Nov 17, 2019: 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – 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 LORD of hosts.
 But for you who fear my name, there will arise
 the sun of justice with its healing rays.

This reading is remarkable in its brevity, yet it is filled with vivid images and it contains a powerful message.

The word Malachi means “my messenger.” The author of Malachi lived during the time when the Israelites were rebuilding Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile (587-537 BC). He was extremely critical of what he saw as violations of the people’s covenant relationship with God.

(Note: This passage is Malachi 4:1-2a in all translations but the New American Bible.)

Lo, the day is coming,

The setting is the Day of the Lord, the end times, the time of fulfillment of all God’s promises and the realization of the destiny of the world.  It is the time when justice will be realized, when the scales of righteousness will be balanced, when the good will be rewarded and the evil punished.

Initially Israel believed that this day would be purely a time of vindication and rejoicing; however, the prophets set them straight on this matter, insisting that Israel itself would also have to face the righteous anger of God and pay for its sinfulness.

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,

The prophet employs the metaphor of a blazing fire to depict this event.  The image is of a conflagration that burns the stubble left over after the grain has been harvested.  It has been dried by the heat of the sun, and it is useless except as fire starter.  The day itself is so hot that, like a form of spontaneous combustion, it ignites the chaff. The ungodly are identified as the stubble that is consumed by the flames.

leaving them neither root nor branch, says the LORD of hosts.

Nothing is left of them, neither branch, which produces the fruit of the growth, nor the root, which promises new life.  Every aspect is consumed by the fire.

But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.

On the other hand, the Day of the Lord will rise majestically for the upright, like the sun in the eastern sky that shines forth in righteousness.  The healing of this experience of God is the total reversal of the flaming destruction in store for the wicked.

The end of the world and the corresponding judgment will be terrible for the evildoer, but joy for the faithful.

2nd Reading – 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12

Brothers and sisters:
You know how one must imitate us. 
For we did not act in a disorderly way among you,
nor did we eat food received free from anyone. 
On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day
we worked, so as not to burden any of you. 
Not that we do not have the right. 
Rather, we wanted to present ourselves as a model for you,
so that you might imitate us. 
In fact, when we were with you,
we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work,
neither should that one eat.
We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in a
disorderly way,
by not keeping busy but minding the business of others. 
Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly 
and to eat their own food.

Today we conclude our three-week study of 2 Thessalonians with Paul’s words of encouragement to this struggling community. His instructions are meant to ensure both harmony within the community and a positive reputation, recognizable to outsiders.

Brothers and sisters: You know how one must imitate us.

Paul offers his own conduct as an example for them to follow.  This should not be seen as an act of arrogance or self-serving pride; rather, he is trading on the conviction that the values of Christian commitment are not taught only by word of mouth.  They are also manifested through the witness of the lives of those who believe.  Paul is saying that he himself has been faithful to the message he has been teaching and that the Thessalonians can learn from what he does as well as from what he says.

Just as he can serve as an example to them, they should be able to serve as examples to others.  This is a very important way for the gospel to be taught to the world.  It is also a measure of the authenticity of the word of the preacher.

“A teacher demonstrates great confidence if he uses his own good actions to reprove his disciples. And so Paul writes, ‘You know how one must imitate us.’ And he ought to be a teacher more of life than of the word. Let no one think that Paul says this because of a boastful heart. The necessity of the situation in Thessalonica drove him to speak in this way, with a view to the advantage of the entire community.” [Saint John Chrysostom (between A.D. 398-404), Homilies on the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians 5]

For we did not act in a disorderly way among you,

There are three lessons Paul seeks to teach: two point to behavior he has avoided, the third to a way of living he has embraced.

First, he has not acted in a disorderly fashion.  This is a strange thing to say unless there were those among the audience who had indeed acted in this way.  Whatever the case may have been, Paul’s behavior has been beyond reproach.

nor did we eat food received free from anyone.

Second, he has not presumed upon the hospitality of others.  This is an important point, because it was common for travelers to rely on the hospitality of those through whose villages and cities they passed. However, there were certain well-established customs that governed how a guest should be treated and how long a guest should stay.  Paul is probably referring to something quite different; his point becomes clear in what follows.

