Christ will come again! 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time ("C") - November 14, 2010 [Texts: Malachi 3:19-20a; [Psalm 98]; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12; Luke 21:5-19]
The closing weeks of one Church year and the opening week of a new one (First Sunday of Advent) are linked by a scriptural focus on the end of time and the Parousia, the return of Jesus in glory. This transition centres Christian reflection and prayer on the third member of the acclamation of faith, "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!"
How to keep the minds and hearts of Christian disciples oriented in longing expectation of the fulfilment of world and salvation history, while they continue to labour in this world, is not a new problem. Luke faced it toward the end of the first century when enthusiasm for the imminent return of Jesus began to wane with -- what scholars refer to as -- the delay of the Parousia.
One of Luke's profound insights is that eschatological readiness for the Lord's return needs to become part of the warp and woof of the daily life of disciples. This may be why he has interspersed Jesus's teaching about the end throughout the gospel (cf. Luke 12:35-48 and 17:20-37) and not merely located it in one place at the end of the public ministry (though he has preserved a final teaching about the end in 21:5-38).
The reading from Malachi reminds us that the presence of evil and injustice has always elicited yearning in the hearts of God's faithful for divine redress and for the reward of those who have been faithful. Psalm 98 proclaims that God will come "to rule the world with justice and the peoples with fairness".
The reading from Second Thessalonians argues against people who would opt out of the challenges of daily labour in this world, so as to be ready for the Lord's return or out of a mistaken conviction that he has already come. Paul, who longed for the Lord's appearance but was totally committed to toil and labour as well, is a model Christians may imitate.
In a gospel passage in which he speaks of worldwide crises and cosmic portents, Jesus urges his disciples to a patient endurance, rooted in faith, love and hope. They are not to be frightened or led astray, but are to be assured that in persecution Jesus will give them an eloquence and wisdom that their enemies will be unable to resist or contradict. Finally, they are to be confident about what is to come because He who addresses them is the Lord of History.
While years and seasons come and go and Ordinary Time of Year "C" will soon give way to Advent of Year "A", the goal of history is in God's hands and has been revealed to Christians in the words of Jesus. This is the reason that his disciples confidently keep their eyes fixed on Jesus and long for his return in every age "until he comes".
The name "Malachi" means "my messenger" and derives from verse 3:1 where God promises to send a figure at the end of time who will "prepare the way" before God who is coming to renew the faith life of Israel. The anonymous prophet who authored these oracles lived in the land of Judah two generations after the people of God had come back from exile in Babylon (about 460 B.C.).
The Temple had been rebuilt, but it had become a sorry sight. Not only because the 20,000 returned exiles were poor and had little material to rebuild the Temple, but because they had grown weary of devout religious practice. Jewish men were divorcing the "wives of their youth," in favour of pretty girls of foreign extraction (Malachi 2:4; Ezra). The well-to-do were not only cheating the poor, but were even selling them into slavery (Mal 3:5; Nehemiah 5).
Among the leadership, especially among the priests, religious fervour had collapsed and so had the moral fibre of the nation. Indifference, unrest and injustice were rife in the land. Temple worship was not even externally correct; sick and useless animals were being offered to God in sacrifice.
The prophet's oracles are a kind of catechism, laying out convictions about: God's special love for Israel, the sins of the priests, God's opposition to divorce, God's love of justice and criticism of ritual offenses and, finally, assurance of the coming triumph of the just. In his last oracle, Malachi faced the problem of evil as it was revealed in just people suffering and unjust people prospering.
Malachi's message is that the world may confidently look forward to a day not-too-far off when the least shadow of evil will be blotted out. The image he uses is that of the sun of righteousness shining out with healing in its rays. In the ancient world, one of the principal gods was the sun, who was believed to provide for his devotees warmth, life, light and law. Malachi used this symbolism, identifying these qualities with God's saving action towards the few in Israel who had remained faithful to God and their neighbours in difficult times.
In recent decades, an increasing number of scholars has questioned whether the second epistle to the Thessalonians was written by Paul. Some feel that its form and style reflect the thought-world of a later generation that is trying to come to grips with Paul's message and apply it to new circumstances. This literary convention is called pseudonymity, since the author takes on the pseudonym of Paul to get a hearing for his interpretation of what Paul would say to changing Church conditions.
