Updated: Nov 20, 2019
Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
As we draw close to the end of the liturgical year we notice there is a theme of end-time in today’s readings. The short extract from the prophet Malachi is rich in the imagery of the future ‘day’ of judgement. A number of the Hebrew prophets painted a scenario of the day of judgement with descriptions of an angelic messenger coming with the prophet Elijah to separate the good from the wicked. The just could look forward to vindication while the wicked would face a fiery punishment. As I write this now, we are under a catastrophic fire danger alert here in the Blue Mountains, which has a curious end-time atmosphere about it. However, all is well so far at 4.20pm.
The rhetoric of this visionary language in the prophetic books was produced over a period of 300 years ranging from the earliest, in the prophecies of Amos, to the latest with today’s prophet, Malachi. Of course, each prophet emphasised different aspects of the judgement day scenario. Amos, for example, stressed the darkness of doom for the unrighteous, while Malachi focused on the light of victory for the faithful ones. The darkening of the sun and other apocalyptic portents were also common in the prophetic tradition of the end-time imagery.
In Medieval times much of this biblical imagery was interpreted literally and we can see examples of this in Medieval and Renaissance art where the unrepentant sinners are portrayed as burning in flames and suffering great torment. This literal reading defies logic when one asks how a spirit can be tortured by physical flames or how a loving God could commit a soul to an eternal punishment for a temporal offence, where the punishment would in no way fit the crime. Very strange perceptions of a truly compassionate God.
It is not in the nature of God to abandon the faithful ones
The responsorial psalm gives us a hint of some of the cultural thinking behind the first reading. In ancient Israel people had a strong sense of justice and saw that it was only fitting that evil people should be punished. Consequently, their view of God was of a being that was supremely loving but also irreproachably just. The good would be rewarded and the wicked would be punished. God rules the word with fairness and sees to it that people reap either reward or their personal whirlwind.
The assurance expressed by the poet is that it is not in the nature of God to abandon the faithful ones.
Hence the message of hope and trust in this song.
We don’t know when Christ will come, and we walk by faith
The second reading to the Thessalonians contains a personal testimony from Paul, reminding the community that he was never one to sponge on them, but worked to pay his way so as not to be a burden on anyone. He has obviously heard that some people had downed tools and stopped working, no doubt imagining that the end-time and the second coming of Christ was imminent. Why work if Christ is going to turn up next week and wind up the whole show?
Paul’s message is that we don’t know when Christ will come and we walk by faith, doing our best to live up to our Christian commitment.
Paul urges the community not to put up with idlers who don’t contribute to the welfare of the community.
The gospel reading contains a direct reference to catastrophic events. In this passage Jesus is responding to remarks people were making about the grandeur of the Temple in Jerusalem. In Jewish tradition this is always described as the Second Temple. The First Temple was erected by King Solomon around the year 957 B.C. and was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. After the exiles returned from Babylon, the building of the Second Temple was begun, with permission and funding from Persia. It was completed in 515 B.C. and was quite a modest structure in comparison with Solomon’s temple. It lasted until the first century before Jesus when Herod the Great undertook a major reconstruction in 20 B.C. Herod’s building program took 46 years and he died 24 years before his project was completed. The new temple was finished only ten or so years before Jesus was crucified.
In today’s gospel Jesus is portrayed as predicting the destruction of the Second Temple, and Luke, writing in the mid-80s, is conscious that there is no temple in Jerusalem since it was totally destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, notes how the Jews had a great deal of national pride in their temple and because it was a symbol of Jewish nationalism and Jewish identity, its destruction was psychologically devastating and seemed to represent for many Jews the introduction of the end-time. This is why the questions addressed to Jesus were so filled with anxiety and uncertainty. However, Jesus makes it clear by his answers that there is no point trusting in the Temple because one day it will be destroyed.
It seems clear that the mention of wars and tumults is partly a reference to the events of the Jewish War against the Romans that took place in 66-70 A.D. The signs that Jesus speaks of are typical of those occurring in apocalyptic writings. Apocalypse refers to revelations usually depicted in dreams or visions. It is likely that Luke is regarding the hardships and atrocities of the Jewish War as part of the phenomena that indicate the beginning of the end-time. In which case, they could represent the lead- up to both the fall of Jerusalem under Roman power and the last days of time in the future.
Then there is a slight change of direction with the remark, ‘...but before all this happens...’ which is almost certainly a phrase put in here by Luke to bring in references to difficult conditions that dogged the earliest days of the Jesus people. Many early Christian communities had undergone ridicule, denigration and even persecution for their allegiance to a crucified Master. The Lucan community had no doubt felt this hostility and Luke saw the need to apply Jesus’ words of encouragement to them so that they would not lose heart and abandon their baptismal loyalty.
We are enough; we have what it takes to get on with it and finish the job.
Put all this together and there is a clear theme of endurance and perseverance coming through in these readings. I am reminded of the 12 or so rejections J.K. Rowling had with publishers. One publisher even suggested she take a writing course before submitting any more manuscripts (450 million copies sold). She explained later, after she hit the big time, that she pushed on because she had nothing to lose and was supported by the love she had for her daughter. She said, "T.S. Eliot, as chief editor of Faber and Faber, rejected George Orwell’s Animal Farm as ‘unconvincing’. Jack Canfield and Mark Hanson, authors of Chicken Soup for the Soul, suffered 130 rejections and were told that nobody wants to read 100 inspirational stories. 500 million copies later... These stories say something about the drive to persevere and never give up."
Going back to Jesus we see the same conviction that spurred him on to persevere, supported by the strong belief that he was doing God’s work and had divine backing.
Gut-level belief in a project or course of action along with trust in divine backing can raise us up to be more than we can be.
We are enough; we have what it takes to ‘get on with it and finish the job.’
One cannot achieve anything lasting in this word by being irresolute - Mohandas Gandhi
If you must begin then go all the way, because if you begin and quit, the unfinished business you have left behind begins to haunt you all the time - Chögyam Trungpa (20th century Buddhist abbot, teacher, poet)
A Texan walks into a pub in Ireland and announces to the crowd of drinkers, ‘I hear you Irish are great drinkers. I’ll give 500 American dollars to anyone who can drink 10 pints of Guinness one straight after the other.’
The room is quiet, and no one takes up the offer. One man leaves. Thirty minutes later the same man returns and taps the Texan on the shoulder. ‘Is your bet still good?’ asks the Irishman.
The Texan says yes and asks the barman to line up ten pints of Guinness. Immediately the Irishman tears into the ten pints, drinking them all back-to-back. All the pub patrons cheer as the Texan stares in amazement. He gives the Irishman the $500 and drawls, ‘If ya don’t mind me askin’, where did ya go for the thirty minutes you were away?’
The Irishman replies, ‘Oh...I went to the pub down the street to see if I could really do it.’