Gospel for the Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (17 November 2019)
Gospel Notes 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).
Joseph Fitzmyer notes: “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 reworkings 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 S J, The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28A), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 1323).
Later, Fitzmyer offers some examples of the differing interpretations: “there have been students of this material who have concluded, as did E. Meyer (Ursprung und Anfänge des Christentums [3 vols.; Berlin/Stuttgart: Cotta, 1921, 1922, 1923] 1. 129), ‘It is quite clear that this whole proclamation has nothing to do with the historical Jesus. It is a creation of the first generation of the Christian community’. Others like C. C. Torrey (Documents of the Primitive Church [New York/London: Harper, 1941] 12–22), J. Schniewind (Evangelium nach Markus [NTD 1; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1963] 168), and M. Mahoney (“Luke 21:14–15: Editorial Rewriting or Authenticity?” ITQ 47  220–238) insist that the whole discourse (at least in the Marcan form) could have been uttered by Jesus. There is, however, no way of resolving this problem” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 1325).
Luke’s text has parallels in Matthew 24:1-14 and Mark 13:1-13. Both Luke and Matthew draw on Mark. These texts are dealing with eschata – “the last things”. They are therefore described as eschatological. With regard to Luke’s dependence on Mark, Fitzmyer proposes that “the best solution of this problem is to admit the Lucan redaction of ‘Mk’ in large measure and to agree that Luke has at times inserted into that redaction some material that he has derived from ‘L’. What he has so derived is not an independent form of the whole discourse, but isolated material of the same character that could be utilized in his redaction” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 1326).
There are at least four other eschatological passages in Luke’s Gospel: 12:35-38 (“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. .....”); 17:20-37 (“Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you’. Then he said to the disciples, ‘The days are coming .....”); 13:34-35 (“‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”.’”); 19:41-44 (“As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come ......).
Fitzmyer suggests an explanation of this repetition: “Why has Luke retained this eschatological discourse, when he elsewhere shows willingness to omit other Marcan material when it tends to create a doublet (see pp. 81–82)? The answer may be that this discourse, inherited from “Mk” and refashioned by Luke, succeeds in bringing together all these diverse themes. For the destruction of Jerusalem and of its Temple is now seen as related to the coming of the day(s) of the Son of Man and to the proximity of the kingdom, even to the end of the world” (Ibid).
In Luke 19:47, we have been told: “Every day he was teaching in the temple.” This is followed by a series of teachings, through to 21:38. The Passion narrative takes up at that point. Luke thus has Jesus the prophet at/in the Temple. (See Mark and Matthew, both of whom have Jesus withdraw to the Mount of Olives – Mark 13:3 and Matthew 24:3.)
Throughout his Gospel, Luke has presented Jesus as belonging to the prophetic tradition of Israel. (See Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 325. See also pages 17-21.) Jesus teaching at or in the temple, reminds the listeners of that great prophet Jeremiah who delivered a damning speech against the Temple in Jerusalem. It is a very long speech that begins in this way: “The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: Stand in the gate of the LORD’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD’” (Jeremiah 7:1-4).
Included in Jeremiah’s speech are words that are more than once echoed by Jesus in his words and actions in regard to the religious authorities of his day: “From the day that your ancestors came out of the land of Egypt until this day, I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day; yet they did not listen to me, or pay attention, but they stiffened their necks. They did worse than their ancestors did” (Jeremiah 7:25-26). See for example, Luke 19:41-44 – one of the eschatological passages cited above.
The prophet’s predictions of the future provide a test of his authenticity. If his predictions eventuate, this is an authenticating sign. Thus, in Jeremiah 28:9 we read: “As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet”. However, if the predictions do not eventuate, this is also to be taken as a sign. Thus, in Deuteronomy 18:21-23 we read: “‘How can we recognize a word that the LORD has not spoken?’ If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.”
Scholars generally agree that Luke’s Gospel dates from after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. It is reasonable to assume that, for Luke’s Gentile Christian audience, it would have been a time of great uncertainty and fear, a situation in which they would have been looking for some reassuring signs to support their commitment to Jesus. Significantly, right at the beginning of his Gospel, Luke in fact says that he is writing “so that you may know the truth” (1:4). The Greek word, translated here in the NRSV as “the truth”, is asphaleian from asphaleia, meaning “safety” or “security”. The New American Bible: Revised Edition has “so that you may know the certainty of the teachings”. The NKJV has “that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed”.
