In Matthew 24:28 and Luke 17:37, Jesus uses the phrase "Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather." Was Jesus speaking in a parable? Idiom? How has this phrase been interpreted?
This one line "Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather." is an idiom.
This would be the equivalent of saying, "Where there's smoke, there's fire."
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.”
In Luke, the question that Jesus is responding to is also a bit confusing (particularly given our modern understanding of the rapture). However, the question of "Where, Lord?" seems to be addressing the last thing Jesus says. He just finished saying that the "Son of Man" will come and gather his people. The disciples' question seems to ask "Where will they be gathered to."
This very much is a reference to what we call the "rapture". This is the "gathering up" of people that Jesus will perform in the last days. Just before this he talks about how the world is turning evil and then he says that he will come back and gather his people. This is definitely what we modernly call the "rapture".
His reply to the question of "Where, Lord?" is a parable. He's basically saying, "Where there's smoke, there's fire." The meaning behind this is:
"That should be pretty obvious to you."
Jesus was saying that his kingdom was coming, the world was about to end, he was about to gather his people. The disciples ask a stupid question: "Where will you gather them?" Jesus doesn't even bother giving a straight answer because the answer is obvious: He's gathering them to heaven to be with him forever.
Why use this phrase?
The reason that the answer is obvious is because, he's already answered that question. Just previously in Luke 17:20-21 the passage begins Jesus' speech with "The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed."
The entire speech is about the Kingdom of God. So when they ask, "Where will they be gathered." He just replies in parables, since he's already made it obvious.
The Matthew text
Just to illustrate this purpose, here is the text from Matthew that shows the same usage of the phrase:
Matthew 24:23-38 (NASB)
23 Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him. 24 For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. 25 Behold, I have told you in advance. 26 So if they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out, or, ‘Behold, He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them. 27 For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
Clearly, Jesus isn't talking about literal vultures. Neither is he attempting to use vultures and corpses to explain difficult concepts. This passage (and the clear break from the earlier concepts being described) clearly show that this is a idiomatic saying.
This phrase about vultures and a dead body is just Jesus way of saying, "Hey, it should be obvious". He's not trying to imply anything with vultures or dead bodies. Just like the phrase "Where there's smoke there's fire" today does not imply smoke, fire, or anything related to smoke or fire.
From The Message:
The Arrival of the Son of Man
23-25"If anyone tries to flag you down, calling out, 'Here's the Messiah!' or points, 'There he is!' don't fall for it. Fake Messiahs and lying preachers are going to pop up everywhere. Their impressive credentials and dazzling performances will pull the wool over the eyes of even those who ought to know better. But I've given you fair warning.
26-28"So if they say, 'Run to the country and see him arrive!' or, 'Quick, get downtown, see him come!' don't give them the time of day. The Arrival of the Son of Man isn't something you go to see. He comes like swift lightning to you! Whenever you see crowds gathering, think of carrion vultures circling, moving in, hovering over a rotting carcass. You can be quite sure that it's not the living Son of Man pulling in those crowds.
Jesus is not speaking in a parable, but rather is using an analogy to explain to his followers that when he comes, he will show up so quickly that people won't have time to gather in crowds. People won't have time to get together and discuss it or analyze the situation; this kind of behavior can be compared to vultures who pick apart what they find...
Also, when Jesus returns, everyone, all over the earth, will see him at the same time, he won't be confined to one place or location...Jesus Christ will be seen everywhere simultaneously, thus people won't be able to pinpoint Jesus to one physical location, because if you see "vultures" circling, it is not Jesus because he won't show up in one place.
My dad told me that according to the (partial) preterists (those who emphasize that the first or primary fulfillment of many of the New Testament prophecies occurred in or before the destruction of Jerusalem, A.D. 70.), eagle is a reference to the Romans, who had the eagle as their banner. If you compare the parallel passage in Matthew 24:28, you will see that the context of the passage there is that Jesus has prophesied the destruction of the Temple, and his disciples have asked when it will occur (verses 1-3). This would indicate that the phrase has reference to the destruction of Jerusalem.
I thought that my dad got this from Kenneth Gentry, who wrote Before Jerusalem Fell. This source says that Gentry writes about this in his book Perilous Times: A Study in Eschatological Evil, 74–75, and it quotes him on it. (Disclaimer: I have not read Gentry myself, nor that other source; I found it on Google since I thought my dad got it from Gentry.)
The linguistic concept of semantic domains may apply here. Though in a translation you have to arbitrate between the two meanings, in the exegesis you don't necessarily. In Greek there may not have been a conceptual distinction between eagle and vulture, and thus it could reference the Romans and yet be consistent with the normal interpretation of the carcass metaphor. Examples of this can be found in other languages: some, for example, do not have a word for bird, only songbird, hawk, waterbird, owl, etc—all separate words. And as Jon Ericson pointed out, the author could have used a deliberately equivocal word.
The methods of Pardes are used within Sensus Plenior. This is a demonstration of that methodology and hermeneuticv method:
The ISV translated 'vulture' as 'eagle'.
Ge 1:2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness [was] upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved**[flutters]** upon the face of the waters.
De 32:11 As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings:
Mt 24:28 For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.
The eagle is the Holy Ghost.
Using Remez of 'flutter' we determine that the eagle is the Spirit of God. Using it again for 'eagle', it is the Holy Spirit which took the spirit of Christ from the cross, bearing him on 'her' wings.
The Spirit is referred to as feminine not because of gender. This is the same use of the feminine as the old female donkey that led Jesus on the colt into Jerusalem. It refers to not seeing clearly. As Paul said "the woman was deceived'. The old prophets/donkey didn't see Christ clearly. the young colt, being John the Baptist knew who Jesus was. The Holy Spirit is referred to in the feminine because he did not know the 'day or hour':
Mt 24:36 But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.
Mr 13:32 But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.