By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Malachy 3:19-20a; Psalm 98:5-6, 7-8, 9; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12; Luke 21:5-19
On this Sunday, the next to last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Lectionary emphasizes the end time in all three readings. First, we encounter the prophet Malachy, though it is disputed whether that really is his name or simply designated in the text as “my messenger,” that being the meaning of the Hebrew word Malachi. His six oracles are dated sometime in the 5th century B.C. His concerns: an attack on corrupt clergy; the duty of the people to contribute to the support of the temple and its personnel; concern for wives rejected by husbands; reassurance to the people that God loves them; that God will punish those who oppress the defenseless; and a conviction of the honor due to God. He attacks cynics who say, “The arrogant are the blessed ones. Evildoers not only prosper, but when they put God to the test, they get off scot-free.” What recompense will strike the above accused? The Day of the Lord – a day when a patient God will have reached the end of his patience and will intervene decisively to set things right.
Therefore, our reading begins, “Behold, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud will be stubble.” (For non-farmers: stubble is either the straw that remains after the grain has been removed by the threshing process, or the stumps of the straw remaining in the field after the stems with grains have been gathered for threshing.) The prophets used the term stubble as a figure of speech to describe something that would burn fiercely and quickly (See Isaiah 5:24; 47:14; Obadiah 18; Nahum 1:10). Malachy continues the attack: “. . . and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving neither root nor branch.” Says who? “So says the Lord of hosts (armies).” The fire will not destroy everyone. “But for you who fear (respect) my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.” Descriptions of the Day of the Lord by the Old Testament prophets evolved into the Day of the Lord Jesus in New Testament documents.
Psalm 98 jolts us into a counter-world. After being overwhelmed by Malachy’s threats in the first reading, we enter a world of effusive noise — the music of harp, song, horns and trumpets. The psalm is an enthronement song celebrating the Lord as king. Though not included in today’s excerpts from the psalm, the first verse chants, “Sing a new song to the Lord.” The psalmist invites all humanity to join in the celebration. Those who prefer a less boisterous liturgy will be distressed by the liturgy envisioned in this psalm. Seas and rivers are invited to clap their hands, while the mountains sing for joy. How do we connect this psalm with Malachy’s oracles? In the people’s response, “The Lord comes to rule the earth with justice.”
As in the past two Sundays, the Lectionary takes us into the Second Letter to the Thessalonians. Paul is dealing with a problem that, at least in part, arose from his preaching about the nearness of the return of Jesus at the end time. Some of his parishioners had stopped working, and were mooching food off of others. Typical of Paul, he proposes himself as a role model. “You know how you must imitate us. We did not act in a disorderly way among you, nor did we receive food free from anyone. We worked night and day to avoid being a burden to any of you.” He recalls his workfare rule, “If anyone does not work, neither let him eat.” The solution to the problem: “Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and eat their own food.”
This year, we have Luke’s version of Jesus’ final public discourse as our gospel reading. Jesus was sitting in the temple area. He looked up, noting how people were dropping contributions into the 13 chests set out for that purpose. On each chest was inscribed the purpose to which one contributed. Jesus heard people speaking about the precious stones and votive offerings with which the temple was decorated. Thus, Jesus’ final public discourse begins with a prediction of the destruction of the temple. By the time Luke was writing this account in the 80s of the first century, the temple had been destroyed about 15 years earlier by the Roman army. People asked Jesus, “When will this happen? What will be the signs?” His answer applies more to the end of time than to the end of the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. There will be fake messiah’s claiming to be Jesus returned. His advice “Do not follow them!” Others will claim “The time has come!” For them, also,a Jesus says, “Don’t follow them!” The world has encountered such false prophets in every generation since the first Christian century, even up to our own time.
Luke adds events that became standard descriptions of catastrophe connected with Old Testament prophets’ oracles of the expected Day of the Lord, when God would decisively intervene in the world to set things right. There will be wars and revolutions. Such things have to happen, “but it will not mean the immediate end.” More of those Old Testament signs of catastrophe are applied to the Day of the Lord Jesus. Nations and kingdoms will rage against each other. There will be earthquakes, famines, pandemics, catastrophic events in the skies. Only five or six years before Luke composed his gospel, Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. No end came, nor did the end come in the event of horrible earthquakes, famines, pandemics in the history of the world. Luke next narrates persecution of Christians, which had happened, continued in his day and up to our own time. Still no end.
Persecuted Christians on trial need not prepare a defense because Jesus himself will instruct them what to say. Not a hair of their head will be destroyed. Interesting claims the early Christians attributed to Jesus! Since all these predicted events have happened over and over again, and have always led to the conviction that the end was near – when it was not – what are we to do with these warnings? We can apply them as general warnings about preparing for our own end. That is bound to come, and much sooner than the end of our planet. Luke’s closing sentence is appropriate. “By your perseverance you will secure your lives,” now and forever.