Commentary on the Readings
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 17, 2019 – Year C
Courage, lift up your head!
In times of political upheavals wars, famine and pestilence follow suit. The situation of misery becomes intolerable. Rumors spread easily about the end of the world. To give credit to their ranting, the followers of the fundamentalist sects refer to some biblical texts. The most cited is this: “There will be difficult times in the last days. People will become selfish, lovers of money, boastful, conceited, gossips, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy. They will be unable to love and to forgive; they will be slanderers, without self-control, cruel, enemies of good, traitors, shameless, full of pride, more in love with pleasures than with God” (2 Tim 3:1-4). We encounter these uncomfortable situations in every age so those who want to make predictions about the end of the world do not have difficulty to establish the dates. And this is what the Jehovah’s Witnesses do.
For the authors of the New Testament the last times are not the ones coming in millions of years, but those in which we are living, the one initiated with Easter. It is not easy to understand the meaning of what is happening in recent times. Our eyes are veiled, clouded. Too many realities are shrouded in mystery: misfortunes, inexplicable absurdities, contradictions and signs of death. It is difficult to discern a plan of God in all this.
Using apocalyptic language and images, Jesus wants to remove the veil that prevents us from seeing the world through the eyes of God. When he seems to announce the end of the cosmos, he is not referring to the end of the world, but helping us to understand the end of the world. Apocalypse does not mean catastrophe, but revelation, unveiling. We need the words of Christ to illumine us and, among the scribbles drawn by people, to let us see the features of the masterpiece that God is painting.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Lord, stay close to me, I place my hope in you.”
The prophet Malachi lives in a very difficult time. For several years now, the exiles deported to Babylon in 587 B.C. are back. They trusted the words of the prophets who had assured a kingdom of peace and justice. They are here instead in a society where robbery, harassment, and violence against the weak are unabated. There are all reasons to lose faith in God and in the mediators of his Word, the prophets. Some are beginning to express openly their delusion and despair. “It is useless—they say—to serve God. There is no benefit in observing his commandments or in leading an austere life for his sake. Happy are the shameless. Those who do evil succeed in everything, though they provoke God, they remain unharmed” (Mal 3:14-15).
Malachi hears this kind of talk and is not indignant. He understands that when one is embittered, s/he vents in this way. He understands that the people have no need of reproves, but words of consolation and hope, for this he seeks to instill courage. It’s true—he says—that the circumstances are dramatic, but one cannot falter. There is a need to continue being faithful to the Lord and soon “you will see the different fates of the good and the bad, those who disobey God and those who obey him” (Mal 3:18).
It is at this point that our reading starts.
The day is coming, blazing like an oven (v. 19). The Lord decides to strike the evil and makes the righteous triumph; he is going to cause a great fire; he is sending a terrible deluge of fire. Those who do evil shall be burned to stubble, while for the righteous “the sun of justice will shine … bringing health in its rays” (vv. 19-20).
Other prophets have spoken of this cosmic upheaval and they added others to the image of fire. They said: at the passage from the ancient world to the new world, “the sun and moon will grow dark, and the stars lose their twinkle” (Jl 2:10-11), “that will be a day of wrath, anguish, distress, destruction, extermination … and the people will cry out in terror” (Zeph 1:14-18).
What do these dramatic expressions mean? Is it about images or, as the followers of certain sects claim, of information on what will happen at the end of the world?
These disasters and catastrophes are spoken not only in the Old and New Testaments but also in the so-called apocalyptic literature which reached its peak right around the time of Jesus and the apostles. It is about colorful images that would be naive and misleading to interpret literally.
The wrath of God is an expression of his irrepressible love. With this anthropomorphism—very common in the Bible—the prophet wants to emphasize the passion of the Lord for his people who are suffering. He wants to remind everyone of the seriousness of his love, his involvement in the covenant that binds a person and, finally, his victory over all evil, against every obstacle that stands in the way to his work of salvation.
The fire is not set against people but lashed out at everything that prevents a person from living: injustice, envy, greed for wealth, hatred, violence, and moral corruption. The fire is the image of God’s intervention in the world to put an end to every form of evil. Just as no blade of dry grass can escape the flames, no form of ill—says the prophet—can escape the purifying and saving intervention of God.
