When Jesus speaks of vultures
Updated: Mar 9, 2020
The other day a friend emailed me with a question. He’d been reading Luke’s Gospel and come across a strange saying of Jesus. Being someone who doesn’t like to ignore a sense of puzzlement, but wants to learn, he emailed me to ask what Jesus meant when He said, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather” (Luke 17:37).
At face value, it certainly comes into the “strange” category of Jesus’ sayings. What on earth could He have meant by this? It turns out that this saying of Jesus is found in both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospel. Below is the Greek text of each verse, with a literal translation into English:
οπου εαν η το πτωμα εκει συναχθησονται οι αετοι (literally, “Wherever the corpse/carcass is, there vultures will be gathered together.”)
οπου το σωμα εκει και οι αετοι επισυναχθησονται (literally, “Wherever the body [is], there also vultures will be gathered together.”)
You can see that the text in the Greek is very similar. The main differences are that two different words are employed for body/corpse and a slight variant of the verb “to be gathered” is used by Luke.
What is interesting is that, despite the textual similarities of these two verses, Matthew and Luke place this saying of Jesus in different contexts, wishing to draw different emphases from them. So, what is this strange saying all about? What are we supposed to learn when Jesus speaks of vultures?
The first thing to note is that both writers are employing vultures as a literary metaphor. We know from nature that vultures circle in the air around the place where they can see a carcass or when they suspect that an animal on the ground is in its death throes. The image of the vulture is therefore being employed as a sign. English novelist Graham Greene uses this to dramatic effect in his haunting book The Heart of the Matter whose main character, Scobie, a police officer in a West African colony, journeys inexorably towards his death by suicide. Eight times across the novel (1), Greene describes vultures in different contexts around Scobie, like landing on the roof of his house (“. . . the iron roof crumpled as a late vulture settled for the night.”) Although the vultures are real creatures in the story, they are also a literary ploy to heighten the sense of impending doom over Scobie’s life.
Each version of the “vulture verse” sits contextually within sections of teaching by Jesus about signs of events which are to come (Matthew 24 and Luke 17:20-37). These passages have been notoriously misinterpreted over the years. One of the problems with both passages is that, as they look forwards, two key events are simultaneously in view. One is a prediction of the Roman destruction of the Temple in AD70 and the other is the Second Coming of Jesus. Both Gospel writers see parallels between these two events and they are both so clearly in their minds as they write that teaching about one of these events goes side by side with teaching about the other. One paragraph of teaching might be a prediction of the Temple’s desecration and then the next paragraph is a statement about Jesus’ return. And then the subject matter might change back again in the next paragraph. This does keep us on our toes!
The “vulture verse” comes at the end of the following paragraph in chapter 24:
26 “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.”
The key link here is between vultures circling over a carcass and the “coming of the Son of Man”. The Greek word employed for “coming” in this verse is the word parousia which meant “royal appearing”. In the Greco-Roman world, it was the word used to describe a visit by the Roman Emperor to a town or city. In New Testament writings, when it is used in connection with Jesus, it always implies His Second Coming. (2) So, in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ saying about the vultures concerns His return and is linked with the previous verse which features lightning. Just as lightning is very visible during a storm and vultures circling overhead is a clear sign that a carcass is near on the ground, so Jesus’ return will be clearly evident. Jesus was exhorting people to be watchful for His return.
The placing of the “vulture verse” in Luke 17 is more complex. It comes at the end of the following set of paragraphs:
22 Then he said to his disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it.23 People will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. 24 For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. 25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.
26 “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.
28 “It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. 29 But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulphur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.
30 “It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. 32 Remember Lot’s wife! 33 Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it. 34 I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left.35 Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.”
37 “Where, Lord?” they asked.
He replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.”
The key to understanding what these paragraphs refer to is found in these repeating phrases which occur across these verses:
· “one of the days of the Son of Man” (v22)
· “the Son of Man in his day” (v23)
· “in the days of the Son of Man” (v26)
· “on the day the Son of Man is revealed” (v30)
Because Jesus Himself took the title “Son of Man”, at first glance we might think that Luke 17 concerns, like the Matthew context above, the Second Coming of Jesus. But the vocabulary of Luke 17, unlike Matthew 24, does not feature the Greek word parousia and seems to be pointing in a different direction than referring to the return of Christ.
The “days of the Son of Man” seems instead to be drawing on the imagery of the vision in Daniel 7 where “one like a son of man”, who represents the people of God, experiences vindication after a time of oppression. So, what future event could Jesus be referring to, when God’s people would be vindicated? This is where the besieging and destruction of Jerusalem and Temple in AD70 is in view. Jesus repeatedly warned the Jewish leaders not to reject the kingdom of God, which accompanied His ministry. The judgement against Jerusalem at Roman hands was a vindication of Jesus and His followers in that His warnings had come to pass.
A closer look at the various paragraphs of Luke 17 reveals links with the AD70 Jerusalem situation:
· Verses 26-29: Just as in the stories of Noah and Lot, when people were carrying on their lives, ignoring the fact that judgement was coming upon them, so many people in Jerusalem will be caught out by the suddenness of the Roman invasion of the city.
· Verses 30-33: When the Roman army comes to Jerusalem, the safest option will be to flee. No one should waste time collecting personal possessions. “Get out quick!” is Jesus’ message.
· Verses 34-35: This speaks of the indiscriminate way in which the Romans will take one person prisoner and leave another. The one who is left is the lucky one; an uncertain and probably dangerous fate hangs over the one who falls into Roman hands.
A final pointer in the text to the fact that the context of Luke 17 is the Roman destruction of Jerusalem comes with the “vulture verse”. The Greek word for vulture (aetos) also means eagle and some ancient writers of that time categorised vultures as a kind of eagle. Could Luke be inferring that the vultures circling are in fact the Roman army approaching, given that the eagle was the insignia on their imperial badge? (3)
So, in summary, this unusual saying of Jesus is a good example of the way in which different Gospel writers connect His teachings with different contexts. In Matthew, the “vulture verse” concerns watchfulness for the visible signs of Jesus’ Second Coming. With Luke, the vultures are a coded reference to the Roman army and the impending doom hanging over Jerusalem and the Temple that will be the result of rejection of the Messiah.
1. Greene G, The Heart of the Matter, Penguin Books, London, 1948. References to vultures occur on pages 11, 13, 21, 25, 98, 103, 230 and 268.
2. Other verses as examples of using the word parousia for Jesus’ return are: Matthew 24:27,34,37; 1 Corinthians 15:23; 1 Thessalonians 4:15. The word occurs a total of 24 times in the New Testament.
3. My exposition of the Luke 17 passage has drawn closely on Tom Wright’s helpful commentary. See Wright T, Luke for Everyone, SPCK, London, 2004, p208-211. Other commentators can take a different line with this passage, but I think Wright does the best job of connecting the text with the Daniel vision, thereby directing it towards the AD70 context.