So Luke presents Jesus as the authentic prophet, one whose word can be trusted. Jesus is in the tradition of prophets like Jeremiah. The authentic prophet reminds the people of the Covenant and its promises, generally by calling them back from false teachings and practices and false promises. He sometimes predicts hardship and destruction if they do not turn back. Jesus fits the pattern of the authentic prophet. “Thus, any part of Jesus’ prophecies known by the readers to have been already fulfilled could only heighten trust in his word for what still was to happen” (Timothy Luke Johnson, op cit, 325).
The temple: The First Temple – “Solomon’s Temple”, dating from about c.1000 BCE – was destroyed in 586 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar. In 537 BCE, on return from the Babylonian Captivity, the Jews began the construction of the Second Temple under Zerubbabel who had led the Jews back. He had been appointed governor of Judah by King Darius 1 of Persia. The Second Temple was a modest structure, completed in about 515 BCE – see Haggai 1:4-15. However, the Second Temple was completely refurbished during the reign of Herod the Great (37-4 BCE) in 20-19 BCE. However, work on the reconstruction of the Second Temple continued for decades. When Jesus cleanses the Temple – see John 2:20 – we read the response of the religious authorities present: “‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’” The work continued until a few years before it was destroyed in 70 CE. We can assume it would have been an impressive building. Josephus writes in his Jewish Wars (1:401): “Accordingly, in the fifteenth year of his reign, Herod rebuilt the temple, and encompassed a piece of land about it with a wall; which land was twice as large as that before enclosed. The expenses he laid out upon it were vastly large also, and the riches about it were unspeakable. A sign of which you have in the great cloisters that were erected about the temple, and the citadel which was on its north side. The cloisters he built from the foundation, but the citadel he repaired at a vast expense; nor was it other than a royal palace, which he called Antonia, in honor of Antony” (The works of Josephus: complete and unabridged, translated by William Whiston, Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987, 575). And again: “The exterior of the structure lacked nothing that could astound either mind or eye. For, being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner upon it than it radiated so fiery a flash that people straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the rays of the sun. To approaching strangers it appeared from afar like a snow-clad mountain; for all that was not overlaid with gold was of purest white. From its summit protruded sharp golden spikes to prevent birds from settling upon and befouling the roof. Some of the stones in the structure were forty-five cubits in length, five in height, and six in breadth” (Op cit, 6:222-224).
the days will come: We find this expression in Luke 5:35, 17 22 and 19:43. Life must be lived in the light of the eschata. For the Christian, living is shaped by eschatology. The here and now contains the seeds of what is to come. To live life as eschatological is to live fully in the here and now.
Today’s Gospel – Luke 21:5-19 – must be read against the backdrop of the time in which it came into being. Most scholars date the Gospel of Luke during that period immediately following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple – perhaps 80-85 CE. We can reasonably assume these were troubling times for all the citizens in this region. The first Christians – especially in Palestine – also had to face the fact that they were followers of a man who had been crucified. T S Eliot can help shed some light on today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel. Firstly, Eliot’s observation about the purpose of poetry:
“(Poetry) may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves, and an evasion of the visible and sensible world.” (T S Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, Harvard University Press, 1933, 148-149.) Sacred Scripture is like poetry. If we know how to read it, Sacred Scripture “may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate”. As we read a passage like this from Luke, we may penetrate the substratum of our beings, we may become aware of a reality beyond the conflicts and torments we human beings repeatedly bring on ourselves. That deeper reality allows an encounter with the Source of all that the human heart longs for. Which brings us to the second observation, expressed by Eliot in one of his poems:
“At the still point of the turning world.
Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” (T S Eliot, “Burnt Norton”)
In the Incarnation God is enfleshed. One implication of the Incarnation is that this world, with all its wonders and horrors, its beauty and brutality, is the home of God. It is through and in this world – this actual world – that we come to the Kingdom of God. Empires come and go. Temples are built and destroyed. We easily lose our way if we are not grounded in the “still point”. We are preparing for the Plenary Council. The first plenary gathering will be in October 2020. Let us pray that the participants are grounded in the “still point”. Our primary task is not the building of temples. We are Christ in the world.