Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C


Malachi 3:19-20a; Psalm 98:5-6, 7-8, 9; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12; Luke 21:5-19

The first reading is taken from the prophet Malachi, a name meaning “my messenger.” The date of his prophetic ministry is sometime in the early fifth century B.C. Nothing is known of his origin or his life, but his interests can be discovered through the oracles of his book. After a scathing denunciation of corrupt practices of the priests in the temple, he attacks nonconformities in the laws of marriage. He expresses empathy for wives rejected by their husbands. For example, “Do not break faith with the wife of your youth.” He insisted on the people’s obligation to contribute to the support of the temple. Social justice was also on his mind in his conviction that those who wrong the defenseless will merit the punishment from God that they deserve. A major concern is that the Lord is weary of all society’s abuses. He attacks cynics who say, “Any evildoer is good as far as the Lord is concerned. In fact he likes them best.” The solution to all this corrupt-ion, he warns, is the Day of the Lord, a major intervention from Heaven to burn away evil.

Thus the first reading begins, “Behold, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble” (the debris left to be blown away by the wind after a field has been burned off). Malachi’s wrath continues with the theme of fire, “. . . and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch.” To God himself the prophet credits his message, “So says the Lord of hosts” (armies). That’s the bad news, and it affects only the wicked. Last comes the Good News. “But for you who revere my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.” The theme of all three readings today is the end of time and the return of Jesus. What Malachi and other prophets said about the terrors of the “Day of the Lord” became in the New Testament the “Day of the Lord Jesus,” in the three versions we have of Jesus’ final discourse.

The Responsorial Psalm, 98, seems a bit of a jolt as a response to the oracles of Malachi, especially the bad news parts. The Psalm is basically an enthronement song celebrating the Lord as King. Although not included in today’s excerpts from the Psalm, it begins with a familiar line, “Sing a new song unto the Lord . . . .” It invites all humanity to join in praising the Lord in his temple in Jerusalem. Those who prefer a less boisterous worship than the worship encouraged by this Psalm may be distressed by all the noise, “Sing praise to the Lord with the harp, with trumpets, with horns.” The sea and its contents along with the rivers are invited to clap their hands, while even the mountains sing for joy. What is the connection with Malachi’s oracles in today’s first reading? It is the People’s Response: “The Lord comes to rule the earth with justice.”

The second reading continues a series of selections from 2 Thessalonians. Just before our reading begins, Paul hit upon a specific abuse going on at Thesssalonica. People stopped working because they expected the Lord to return imminently and wrap things up for this world. He writes, “. . . keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not according to the tradition you received from us.” Typical of Paul, he suggests himself as role model. He notes that he did not act in a disorderly way when he was with them, nor did he mooch food off of them. On the contrary, “we worked day and night . . . so we would not be a burden to you.” Then comes the famous workfare rule, “If anyone is unwilling to work, neither let him eat.” What Paul should have admitted was the fact that it was his preaching of the imminent return of Jesus, in his lifetime, that excited these early Greek Christians to get ready. They just chose the wrong way.

The gospel reading is in a form of literature called an apocalypse. Our New Testament Book of Revelation is an apocalypse. Mark 13 is another. Among other characteristics of an apocalypse is to narrate the past as if it were the future. Therefore many, but not all, of the events Luke attributes to Jesus had occurred. Luke writes in the 80s of the first century A.D., but the setting of the discourse is in the early 30s. Jesus was with people in the temple area. They wondered at the magnificent stones out of which the temple was constructed and the votive offerings in the temple, even as today people donate a church window, etc., as a votive offering. Jesus notes that all this glory will be gone, that not one stone will be left atop another. (True of the superstructure, but the Wailing Wall remains.) Like today, inquiring minds want to know, “Lord, when, and what signs will there be?” That is how Luke introduces Jesus’ final sermon. First he warns about fake claims and fake news. Despite this warning, fake claims and fake news about Jesus’ imminent return are still with us, as they have been throughout Christian history.

The Lucan Jesus responds to the signs that will herald the end: wars, rebellions, famines, cosmic upheavals, plagues, earthquakes. These are standard ingredients in Old Testament warnings describing the terror of the Day of the Lord, now the Day of the Lord Jesus. Only a few years before Luke composed his gospel, the Mediterranean world was shaken by the news of the cataclysmic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. — the results of which are a major tourist attraction today. Wars, famine, plagues, even cosmic events, for example, comets, were going on before that time, at that time, and ever after. The Lucan Jesus predicts persecution. The Neronian persecution of Christians in Rome happened only two decades before Luke wrote his gospel. The hatred against Christians “predicted” in this sermon is documented even by pagan Roman writers. So what are we to do with these “warnings” that have been used throughout Christian history to set a date for the end? “Look to thine own end,” for that will surely happen sooner or later, and leave the final end to God. Our gospel reading ends well, “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”