Gospel for the Thirty Third Sunday (13 November 2016)
Gospel Noptes by Michael Whelan SM
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by 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 of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls. (Luke 21:5-19 – NRSV)
“As Jesus continues his teaching in the Temple, he utters a long discourse which deals with the fate of Jerusalem and its Temple and then moves on to “what is coming upon the world” (21:5–36). This part of the gospel tradition has either preserved the recollection of a lengthy discourse uttered by Jesus toward the end of his ministry about the crisis facing Jerusalem and “this generation” (not unrelated to the fate of the world) or else fashioned such a discourse out of isolated sayings that he may have uttered at various times. The latter is more likely because the different forms of this discourse in the Synoptic Gospels reveal re-workings of the material and concerns which stem even from the post-resurrection period. Moreover, the topics of the fate of Jerusalem and of the world are linked to topics which have appeared earlier in the gospel tradition, the coming of the kingdom and the day of the Son of Man. As a result, this discourse is very complicated and one of the most difficult parts of the gospel tradition to interpret. There are almost as many interpretations of it as there are heads that think about it.” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, SJ, (2008). The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28A), Yale University Press, 2008, 1323.)
Similar texts are found in Mark 13:5-13 and Matthew 24:4-14. Both Luke and Matthew depend heavily on Mark.
There is no way of knowing whether the discourse comes from Jesus or the first Christian community. The best scholars are divided on this question.
We can note in passing that, unlike Matthew, Luke makes no mention of the Parousia or the coming of the Son of Man in his text. Perhaps he is just following Mark who omits it also.
some were speaking about the temple: In view of the fact that Jesus has just spoken directly to the disciples – “in the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples” (20:45) – perhaps it is fair to assume that the “some” refers to “some of his disciples”. Fitzmyer writes of the Temple: “After the Jews returned from the Babylonian Captivity, they reconstructed the Second Temple under Zerubbabel as a replacement of Solomon’s Temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. The new structure was built on the old site and completed about 515 B.C. See Hag 1:4–15. It was less finely appointed than Solomon’s structure, and Herod the Great was finally moved to refurbish it in the fifteenth year of his reign (20–19 B.C.), “erecting new foundation-walls, enlarging the surrounding area to twice its former dimensions” (Josephus, J.W. 1.21, 1 § 401). Work on the reconstruction of the Temple continued for decades. The Johannine Gospel alludes to Jesus’ purging of the Temple in its forty-sixth year of building (2:20). See further Luke 4:9 (and NOTE there); Acts 3:2, 10, 11; 5:12; John 10:23. The reconstruction continued until about A.D. 63, a mere seven years before it was destroyed.” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 1330.)
the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another: For Luke, Jesus is prophet. This moment, when he stands in the temple and foretells its destruction, is reminiscent of Jeremiah 7:1-15.
History teems with people – many of them Christians and at least two of them Popes – worrying about the end of the world. One common form of this worrying is called “millennialism” (from the Latin mille meaning “one thousand”). It stemmed from a misinterpretation of the Book of Revelation 20:7 – “When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison ...” (A peculiar thing can be noted in passing: Some people seem to take perverse delight in the thought that the world is not only about to end but it will be catastrophic.)
Recall the worry as the year 2000 approached! The worriers seemed unaware of the fact that the calendar we follow in the West was begun by a monk called Dionysius Exiguus (“Little Denis”) in the early 6th century and not only did he guess – quite incorrectly as it turns out – the birth date of Jesus, he had no concept of zero. So at his first birthday Jesus would have turned two.
Jesus is not sharing in this kind of worrying about the end of the world and he takes no delight in catastrophes. He is rather inviting us to think more deeply about the present.
“Some were speaking about the temple ....” etc. When the Jews returned from Exile in 538 BCE, they began reconstruction of the Temple that had been destroyed some fifty years earlier by Nebuchadnezzar. Herod the Great took up the reconstruction again in 20 BCE and that reconstruction continued long after the deaths of both Herod (4 BCE) and Jesus (30 CE), until 63 CE – just seven years before the Romans destroyed the Temple again.
What matters in the end actually matters now. Jesus’ words are eschatological – from the Greek word eskata meaning “last things”. Jesus is, in effect, saying: “Pay attention! Reality is more than its surface features or its human constructs. God’s loving intentions and purpose are at work in the heart of reality. A divine plan is unfolding in history.”
The intentions and purposes of human beings – made manifest in such things as their buildings and their invented calendars – can either reveal or hide the divine plan. Sometimes we have to work hard to discover that deeper dimension, the more than, that is present in all people, events and things.
Beyond the comings and goings of human empires, ideologies and so on, we believe history will ultimately reveal the story of God’s victory over sin and death. This is Christian eschatology and it is at the very heart of our faith: “The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith .... Hence eschatology cannot really be only part of Christian doctrine. Rather, the eschatological outlook is characteristic of all Christian proclamation, of every Christian existence and of the whole church.” (Jurgen Moltmann, The Theology of Hope, SCM Press, 1967, 16.) The end is present now.