Somewhere in the course of my voluminous reading about Abraham Lincoln, I remember coming across a funny witticism of his  when it came to people looking for the spoils of office. He quoted the Bible, saying, “Where the body is, there the vultures will be gathered together.” The statement drew a lot of humor from his audience. At the time, the spoils system was in operation and presidents were expected to be at the center of a large distribution of patronage, giving the offices of federal governments to political allies to repay them for services rendered. And truly, although this is a somewhat flippant use of scripture, it is a worthwhile story to introduce how the Bible can be applied to many situations. There are two passages where Jesus Christ makes similar comments about bodies and eagles being gathered together, and the English translation views them both as the same, something that hinders us from understanding these passages. In the light, therefore, of the fact that the Bible does have insight to give, and in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln’s inventive use of scriptural application, let us seek to understand what is meant by these passages and what it means for us.
Luke 17:31-37, speaking of the context of deliverance from the dark times as the Day of the Lord approaches, tells us that “In that day, he who is on the housetop, and his goods are in the house, let him not come down to take them away. And likewise the one who is in the field, let him not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. I tell you, in that night there will be two men in one bed: the one will be taken and the other will be left. Two women will be grinding together: the one will be taken and the other left. Two men will be in the field: the one will be taken and the other left.” And they answered and said to Him, “Where, Lord?” So He said to them, “Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together.” There is a lot to unpackage here, including the fact that this passage is among those which have been misinterpreted about the rapture to give rise to terrible religious fiction like the Left Behind series. Our point today is merely to examine the context of verse 37.
In this case, the word used for body is soma, a word that is commonly used to refer to the flesh or the physical body by Paul, among others. The term is also used to refer to the body of Christ in sometimes mystical terms. What we find here is eagles protecting the body of Christ, and that this protection is not universal. An imperfect analogy can be seen in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, where the eagles occasionally give deliverance to the godly in battle, or help them escape, but whose behavior cannot be coerced and is seen as a miraculous deliverance. That is what the Bible has in mind here, not something that can be compelled or induced on our part, but something that is seen as and appreciated as a miracle of divine favor for those who are fortunate enough to be able to experience it. To what extent the visualization of these eagles as something literal, in light of, for example, the complicated portrayal of angels in the Bible, is helpful or not is likely something that will only be able to be determined after the fact.
The other passage that, in English, is translated nearly identically is, upon further analysis, a very distinct image. Matthew 24:26-28 tells us: “Therefore if they say to you, ‘Look, He is in the desert!’ do not go out; or ‘Look, He is in the inner rooms!’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together.” This happens to be the verse quoted by Abraham Lincoln, and the context is a different one. The word for body, for example, is ptoma and not soma, a word that means corpse or carcass and not a living body. Likewise, instead of protecting eagles, the Bible has the vulture in mind rather than the eagle. The image, rather than divine protection for some believers from danger, is one of the great feast for the birds among those who rebel against the return of Jesus Christ and whose apocalyptic death is responsible for our visions of the battle of Armageddon, even though this encounter happens near Jerusalem.
How do we compare these passages together? For one, it appears that in the end time, there will be birds gathering around both believers and unbelievers. For believers, it is eagles, symbolic of angels, gathering around to protect them. For unbelievers, it is vultures gathering around to feast off of the dead bodies of those who have opposed Jesus Christ. The question we have to ask ourselves, is what sort of body do we wish to be–the Body of Christ dwelling in unity and harmony in love or a carcass–and what sort of birds we wish to be gathering around us. We do not have a choice about either being a body or having birds gather, the only question is what kind. Few choices are presented as starkly as this one is. What do we decide?
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