On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day we worked, so as not to burden any of you.

Paul’s third lesson is found in his manner of living among the Thessalonians.  He reminds his hearers that he worked long and hard so he would not be a financial burden to them. This suggests that besides the time and energy expended in preaching the gospel, he had other employment that enabled him to cover his own expenses while in their midst.

Not that we do not have the right. Rather, we wanted to present ourselves as a model for you, so that you might imitate us. 

Paul further reminds them that he really had a right to be supported by them during the time he was ministering to them.  However, he had waived this right for the sake of the reputation of the gospel itself.  He did not want to give anyone the impression that ministers of the gospel are a burden to the community.

In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat. We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in a disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others.

This leads him to comment on a situation he has been told exists within the Thessalonian community. Evidently, some of the Thessalonians are unwilling to work, presumably because they believe those who are saying that the second coming is at hand. If the world as we know it is coming to an end, why bother working?

Paul has no patience with this attitude. Playing on words, he condemns those within the community who have acted as busybodies rather than being actually busy. The reason for their idleness is not given, but Paul’s condemnation indicates it was deliberate on their part, not a circumstance beyond their control.

Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and to eat their own food.

Paul counsels harsh treatment of such people.  If they are unwilling to discipline themselves, then it is the responsibility of the community to discipline them.  The community is told to withhold food from them. The community should no longer allow them to live off its generosity, because that generosity is then misplaced.  Paul insists that if people want to eat, they must work like everyone else, offering himself as an example in this regard.

“This we must also keep in mind – that he who labors ought to perform his task not for the purpose of ministering to his own needs but that he may accomplish the Lord’s command, ‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat’ (Matthew 25:35), and so on. To be concerned for oneself is strictly forbidden by the Lord in the words, ‘Be not concerned for your life, what you shall eat, nor for y9our body, what you shall put on,’ and he adds ‘for the heathens ask after all these things’ (Matthew 6:25, 32). Everyone, therefore, in doing his work, should place before himself the aim of service to the needy and not his own satisfaction. Thus, he will escape the charge of self-love and receive the blessing for fraternal charity from the Lord, who said, ‘As long as you did it to one of these, the least of my brothers, you did it to me’  Matthew 25:40). Nor should anyone think that the apostle is at variance with our rule when he says, ‘that working they would eat their own bread.’ This is addressed to the unruly and indolent, and means that it is better for each person to minister to himself at least and not be a burden to others than to live in idleness.” [Saint Basil the Great (after A.D. 370), Rules Treated at Length Q,42,R]

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.”

The admiration for the Temple expressed by some bystanders prompted Jesus to predict the destruction of that magnificent edifice.  This was the second Temple of Jerusalem, constructed after the Jews had returned from the Babylonian Exile.

While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings,

Though initially the Temple could not compare with the splendor of the Temple built by Solomon, the renovations commissioned by King Herod gave it a resplendence that surpassed the original.  This Temple was certainly something in which the Jewish people could take great pride.

he 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.”

Jesus may have exaggerated when he said that one stone would not remain upon another, but it was a way of characterizing the extent of devastation that was to come to pass.

This echoes a statement Jesus made earlier in Luke’s gospel, when he lamented over Jerusalem: “For the days are coming upon you when your enemies will raise a palisade against you; they will encircle you and hem you in on all sides. They will smash you to the ground and your children with you, and they will not leave one stone upon another within you… ” (Luke 19:43-44a).

Then they asked him, “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?”

Like anyone would, the hearers want an indication of when the events are beginning.

For Jesus’ contemporaries, the end time were the times when God would take decisive action and vindicate God’s people by punishing evil and rewarding good.  Here we see that the destruction of the Temple would be one of the signs that the end times were near.

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!

Jesus, too, speaks of the destruction of the Temple and the end times in relationship to each other. As he responds to the people’s question he talks not only about the destruction of the Temple, but also about the coming of the Son of Man. Before he identifies the signs they ask for, Jesus warns his listeners against those who might appear claiming they have come in Jesus’ own name to interpret the meaning of the events that are transpiring.

As we recently read in our Lectionary selections from 2 Thessalonians, this was the experience of the Thessalonians. They were being told “the time has come,” when it had not come. Jesus warns his followers not to be deceived by such false prophets.

