By Lin Romano
(Sources include the Sunday Website of St. Louis University, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and others not cited.)
Let’s listen to the first two readings from Malachi and the Psalms.
Reading 1: Malachi 3:19-20a
Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven,
when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble,
and the day that is coming will set them on fire,
leaving them neither root nor branch,
says the God of hosts.
But for you who fear my name, there will arise
the sun of justice with its healing rays.
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 98:5-6, 7-8, 9
Response: God comes to rule the earth with justice
Sing praise to the Almighty with the harp,
with the harp and melodious song.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
sing joyfully before the Creator, our God.
Let the sea and what fills it resound,
the world and those who dwell in it;
let the rivers clap their hands,
the mountains shout with them for joy.
Before the Almighty, for God comes,
for God comes to rule the earth,
God will rule the world with justice
and the peoples with equity.
Take a couple of minutes of silence to think about what stood out for you in the readings. Not a word, but a theme. Write it down and hold onto it.
I found in these readings the overriding theme of hope, which I find in short supply since Tuesday. Perhaps for the first time, I appreciate the retributive language that I generally abhor. All the proud and evildoers will be stubble–wonderful! And they will be set on fire, with none left to take their place–marvelous! And yet, and yet . . . . There is the Gospel still to consider, still the word of calm amidst all. While all the signs of devastation of the world surround us, we are to remain sure in faith, steadfast amidst persecution, sure of tongue and wise beyond knowledge.
Let’s hear that reading…
Gospel Luke 21:5-19
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.”
Now, make a note if you would change what you wrote, if you see those first readings differently in light of the Gospel. Let’s do a brief go-around to share our first thoughts and any modifications.
I skipped today’s reading from 2 Thessalonians, not because I have always found it annoying (which I have) but because it adds little to the apocalyptic literature that is this Gospel. If you didn’t read ahead, the reading from Thessalonians includes the “if you don’t work you shouldn’t eat” admonition. The fact that members of the early church had stopped working actually related to their belief that the day of the Lord had come and the “curse” of work (Genesis 3) had been lifted. Yippee! They were all but in heaven. The world as we know it was coming to an end. Can you feel the mood in Thessalonica? What the heck, why not just eat, drink and be merry, for the day is at hand! Why go to work?
Please excuse another aside, but I have felt like that at times this week. Minus the merriment. It’s been hard to get out of bed and face the days ahead. It’s hard to acknowledge that the world still need not come to an end, if only we can pedal faster, organize, resist, educate, meditate, believe. (Yet has anyone else wanted to cry out “Redo!” or remain tucked under a blanket?)
Okay, so I’ll dispense with that reading now, and wander back to Luke. More predictions of the end times come first, with Jesus describing the destruction of the temple (a charge later brought against him at trial), explaining that false prophets would appear, and calling for calm during all of the horrible times ahead. While many of these predictions may have come true in the first century AD, it seems that generation after generation can recognize a piece of the end times approaching. We are no different.
Remember the year 2000? The apocalypse was imminent! Not only would digital time stop, but the world as we knew it would end, with power going out globally and missiles being launched uncontrollably. People moved to bunkers in the Midwest, and others sat vigil in prayerful hope of a painless end. Movies and books hyped it all, and ultimately, it was business as usual. Money was made and people were duped. The wheel keeps spinning.
So when Jesus warned of the days ahead, and gave signs to look for, was he talking to everyone in all times or truly predicting the end of the world? His word already has come to be, again and again, yet here we breathe, here we sit, here we read the words again and look to the future. Let’s see: Wars – check! Temples destroyed – check! False prophets! Insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues – sadly, very sadly, all checks.
Some say that our years are but a blink of God’s eyes, so if one waits for a literal end of the world based on these signs it could be untold numbers of lifetimes in the coming. But let’s consider another way of looking at this. Could Jesus have been merely giving a worst-case scenario to those following him, so that they would not lose heart when the inevitable occurred? It would help them to remain strong when they were persecuted for their beliefs (imagine the comfort of this when being attacked by hungry lions in a crowded stadium). It would offer some solace when their own families turned on them, giving assurance that their perseverance would net them eternal life.
