The 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – 17 November 2019
Lectionary Readings: Mal 3:19-20; Ps 98:5-9; 2 Thess 3:7-12; Lk 21:5-19
Theme: Grappling with the End Times
As we come to the end of the Church’s liturgical year, our readings speak of the end times and the persecutions to precede the Second Coming of Christ. These readings can leave us feeling ill at ease, not knowing what to make of them. The anonymous writer known simply as “my messenger”, which is the meaning of “Malachi”, thought that the “day of the LORD” was coming to purify the people – and it didn’t come. Jesus says that “this generation will not pass away” (Mt 24:34) until all the predictions about the return of the Son of Man will be fulfilled, yet this did not happen.
Of all the evangelists, Luke is the one who grapples most with the tradition of the imminent Second Coming. As this expectation begins to wane, he turns to a growing sense that discipleship will be played out over the long course of history, telling Christians to take up their cross daily (9:23), while praying for their daily bread, every day (11:3). In today’s gospel, the focus is shifted to the need for faithful witness, with the assurance that God will protect the disciples in times of persecution. As in John, the Spirit will guide the Church during the time of Jesus’ absence. What now shapes the Christian communities is “Jesus remembered” and “Jesus present”, rather than the expectation of Jesus’ return.
The language of today’s gospel is “apocalyptic”, which means the revelation of God’s plan for history. This particular form of biblical writing flourished at times of national crisis and often among people who were being persecuted. It was intended to summon the people to faith and hope, assuring them that God was in control of history. Though Jesus speaks of suffering still in the future, Luke’s community had already experienced the destruction of the Temple and the death of the first apostles. Jesus here promises them that their perseverance will save them.
Such words of hope for the future are always needed, not just by those early Christians, but by us, too, in our own day. The response to today’s psalm, Psalm 98, yearns for a God who will govern the world with justice and fairness. With our own fears and hopes about the future, we can identify with that yearning. Times of suffering can offer the possibility of renewal, new directions, that may give birth to the hope that, as Malachi says, “there will arise/the sun of justice with its healing rays” (Mal 3:20).
As the next line of the reading from the Second Letter to the Thessalonians says: “… never grow tired of doing what is right” (2 Thess 3:13). This exhortation is followed by the encouraging words: “May the Lord of peace himself give you peace all the time and in every way” (v. 16). This echoes the words of the gospel: “Your endurance will win you your lives.” (Lk 21:19) – and, indeed, the confident words of Psalm 98: “All the ends of the earth have seen/the salvation of our God.” (Ps 98:3)