NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: LUKE 21: 5-19
THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
USCCCB link to all three readings
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?”
“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 three synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) include texts that fall under the category of “apocalyptic literature.” Apocalyptic (from the Greek, “to reveal”) is a form of literature, expression, and belief which focuses upon the future and the interpreting of signs. Strictly speaking, apocalyptic literature does not necessarily have to be religious. Karl Marx is famous for his vision of the future in which class equality would bring prosperity to all. In a certain sense, any utopian art form has some qualities of apocalyptic. My own favorite example of the latter is the film classic “Lost Horizon” (1937), a tale of perfect peace in a war-torn world. It is worth noting that the film and its depiction of classless society was censored and portions of the original were removed in the United States due to imagined Pro-Communist leanings.
Historically, controversy is never far from apocalyptic. The most famous New Testament example of apocalyptic literature is the entirety of the Book of Revelation; there are segments of such style in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, sometimes referred to as “little apocalypses” in which Jesus reveals what is presently unknown and unimagined. In Sunday’s Gospel, for example, the disciples are stunned at Jesus’ assertion that not one stone of the magnificent temple will be left upon another.
I was lucky enough to take a graduate course in the seminary by the esoteric title of “Christian Eschatology,” the branch of theology that deals with time and destiny. Part of the course required mastery of the characteristics of apocalyptic literature; at 44 years removed, let me see if I can recall them. Apocalyptic writing is secret by its nature, requiring an interpretive key. It is the product of contemporary turmoil or suffering. It is usually written under a pseudonym to protect the identity of its author. It likewise targets oppressors under pseudonyms as well. (In Revelation, “Babylon” is a front name for Rome.) It is written to encourage the faithful. It portrays a future overturn of events where the enemy will be crushed and the faithful remnant will come into an everlasting glory.
Apocalyptic literature appears in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. A famous futuristic depiction of the New Israel, read every year at the Sunday Mass of the Feast of the Epiphany, is Isaiah 60. Scholars believe that the third portion of the Book of Isaiah (and quite possibly the second portion, too) was written by an unknown seer under the name of Isaiah and thus inserted into the prophet’s text. Isaiah 60, for example, may have been written during the Babylonian Captivity in the 500’s B.C. or in the stressful times after the return from captivity.
Our helpful commentator Joel Green (who will be with us just one week longer) assists us again this week by explaining the how and the why of this apocalyptic interlude from Jesus. St. Luke is indeed reflecting a strong apocalyptic spirit in the overall preaching of Jesus, who commonly refers to himself as the Son of Man; in fact, this seems to be his preferred title. Jesus did not invent the title; he appropriated it from the Books of Ezekiel and Daniel, where the term applies to a mysterious figure of the redemptive future, though the Son of Man is nowhere identified as a divine figure or even as the Messiah.
This concept of the Son of Man would mesh well with the way that Luke has portrayed Jesus as the both the forerunner and the consummation of God’s plan of deliverance. Jesus is indeed the faithful witness who will suffer at the hands of his enemies—in this case, the official world of Judaism in Jerusalem nestled around the Temple. Jesus has journeyed throughout this Gospel to the Holy City precisely to engage in the final battle for the eternal identity of the Kingdom of God. It is not surprising, then, that Luke would engage an apocalyptic style in describing the final showdown.
There are two distinct parts to Jesus’ declaration. The first is the standard apocalyptic formula to describe the utter chaos—political, social, cosmic—that will accompany God’s final judgment. The second segment, however, is specifically apocalyptic in the sense that Jesus is much more specific. “Before these things happen…they will seize and persecute you.” Recall that this Gospel was written around 80 A.D. In fact, the predictions Luke ascribes to Jesus had happened and were continuing to happen at the time of writing. Peter and Paul had already been hauled before magistrates and executed.
This Sunday’s Gospel is a remarkable marriage of Jewish belief in patient suffering with a never-ending hope in final vindication and victory. The plan of God, the theme of Luke’s entire Gospel, has been laid out most vividly.