence. Is there a carcass? The vultures are going to show up. It is inevitable.

Luke 17 is a little different. The Apostles ask “Where, Lord?”… is this going to happen. Two will be in a field, one will be taken, etc. V. 37: And they said to him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together.” The enigmatic answer seems to have the same impact about inevitability. It doesn’t make any difference. Christ had just been talking about the people of Sodom and the people in the time of Noah who were paying no attention to God, but were mired in the world. The “carcass” is wherever the negligent or wicked soul is and it is inevitable, as the night follows day, as summer follows spring, that when the moment of the parousia arrives, those who have faith will be removed to the place and those who were worldly will be put in their place. Another aspect of this may come out if the eagles/vultures, birds of prey, are punishing demons. Where the dead ones are, the demons will have their way.  On the other hand, those who keep their eyes fixed on God, asking for mercy, etc., will be saved just as assuredly as those who don’t are punished.  It’s as sure as vultures showing up when there is a carcass to be had.

This business about one being taken and the other left, is NOT about a “Rapture”, which is a pernicious cobbled-up notion straight from Hell.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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4 Comments

  1. monstrance says:

    The Navarre Bible :
    The Greek could be eagle or vulture.
    The proverb indicates the speed with which birds of prey swoop down on their victims – apparently referring to the sudden , unexpected way the second coming or last judgement will happen.
    ….like a thief in the night.

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  3. Mario Bird says:

    RE: birds and carcasses — there are some interesting parallels at Rev 19:17-21 and Ez 39:4, 17-20. Both of those passages involve Our Lord executing judgment by a great battle, and the subsequent restoration of Israel (Ezekiel) or Jerusalem (Revelation). Gog and Magog are also involved, at least tangentially (Ez 38-39; Rev 20:8)

    Also, my Bible notes that “Gog” is likely a corruption of “Gyges”. As in the Ring of Gyges…? Any Tolkien scholars out there that can shed some light?

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