Whether Second Thessalonians was authored by Paul or by a successor of his, the issue under discussion in this passage seems clear enough. Some people have become so caught up in speculation about the end-times and talk of the nearness of Jesus' return that they have withdrawn from daily duties of life (work, family commitments, etc.) under the pretence that "the Day of the Lord has already arrived" (2 Thessalonians 2:3). Forthrightly, the author replies that this is not and cannot be so, for certain signs which must precede the end have not yet taken place (2:4-12).
Paul (or his disciple) then points to Paul's own way of life as a model to be imitated in how to live in expectation of the end: hard work, not being a burden to anyone, not interfering with another's work. Every Christian is to support himself or herself, if possible (this is not to be read as a critique of people who, for no fault of their own, are unemployed or on welfare). While zealously longing for the Parousia (return) of Jesus, the Christian is to engage fully in his or her earthly tasks and commitments.
Christian discipleship in light of the coming of the Lord is not a matter of "either/or" (either full engagement in work or yearning for the Lord's return), but one of "both/and" (both fully engaged in witness to others through work in the world and ardent longing for the fulfilment of God's rule at the end of time).
In the final address of his public ministry Jesus encouraged his disciples with the words, "By your endurance will gain your lives".
Today's gospel passage is the first half of the final speech of his public ministry that Jesus gives in Luke's gospel. Like those addresses found in Mark 13 and Matthew 24-25, this speech is apocalyptic in nature, that is it "uncovers" or "reveals" God's designs for the future of his chosen ones, in this case the disciples of Jesus, members of the Church.
It is important, however, to realize that, since the future of salvation for the world remains within God's sovereign wisdom, even what is revealed cannot be fully understood by human beings. Faith in God and trust in his saving designs are called for so that one may correctly interpret what Jesus is telling us of the future.
Framed by a reference to Jesus' daily teaching ministry in the Temple (Luke 19:47-48; 21:37-38) and his prediction of the Temple's imminent destruction (21:5-7), Luke's account of Jesus' final address has five parts: an opening exhortation that Christians not be led astray about what is to be (21:8-9); a listing of cosmic disasters (10-11); events to happen before the end of the world: the persecution of Christians (12-19) and the destruction of Jerusalem (20-24); further cosmic disasters (25-33); and a final exhortation to remain vigilant and alert (34-36).
The gospel in today's liturgy commends only a part of Jesus' final teaching for reflection and prayer. Christians learn that the Temple of Jerusalem, however beautifully adorned, was a temporary instrument for God's worship and praise; in the divine scheme of things it was permitted to be destroyed (Luke 21:5-6). The disciples asked the signs that would point to the coming Temple destruction (21:7).
In reply, Jesus gave a general answer: there will be wars and revolutions, for God has ordained that such things happen (God is understood to be involved in history by the words "this is something that must happen") as they have throughout history. In the phrase, "but the end is not yet" it is not clear whether this refers to the end of history or, more probably, the end of the Temple.
The other signs Jesus mentions (21:10-11) recapitulate the Old Testament's prophetic visions of the "Day of the Lord", a day of judgment and retribution. Then, Jesus mentions the persecution of his followers from Jewish and Gentile sources, from synagogues and prisons, from kings and prefects. This is the opportunity for them to witness by love that they are Christians. Jesus himself will give them words and wisdom to confound those who try them, such words as will be able even to win some of the persecutors over.
Members of their families and even friends will persecute them--even to the point of some dying. Jesus guarantees them victory, alluding to a proverb he had used earlier, "not a hair of your head will be lost" (Luke 21:18; cf. 12:7).
As a whole, this eschatological address by Jesus seeks to give encouragement and exhort Christians to watchfulness. This is clearly the drift of Jesus' closing words in today's gospel your endurance will win you your lives and of several other encouraging remarks later on in his talk stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near (Luke 21:28), the sky and the earth will pass away, but my words will not (21:33) and be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man (21:36).
Christians are not to fear the future but rather to trust that their dedication to the way of the Lord Jesus will see them through any travails in this world on the way to the fullness of life in the Kingdom.