The message of this First Reading, therefore, is not of fear, but of consolation and hope. When Malachi says that the wicked will be destroyed, he is not saying that one day the Lord will severely punish the bad throwing them into the flames of hell. His fire annihilates, such as straw, not people, but the evil that is in every person.
The people, who listened to this encouraging message, and perhaps even Malachi, thought of an immediate but resolute intervention of God. Nothing happened. We would then expect that the disappointed Israelites would set aside all these oracles of good considering them blunders, hallucinations, dreams of deluded prophets. Instead, they have them stored and continued to wait with unwavering confidence for the coming of “the day as hot as an oven,” and the appearance of the “sun of justice.”
In the light of Easter, we are now able to re-read, to understand these texts. The sun of justice is Jesus. The day burning like an oven is that of his death and resurrection. The fire that will destroy “all evil” is the Spirit that he sent us, and his Word, his Gospel that has already started to renew the face of the earth.
The new world is the Kingdom of God among us, even if we have to wait until the end to see the full triumph of good in the heart of every person.
In the community of Thessalonica, dangerous rumors were spreading: some fanatic Christians claimed that this world would soon come to an end and that Jesus would come back to start a world and a new humanity. These nonsenses stemmed from alleged visions and revelations that someone claimed to have received from God.
The stories that these exalted ones put in circulation greatly disturbed the community.
Some were convinced that the return of Christ being imminent, it was not worth to continue working. They wasted time in gossips and were unwilling to work, throwing into disrepute and ridicule all believers (v. 11).
The situation became more and more disturbing and shocking. Paul was forced to intervene.
In the latter part of his second letter to the Thessalonians Paul definitely calls their attention. Above all, he reminds them of the example of his life: I have never been a slacker—he says—I have never been a burden to anyone. I have proclaimed the Gospel for free and I did not accept alms. Well, you know that I have worked with toil and labor, day and night, not to be a burden to any of you (v. 8).
The economic independence is a source of great pride for Paul. Many times in his letters he returns to the subject (1 Thes 2:9; 1 Cor 4:12; 2 Cor 11:7-10; 12:13-18). To the elders of Ephesus, he says: “I have not looked for anyone’s silver, gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have provided for both my needs and the needs of those who were with me” (Acts 20: 33-34).
After presenting the example of his life, Paul quoted a proverb to the Thessalonians: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (v. 10), and, once again, he reminds Christians “to work and earn their own living” (12).
The new world is a gift from God, but to be built, it needs the commitment of people. Whoever does not work, whoever does not put one’s capacity at the disposal of all brothers/sisters does not cooperate to build the kingdom of God.
Luke wrote his Gospel around the year 85 AD. In the fifty years that passed since the death and resurrection of Jesus tremendous events occurred. There were wars, political revolutions, catastrophes and the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed. Christians became victims of injustices and persecutions. How to explain these dramatic events?
Someone appeals to the words of the Master: “There will be great earthquakes, famines, and plagues … terrifying signs from heaven will be seen … they will lay their hands on you” (vv. 11-12). Here is the explanation—one begins to say—Jesus had foreseen everything. The misfortunes (especially the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem) are signs of the end of the world that is coming and that the Lord is returning on the clouds of heaven.
Today’s Gospel tries to answer these false expectations and corrects the wrong interpretation that some gave to the words of the Master. His apocalyptic language already lent itself to being misunderstood. Let’s look at the details of the passage.
Some people approach Jesus who is in the temple and invite him to admire its beauty: the huge, white limestone rocks perfectly squared by the workers of Herod, the decorations, the votive offerings, the golden vines hanging from the walls of the vestibule and extending more and more through the branches offered by the faithful, the facade covered with gold plates with a thickness of a coin …. With reason, the rabbis maintain: “Who has not seen the temple of Jerusalem has not contemplated the most beautiful among the marvels of the world.”
The answer of Jesus is amazing: “There shall not be left one stone upon another of all that you now admire. Amazed, they ask him: When will this be and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” (vv. 5-7).