Remember that when these words were written, probably around 80 or 85 AD, the city and the temple of Jerusalem were already destroyed, and the Acts of the Apostles already written, detailing the difficulties of Jesus’ believers after his death. So were these even predictions, or words attributed to him by a firm believer to increase his stature? Some argue that Mediterranean culture of the time was not so forward-looking. They asked for DAILY bread, as they were primarily present-oriented. Predictions of events in a faraway future to come would not resonate with them. Rather, when Luke’s Jesus later states, “Truly, I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place,” it was seen as a present-day statement of the generation contemporary with his ministry. Since the events have come true, Jesus is judged reliable. Those feeling the heat for their beliefs are encouraged by this, assured that standing firm in the face of persecutions would lead to salvation.
Now, let’s circle back to the first two readings.
First, I want to address the predicted violence. I think–I hope–we all will agree that God is non-violent. God does not prescribe violence, and violence should never be rationalized in God’s name. So what about the violence in this scripture and so many others that is attributed to God, or to God’s direct orders?
Didn’t God wipe out the human race, saving only Noah and his family? Didn’t God ask Abraham to kill Isaac, and also plan to destroy Israel before Moses talked him out of it? Didn’t “God’s Law”–Mosaic law, prescribe stoning women to death for adultery? What about the wars fought in God’s name, and even the extremists in Islam today, killing thousands in God’s name? Doesn’t God state that wars and insurrections MUST happen first, before the “day of the Lord” arrives? How do we explain all of this, if we believe in the sacred texts?
Of course I reject any notion that God reacts with, orders, or approves of violence. I see the writers of the texts as taking their own thoughts and feelings and projecting them onto God. We get angry–God doesn’t. We crave vengeance, not God. If we read all of the scriptures literally we turn God into a tribal God, a God opposed to peace. Many of the texts cannot be taken literally–the violence and killing are metaphorical.
So when we are told that we will experience God’s wrath, when we read today that the proud and evildoers will be stubble and that they will be set on fire, we have to understand that God will not have this “sun of justice” arise with its healing rays by first extracting a “pound of flesh for a pound of sin.” (Ron Rolheiser) Walter Bruggeman once commented that “God is in recovery from all the violence that has been attributed to him and done in his name.”
In fact, even the idea of the last judgment as a dire expectation of doom, does not fit in with a God of healing, as God of justice. I do not look forward with joy for a day that slaughters those who erred, but rather to a day when all will ACT justly, LIVE love, and BE peace.
Let’s try this perspective: All of the catastrophes (think climate-change related), wars, insurrections, etc. are NOT signs of the end times, but of how far we are FROM the end. We have not yet succeeded in bringing about justice. There’s an African proverb that says, “When you pray, move your feet;” perhaps we are not moving enough, marching enough, entering the halls of power and military bases enough, and teaching enough to establish God’s kin-dom. When goodness and justice reign we will have entered the end times of the world. And there is nothing to fear about that end.
At Jonah House, we are well-acquainted with people who have walked into situations where they risked persecution at best, and death as a real possibility. Despite sufferings in and out of jails and prisons, their resolves remain firm, their voices speaking truth to power strong, their love of and faith in God firm, and their spirits full of joy and hope. Yes, there is much legal preparation in a trial after an action for justice, but it is the spirit of God that flows through, that offers words to speak in a courtroom and public forums, that provides the “defense” and the potential for conversion of hearts. We just have to keep moving our feet.
So now I suggest that we focus on questions that will have increasingly more meaning as we move forward under a Trump administration and a Republican Congress:
- How have you felt sustained by a power greater than yourself during a time of justice-seeking or truth-telling?
- How do you see yourself/our communities bringing about the “end times” of justice and peace?