Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time C
Luke 21:5-19 (see TEXT below)
TODAY’S GOSPEL reading confronts us with the salient features of the sufferings people on the Jesus-way -- especially those of Jesus’ day -- would experience as they walked their way through the post-resurrection time.
Even so, it is difficult to discern the exact time to which Jesus is making reference. We do know that in 70 c.e. Titus the Roman Emperor sacked Jerusalem and subsequently destroyed the Temple. N.T. Wright tells us that Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of this magnificent Temple would be to his hearers like someone predicting the destruction of a national treasure like the White House or the Washington Monument to us.
Of course, these listeners were very interested in his words and wanted to know more. Who wouldn't? So those with him ask, when will this happen? and what will be the signs that the Temple’s destruction is near?
See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, 'I am he,’ and 'The time has come.’ Do not follow them When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky. Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name...
These statements are very pointed and had to be heard as quite unnerving.
Wars? Earthquakes? Persecutions?
Now we know that much of this prediction was fulfilled in the book of Acts, at least the persecution part because deep suffering came upon the church. In fact an avalanche of suffering occurred which went unabated for nearly 250 years (until Constantine in 306 c.e. declares himself a follower of Christ).
Wars? Earthquakes? Both those man-made disasters and those natural disasters seem always to be with us. The man-made evil seemingly more easily understood and explained than the natural evil which befalls us. Both are devastating, to be sure, but the Holocaust is in some sense understandable because people can be monstrously evil, and therefore immorality in the extreme reigned. But, take the 2004 Christmas Tsunami, when 227,898 died in seconds. The explanation for this becomes merely scientific and amoral, and in the end unsatisfying.
Ultimately, Jesus words seem strange to us. Such apocalyptic language can easily be off-putting, so grounded are we in the purely rational that any hint of predictions and future-tense-events can leave us cold. Here sophistication trumps naiveté and we often err on the side of how we look to others. Still, it is very difficult to read this TEXT without seeing in some sense the supernatural, spiritual movement of the prophetic office coming out of Jesus for his immediate hearers -- “This is what will happen in the future; be ready and do not be surprised.” Said in this way it makes sense that he would want to prepare them for what they would face after his death. Yet, even without the prophetic notions of the TEXT, his response to: When will the Temple fall? What will happen next? And How should we respond? makes good reading for us as well.
Let me the offer three ideas:
FIRST: HISTORY IS GOING SOMEWHERE
This is clearly the point that is driving the narrative. It is as if Jesus is saying, “These acts of persecution and war and these natural disasters may seem random and mere flashes of grief, but don’t you believe it. My Father is at work.” What is important for us to remember, when it seems all anchors have let loose and we are being shaken apart from the moorings we have known, that the Father is still at work as well, even at this late date.
The message here is, we need not be afraid (“do not be terrified” reads the TEXT) for we know that there is an ultimate end and that the convulsions of the present do not mean things are out of control. Instead, they signal the birth-pangs of the new world, the world of the Kingdom of the Christ. Now, if taken seriously, this is a rather surprising way to live -- hope in the face of suffering and challenge. But, only a person of faith can consistently place this type of grid over the world, and without it the world becomes even more dark than it already is.
There is a danger here. Namely, that when by faith we see how GOD providentially uses the decisions of people (often people doing evil), and when we see the on-rush of these natural eruptions, we might choose to do nothing in the world to make it better, either waiting complacently for the end or fearing we will contradict GOD’S work (e.g. Camus’ The Plague). This is truly evil on our part, and it flies in the face of all the Christ offered in this calling we have received. Which, said another way, means we are to fight with all our being to offer justice and peace to a world awash in blood and gore, believing that this too is part of the coming of the new age of the King.
The spirit of this age, led by the forces of hate and destruction, are fighting tooth and nail to stop the Kingdom movement found in the Jesus-way. Above all, evil (not as entity but as a well-spring of hate and evil behavior) consumes what gives into it. If we surrender to the present evil age (either by choice or by inertia) -- with its hate and its meanness and its death-as-life -- we actually become part of the forces against the King and the Kingdom (no matter if we name him as ours our not), which means we too will ultimately be overcome and destroyed.
SECOND: CHRISTIANS ARE NOT ABOVE SUFFERING
This truth is axiomatic in the rest of the world, but here in the West it has been a long time since it hit us up close and personal. Of course, there are those here who attempt to signal to us that we are loosing our Christian freedoms everyday, but they do so from relative comfort, on $1000 dollar computers in homes or offices air conditioned and heated. Not so their brothers and sisters around the world.
Take, for example, the very recent massacre of Christians in a Baghdad church. These people were killed simply because they were followers of the Christ. The church was attacked during Sunday Mass and 52 were killed and over 70 were wounded. This is horrible; but it has always been so. The brutality of the world toward the followers of Christ is well documented. Our church calendars are papered with the remembrances of the Saints brutalized and butchered for the faith. (This is why abuse and persecution coming from Christians is especially heinous -- we should know better).
Here we must inform ourselves about the struggle or our brothers and sisters and then stand with them as they suffer. For most of us this will mean a daily prayer regimen that offers intercession. There are also other ways to become directly involved. I often refer to the Voice of the Martyrs as a help for direct action, but there are other places toward which to turn as well.
THIRD: SUFFERING OFFERS AN OPPORTUNITY
Finally, Jesus reminds his hearers that suffering presents the hidden opportunity to offer testimony. The TEXT reads: Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimony. (There are other good, biblical examples of this: Jesus before Pilate [John 18:33-38], Peter before the religious [Acts 4:1-12], and Paul before the religious [Acts 22:1-8]).
It must seem to the casual observer that concern about one’s testimony when one is being persecuted is absurd, but the person on the Jesus-way is no casual observer. Instead, the follower of the Christ signed on for this task, specifically. For, it was in our promise of allegiance to the living-risen Jesus that we offered everything we have and everything we are -- even our very lives. (“Deny yourself, Take up your cross, Follow thou me.”)
Said another way, to offer testimony while on trial follows the pattern of Christ, himself (Heb.12:2), who is the one toward which we are being daily conformed (Rom.8:28-30).
While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, Jesus said, "All that you see here-- the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down."
Then they asked him, "Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?" He answered, "See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, 'I am he,’ and 'The time has come.’ Do not follow them! When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end." Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky."Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimony. Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives."