Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time: 11-13-16
Peace be with You,
Last weekend we began the first of three weekends that have to do with the “end times.” Therein, we saw that though our lives stand to be perfected at the end of time, we can begin to and indeed are meant to experience a life of salvation starting here and now by living a life of unity with our God (to the extent that this is possible this side of eternity). This weekend, we continue on the same topic, but with added emphasis on the difficulties we will face as we make our pilgrimage home to God.
The first reading from Malachi sets an eerie tone for the weekend by speaking very graphically of the judgment that is to fall on the nation of Israel. Malachi writes: “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 (3:19).” To be sure, the prophet is speaking in terms of divine judgment and is not in danger of mincing words in expressing his message. It is clear that the people have acted in a way that violates God’s law, and it is likewise clear that they will suffer the consequences of doing so in a catastrophic way. However, there are a few things to keep in mind when hearing these words from Malachi. First, though taking up the tenor of Isaiah and some of the other prophets who very graphically condemned the betrayal of God’s law on the part of Israel that would lead to their exile, Malachi is writing in the post-exilic era. The people have returned to Israel, their homeland and thus have seen the salvation God has brought. However, they do not seem to have changed their ways, resulting in the stern message they receive from the prophet. Secondly, as the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi represents a transition of sorts. The judgment to come is described in apocalyptic terms which parallel the words Jesus will use to speak of the final judgment, e.g. fire and utter ruin (Matthew 24:2 & 25:41; John 15:6). However, the fire of God’s judgment from the perspective of Malachi will come in a very different form, i.e. in a person. It is from the book of Malachi that we hear that God will send his messenger who will act as ‘a refiner’s fire, like fuller’s lye (3:2b),’ who will cleanse the people in order that they may make a sacrifice acceptable to God once again (3:4). Thus, while Malachi uses “end times” apocalyptic terms, and can thus be read in such a fashion to speak of the parousia, Malachi’s immediate context speaks of the arrival of Jesus, which is why the Church has traditionally read the above passages as the foretelling of the episode of Jesus cleansing the temple (Matthew 21:12-13 & John 2:13-22). Third, it is important to notice what exactly it is that the people have done that must be corrected. On this aspect, Malachi is not short of examples, he speaks in very strong terms of the people being stingy in their offerings to God (1:6-14 & 3:6-11); the breakdown of marital unions (2:10-16); and the taking advantage of workers and the needy (3:5). In short, the people have not only failed to live up to God’s law even after receiving the good fortune of returning to their homeland, they seem incapable of doing so. Thus the people are in need not only of a judge, but a judge who is first a savior that can cleanse the people in order that they might once again live in right relationship with God.
There should be no doubt that the Savior Malachi speaks of is Jesus Christ, true God and true man, who unites the human family to God in his very Person and will ultimately solidify this union through his saving death, resurrection and ascension. However, we must not believe that these are the only saving acts of Jesus; rather, we must realize that it is the whole of Jesus life which is salvific. How can we understand this? For every charge leveled against the people by Malachi, there is a plenty of examples from the life of Jesus that do the exact opposite. For instance he makes the whole of his life an offering to God (John 4:34 & 6:38), categorically condemns divorce (Matt 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-9), and identifies himself with the poor and outcast of society (Matthew 25:42 & 45; Philippians 2:5-8). In short, because Jesus experienced the whole of human life, he likewise sanctified it in its entirety, and while doing so demonstrates what it means to live a life of unity with God beginning here and now. Moreover, he does not simply ask us to believe that he has saved us and then sit and wait for the day of final judgment, resting on a the idea that because we have faith that we have been saved we have nothing to do concerning our salvation, far from it. Instead, he asks us to live in a similar manner, demanding that we strive for perfection in life (Matthew 5:48), telling us that if we love him, we will live out the command he has given us which culminates in a love for God and neighbor (John 14:15 & 23). However, as we in today’s gospel, living life in such a way is sure to bring hardships to our lives.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is asked about the end times and what will take place as they approach (Luke 21:7). In response, Jesus describes things that we readily see taking place all around us today, wars, earthquakes, famines etc. (Luke 21:10-11), and then he adds “But…” What Jesus is suggesting here is that bad things are going to continue to happen up until the very last day, and thus his response does not point to a particular time in history but instead exhorts us to live the life he has demonstrated for us and leave the plan for history in the hands of Divine Providence, for in this way we need not worry about when the end will come, but instead will be continually prepared. This is why following the word “But,” Jesus tells his followers that they will experience persecution at the hands of those around them (Luke 21:12) and tells them that it will lead to their giving testimony (Luke 21:13). What does this testimony look like? To be sure, it includes being ready to give a verbal response for…what exactly? He tells them, “you will be hated by all because of my name” (Luke 21:17). Seems odd, doesn’t it, that believers in Christ should simply be hated for their belief, in fact, such a proposition seems absurd. For if all that was needed was a simple belief in Christ, couldn’t one hold that in the safekeeping of one’s heart and mind without anyone ever knowing that they in fact held such a belief? Put simply, no. This is why Jesus orders us time and time again to live out the command to love, why Paul tells us to ‘work out our salvation with fear and trembling’ (Philippians 2:12), and why James categorically tells us that ‘faith without works is dead’ (James 2:17). It is precisely a faith that is lived out that is the cause of the followers of Jesus being persecuted and having to give testimony of their faith, for living a life of pure and true love (which it tragically misunderstands) is so contrary to the life of the world that it not only befuddles and annoys them, but is detestable to them to the point that they desire to blot it from their sight (cf. Wisdom 2:12-20).
My friends, as promised by Jesus, we live in such a time. We live in an era where many attempt to relegate the message of the gospel either as that of a teaching of a bygone era, and thus in need of reform in order to “keep up with the times,” or as a simple moral teaching that simply wants people to be kind to one another. But you see, this is not the gospel. The teaching and life of Jesus did not have as its aim for people to get along or to simply be nice to one another (cf. Matt 10:34), he did not come to give the people of his time some simple rules to live by that could be disposed of and set aside when they became inconvenient (cf. Luke 21:33), he came to show the world how much God loves us and desires unity with us (cf. John 17:23-24), and in order to do that, he lived a life of love among us; a love that has benevolence, justice and self-sacrifice as its distinguishing marks, characteristics which a world so tragically fallen and separated from God no longer recognizes as true love’s defining traits (cf. John 13:1; John 15:13; 1 Corinthians 1:23). This weekend, Jesus reminds us that to live such a life is extremely difficult, but reminds us that, regardless of the message of the world and the obstacles and distractions it places in our way, this is the life we are made for and promises us that if we stay close to him and remain in the unity that he came to re-establish between the human family and their Creator, we too through graced-effort and perseverance can live lives of love acceptable to God, and through that endurance to the very end, gain life in its fullest (cf. Luke 21:19).
Your servant in Christ,