Nov 13, 2022: 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 remarkably short, yet it’s filled with vivid images and 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 any 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,

Malachi announces a day of judgment. This is the “day of the Lord,” the end times, the time of fulfillment of all God’s promises. It is the time when justice will be realized, the scales of righteousness will be balanced, good will be rewarded, and evil will be punished.

Israel initially believed that this would be purely a time of vindication and rejoicing. However, the prophets corrected this view, insisting that Israel itself would also have to face the righteous anger of God and pay for its own sinfulness.

blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble,

Malachi employs the metaphor of a blazing fire to depict this event. The image is of an extensive fire that burns the stubble that remains after grain has been harvested. It has been dried by the heat of the sun, and it is useless.

and the day that is coming will set them on fire,

The day itself is so hot that 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 root, which promises new life.

Every aspect of their existence 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 rising in the eastern sky, shining forth in righteousness. The healing experienced is the total opposite of the flaming destruction described for the wicked.

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

The expression “sun of justice” is echoed in the New Testament’s canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1:78); therefore, it is not surprising that Christian tradition should apply it to Jesus Christ:

“The Lord came in the evening to a world in decline, when the course of life was almost run; but when the Sun of justice came, he gave new life and began a new day for those who believed in him” (Origen, Homiliae in Exodum, 7,8).

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 create harmony within the community and a positive reputation in the wider world.

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

Paul offers his own conduct as an example for them to follow.

This isn’t an act of arrogance or self-serving pride; he is following the conviction that the values of Christian commitment are not taught only by word of mouth, but also through the very lives of those who believe.

Paul has himself been faithful to the message he has been teaching; 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 398-404 AD), 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.

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 the hospitality of others. This is important 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 had the 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, or that they had anything to gain beyond the spread of the gospel.

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 heard about within the Thessalonian community. Evidently, some of them are unwilling to work, presumably because they believe 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 by withholding food. The community should no longer allow them to live off their 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 your 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 370 AD), 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.”

In today’s gospel reading, bystanders are in awe of the temple’s magnificence. Jesus uses the occasion to give a long discourse about the last days of the world.

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

This was the second Temple of Jerusalem, constructed after the Jews had returned from the Babylonian Exile. Initially, it couldn’t compare with the splendor of the Temple built by Solomon, but 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.”

The temple was presumably the most beautiful, awe-inspiring, holy thing that any of the disciples had ever seen. Imagine how shocking it would be for their hero, a man of God, to declare that it will be utterly destroyed.

Jesus’ statement here echoes his earlier lament 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?”

Naturally, Jesus’ audience wants more information.

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 has no intention of satisfying their curiosity about the future; instead, he is focused on protecting them from being discouraged and scandalized about what is going to happen in the days ahead.

Jesus warns his listeners against imposters who might appear and falsely interpret the meaning of events.

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 is warning his followers not to be deceived by these kinds of 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, violence, and natural disasters.

“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 followers of Jesus will have to endure persecution 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.

However, these persecutions are part of God’s providence: they happen because he lets them happen, which he does in order to draw greater good out of them.

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 through persecution, “not a hair on your head will be destroyed.” What could this mean?

Recall from last week that Jesus had just debated with the Sadducees over the existence of the afterlife. 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 week we continue 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 this turmoil as a blazing fire that will consume whatever opposes the will of God. Jesus describes it in greater detail: as he envisions it, both nature and human society will 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 connect elements of these descriptions with aspects of the contemporary world. Doing so might lead us to identify with the 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 inspire our 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. God does not come at the end to condemn but to save.

However, just as the descriptions of the upheavals should not be understood literally, neither should these descriptions of salvation. It may be that the faithful followers of Jesus will suffer terrible agonies. The point 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, the basis of their hope of protection is the same righteousness of God. 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. They are instructed to carry their fair share of the work lest they become a burden to others. They must work diligently and conscientiously, awaiting the final coming of Christ without ever knowing precisely when that will be.

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.