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.

The signs themselves are demonstrations of upheaval. They include political unrest and violence as well as disturbances in the natural world, all experiences people of the time would precede the end of the age.

“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.

Before these things come to pass, something even more personal will transpire first. The long-expected signs portend the persecutions the follows of Jesus will have to endure at the hands of the government and religious leaders.

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.

The point is not that they will suffer; under such calamity, all people will suffer.  The point is that they will suffer because of the name of Jesus.

These terrible persecutions will lead to one great thing: the giving of testimony. The ability to speak a word of wisdom that we do not prepare beforehand, that Jesus himself will give us, and that leaves our adversaries powerless to resist is an irrefutable sign of the authority and majesty of Christ. Luke 12:12 ascribes this inspiration to the Holy Spirit.

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,

Christians can expect to be betrayed by their friends and acquaintances, even members of their own families.

We must remember that Jesus is describing these horrors at a time when the Temple stood in all its glory.  Only he knew what would transpire in the future, and he is here preparing his followers for that future.

but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.

As Jesus describes this terrible persecution, even death, he assures them that if they remain faithful to him though persecution, “not a hair on your head will be destroyed.” What could Jesus mean by this?

Recall from last week’s gospel that Jesus has just debated with the Sadducees over the possibility of life after death.  The life that his followers will secure by faithful endurance is not life on earth, but life in the world to come. Faithful to the end, even if they are put to death they will be saved.

Connections and Themes

This Sunday we continue last week’s theme of contemplating the end-time and its “already but not yet” characteristics.  It has already dawned through the death and resurrection of Jesus, but it has not yet unfolded completely.

The Day of the Lord.  The Day of the Lord was believed to be the time when God would come in majesty and power to set all things right.  The good would then be rewarded and the evil would be punished.  In order to set things right, the distorted order of sin and unrighteousness that held sway would have to be overturned. This explains the disruption and turmoil that is always described as preceding the day of final fulfillment. Malachi describes it as a blazing fire that will consume whatever opposes the will of God.  Jesus describes this disruption in greater detail.  As he envisions it, both human society and the world of nature will first have to endure upheaval so that they can then be transformed in the age to come.

We must remember that these descriptions are metaphoric or symbolic in nature.  As with all metaphors or symbols, we miss something of their profound meaning if we merely understand them literally.  It is not helpful to relate elements of the description with particular aspects of the contemporary world.  Doing this, we might tend to identify with those who are saved and relegate those who disagree with us to the ranks of those who must suffer the fury of God’s justice.  Instead, when it looks like evil will triumph, the concept of the Day of the Lord should instill in us trust that good will ultimately be victorious.  Belief in the Day of the Lord is a way of testifying to our faith in the righteousness of God.

The righteousness of God.  Although the readings for today concentrate on the disruptions that will accompany the coming of God, they also contain hints of the salvation that will finally arrive.  Malachi speaks of the sun of justice that comes with healing rays; Luke promises that the faithful disciples will escape without a hair of their heads being destroyed.  Just as the descriptions of the upheavals should not be understood literally, neither should these descriptions.  It may be that the faithful followers of Jesus will suffer terrible agonies.  The point here is that even in the midst of their pain, they will be protected.  Just as the reason for the disruption is the offended righteousness of God, so the ground of their hope of protection is the same righteousness of God.

The healing rays of justice and the rescue of the lives of the upright are references to salvation.  God does not come at the end to condemn but to save.  Furthermore, the suffering that precedes the end is intended for purification and refinement, not punishment.

Upright living.  Christians are exhorted to live in this end-time with patient endurance of difficulties.  They are instructed to carry their fair share of the work of the community lest they become a burden to others within the community or to the community as a whole. They must work diligently and conscientiously, awaiting the final coming of Christ without ever knowing precisely when that will be. Since both human society and the natural world will pass through the crucible of refinement, both human society and the natural world will be transformed.  As last week’s readings pointed out, Christians can enable this time of transformation to dawn by living transformed lives even now.  The suffering they will endure as a result of this way of living will act as the purifying fire that precedes fulfillment.  If they persevere in this, they will secure their lives.

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