Jesus cannot specify the date: He does not know it, as he does not know the day and hour of the world’s end (Mt 24:36). He is not a magician, a soothsayer, so he does not answer.
How does Luke introduce this episode? He introduces it for a pastoral concern: he wants to warn his communities against those who confuse dreams with reality. Some exalted ones attributed to Jesus, predictions that were only results of extravagant speculations.
The evangelist invites the Christians to stop chasing fairy tales and to reflect on the one thing that should be of interest: what to do, specifically, to collaborate in the coming of the new world, the kingdom of God.
The false prophets have always represented a serious danger to the Christian communities. Luke records that Jesus is also bothered and warns his disciples against those who foretell that the end of the world is near. He strongly recommends: “Do not follow them” (v. 9). The end will not come soon; the gestation of the new world will be long and difficult.
What will happen in the time between the Lord’s coming and the end of the world? Jesus answers this question using the apocalyptic language. He talks about the uprisings of peoples against peoples, earthquakes, famines, and pestilences, terrifying events and great signs in heaven (vv. 10-11). These will be taken up and explained later: “Then there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars, and on the earth anguish of nations, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and its waves. People will faint with fear at the mere thought of what is to come upon the world, for the forces of the universe will be shaken” (Lk 21:25-26). What does he mean to say?
One of the recurring ideas in the time of Jesus was that the world had become too corrupt and that it would soon be replaced by a new reality made to sprout by God. It was said that in the time of passage from the old to the new, people would be caught by great fear. The peoples and nations would be upset; there would be violence, diseases, misfortunes, and wars. The sun would appear during the night and the moon during the day; the trees would begin to shed blood and the stones to break into pieces and launch screams.
This language, these images were well known.
Jesus uses it to say to the disciples that the passage between two eras of history is imminent. His is a proclamation of joy and hope. Anyone in pain and waiting for the Kingdom of God should know that the dawn of a new, wonderful day is about to appear. That is the reason that he urges the disciples not to be afraid: “When these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads because your redemption is near” (Lk 21:28).
After having invited them to consider the time of waiting for his return as a gestation that prepares for the delivery, Jesus pre-announces the difficulty that his disciples will have to confront (vv. 12-19).
What will be the sign that the kingdom of God is being born and established in the world? It’s not the triumphs, the applauses, the approval of people, but persecutions. Jesus foresees for his disciples: prison, slanders, betrayal by the family members and best friends. In these difficult situations, they may be tempted to become discouraged, think to have made wrong choices in their lives.
Why endure so much suffering and make many sacrifices? It’s all to no avail: the wicked will always continue to prosper, to commit violence, to get the better of the righteous. Jesus says that this will not happen. God guides the events of people’s lives and directs the plans of the wicked to the good of his children and the establishment of the kingdom.
“Make up your minds not to prepare your defense yet” he recommends. What does this mean? Will the disciples have to expect miraculous deliverances?
No. Jesus warns them of the danger of trusting in reasoning and calculations that people are wont to do.
If his disciples believe to be able to defend themselves using the logic of this world, instead of God’s, they will equate themselves with their opponents and will lose. They will have to happily accept the fact that they cannot resort to the methods of those who persecute them with slander, hypocrisy, corruption, and violence. They must be convinced that their strength lies in what people consider as fragility and weakness. They are sheep among wolves; they cannot dress up as wolves. If they will really be consistent with the needs of their vocation Jesus, the Good Shepherd will defend them. He will give them power no one can resist: the power of truth, love, and forgiveness.
Finally, Jesus draws an expression much used in his time: “Not a hair of your head will perish.” He does not promise to protect his disciples from any misfortune and danger. The persecuted Christians must not expect miraculous deliverances: they will lose their properties, work, reputation and perhaps even life because of the Gospel. However, despite contrary appearances, the Kingdom of God will continue to advance.
Those who have sacrificed themselves for Christ, may not reap the fruits of the good they have sown but must cultivate the joyful certainty that the fruits will be abundant. In this world, the value of their sacrifice will not be recognized. They will be forgotten, perhaps cursed, but God—and it is his judgment that matters—will give them the reward in the resurrection of the righteous.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.