Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: MAL 3:19-20A; PS 98:5-6, 7-8, 9; 2THES 3:7-12; LK 21:5-19.
The readings for this Sunday have a rather sober, even ominous mood about them. A famous passage from the Prophet Malachi speaks of the final days of judgment that will fall upon Israel. That day will be "blazing like an oven" and those who are "proud" and "all evildoers" will be like burnt "stubble." The "fire" of that judgment day will consume them and leave "neither root nor branch".
In the gospel selection that comes from a passage near the end of Luke's Gospel, Jesus warns those who were admiring the magnificent Jerusalem Temple built by Herod - one of the true wonders of the world at the time, that "days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down." That terrible prediction would come true when, during the Jewish revolt, the Romans would destroy the Temple and Jerusalem itself in 70 AD. (Luke's wording of Jesus' prediction may have been influenced by what actually happened later.) When the disciples ask about when such a tragedy would happen, Jesus describes a future that is filled with chaos: wars and insurrections, conflict between nations and kingdoms, earthquakes, famines, and plagues. Along with these disasters, Jesus warns the disciples to expect arrest and persecution and trials and even death itself "because of my name." And there would also be deep divisions among families and friends and the disciples should even expect to be "hated by all because of my name".
Not a pretty picture, for sure! Even the second reading from 2 Thessalonians has Paul in a rather sour mood, too. He reminds his community at Thessalonica that, even though he could have accepted compensation for his missionary work among them, he refrained from doing so and instead worked "in toil and drudgery, night and day" so he would not be a burden on the community. And now he bluntly tells his community there that he has heard that some are conducting themselves in "a disorderly way" and being "busybodies." Be like me and do your work "quietly" and "eat your own food," Paul says. And if someone doesn't want to do their part in the community, then "neither should that one eat!"
What is going on here? Where is the "good news" in all of this? For one thing, the Scriptures today are speaking honestly about the transitory nature of life. When one travels in the Middle East you discover at every turn the ruins of what were once magnificent buildings, including the impressive remains of the Temple Jesus was speaking about. So solid were these buildings that their foundations and fragments of their thick walls are still standing, but the buildings themselves are shattered and buried beneath the layers of subsequent civilizations. For the people at the time, they must have seemed indestructible and permanent, but that was not the case. And so it is with a lot of our lives: circumstances and possessions and even relationships upon which we build our security are subject to change and can even disappear. We can try to plan for the future but we are never sure what that future will bring for us and our loved ones.
But, at the same time, these sober readings from our Scriptures are not fatalistic. Uncertainty about the future and its possible sufferings do not lead to despair. The Bible and our Christian faith build the future around one unshakable reality: the love of God for us that will never dim or disappear. The prophet Malachi uses a striking image: while the flames of God's judgment might punish those who are evildoers, that same "sun of justice" will bring "healing rays" to those who seek God. And Jesus, too, never gave into hopelessness about the future. Those disciples who anxiously asked when the end of the world would come were told "not to be deceived" and not to follow those who spend time predicting the end time. Despite the challenges and sufferings that could come their way in proclaiming the gospel, "not a hair on your head will be destroyed." Through perseverance and trust in God's love, "you will secure your lives."
That is why the responsorial psalm for this Sunday is so appropriate. The response acknowledges that "the Lord comes to rule the earth with justice" but that the psalm itself views that as very good news. We are encouraged to "sing praise to the Lord with the harp," to "sing joyfully before the King, the Lord." The whole of the universe - the sea, the rivers, the mountains - should clap its hands and shout for joy. Why? Precisely because "God rules the world with justice and the peoples with equity."
In other words, the God who holds our future, is not a vengeful despot but a God of love and mercy - the God revealed by Jesus. No matter what circumstances the future might bring, that reality holds true. As the great mystic John of the Cross said, "In the evening of life we will be judged by love alone."
Fr. Donald Senior, CP
Professor of New Testament Studies
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