MAL 3:19-20A, PS 98:5-6, 7-8, 9, 2 THES 3:7-12, LK 21:5-19
The Lord Comes to Rule the Earth with Justice; Live Life Fully; The Day of the Lord.
People will demonstrate for or against just about anything. Some time ago, a woman was walking up and down in front of the White House in Washington, DC, with a sandwich sign that said absolutely nothing. A curious passerby asked her what she was demonstrating about, and she answered, “None of your business!” One of the most popular causes for demonstrations is the end of the world, demonstrators’ signs usually reading something like, “Repent! The end of the world is near!”
Whenever one tries to base deﬁnite predictions about the end of the world on Scripture, the texts become rather vague. Whenever, for example, the Apostles asked Jesus for some information about the end of the world, Jesus deliberately talked simultaneously about the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem along with the world’s end.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus and the Apostles were looking at Jerusalem — the object of Jesus’ mission —from the Mount of Olives. They were looking especially at the building which was one of the wonders of the ancient world, the Temple. A beautiful refurbishing of the Temple had begun about forty-six years before Jesus by Herod the Great, who was expert at trying to curry the favour of the people by doing just this kind of restoration. Some of the granite stones in the Temple walls, as big as modern freight cars, were so expertly linked together without mortar that it was hard to see the joints.
The sun reflecting from the Temple’s brilliant white marble and gold ornament, set on a hill, made it visible for miles. It was as difficult to conceive of this building not lasting as to conceive today the same fate for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, St Peter’s in Rome, the Eiffel-Tower in Paris, the Prado Museum in Madrid, or Buckingham Palace in London. Yet because of the wickedness of Jerusalem, Jesus prophesied that not one stone of the Temple would be left on another. Completed in 63 AD, the building’s destruction was accomplished seven years later, about forty years after Jesus’ prophecy.
At that time a thirty-year-old Roman general named Titus stood on about the same spot as Jesus did in today’s Gospel. Titus and his vicious army of between sixty and eighty thousand men surrounded the city. It was early May when they began, intending to starve the unyielding Jews out. Soon, pitiable bands of Jewish deserters left the city daily, their bellies distended from starvation. Rumours had started among the bandits on the fringes of the Roman soldiery that the Israelites’ bellies were distended from swallowing their jewellery, so the bandits slit them open in hopes of becoming rich. The Roman soldiers cruciﬁed so many others that the local forests were denuded of trees.
All day and into the night the sound of battering—rams against the gates shook the earth. When their summons to surrender went unheeded, the Romans stacked large stores of food within the sight of the starving Jews on the walls.
In the beginning of July, the Romans were able to enter part of the city. They saw that the inhabitants were steeped in the horror of factional fights among themselves. Fanatics, extreme nationalists, and bandits held various quarters of the city. When the Romans opened cellars and closets in the hope of finding gold which rumour said was hidden, they found instead grisly corpses stacked high — corpses which the Jews had become too weak to ﬂing over the walls as they had done in the beginning of the siege back in May. Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells of one rich matron who was reduced to looking for grains of corn in the animal dung in the streets. He tells of another pitiful woman who killed and ate her baby nursing at her breast.
At ﬁrst, Titus, realizing the importance of the Temple in the life of the worshipping Jews, tried to save it from his soldiers. But when his attempts to have the Jews surrender met only with counter-offers to negotiate, he was so enraged that he unleashed the fury of his soldiers’ hatred of the Jews. They destroyed everything in sight, ﬁnally managing to enter even the Temple’s Holy of Holies and set it afire. Even today, you can see on the Arch of Titus at the old forum in Rome friezes proudly depicting the Roman soldiers returning with booty from the Temple — the gold candelabra, the gold table for offerings, and other sacred vessels.
Inasmuch as Luke wrote in about 80 AD, shortly after Jerusalem was destroyed, we need not look for the “signs” he gives of the end of the world — false messiahs, wars, earthquakes, plagues, persecutions, betrayals — because they all happened before he wrote. Several false messiahs had already promoted themselves, the Jewish War was over, the Persians were threatening invasion of the Roman Empire, Judaism had excommunicated Christians from the synagogue, families were betraying each other, the terrible eruption of Mt Vesuvius had cast darkness over much of the Mediterranean world, and Roman persecutions had begun.
What are we to think or do about the last things, then? There have ‘_ been many different approaches. Some people, like those addressed in today’s First Reading from the Book of Malachi (his name in Hebrew means “God’s spokesman”), were proud, vain, and smug. Consideration of the last things never penetrated their hard shells. Their enthusiasm had cooled and selﬁshness abounded.
Malachi addresses perennial problems. Why do evildoers prosper? How long must the just endure? Of what value is the hard—won virtue of pious men and women, if all their faithful observance of God’s law is cynically scorned by their irreligious contemporaries? Malachi uses the metaphor of the sun, which scorches and sets aﬁre but also warms with its healing rays. So will be the “Day of the A Lord”. The end of the world and the judgment will be terrible for the evildoer, but joy for the faithful.
Things were essentially no different for the Thessalonians to whom the letter of today’s Second Reading was written. They were, like other ordinary persons of those times, mostly victims. For most of the people, life was mere existence. People had to work from dawn till dark. Children began working as soon as they were able. And there was always the threat of disease, insurrection, and death.
The Christians among them were expecting the end of it all with the Second Coming of Jesus; in fact, because most of the early converts were from the lower classes, they looked forward with more than ordinary eagerness to the “Day of the Lord”. But — mistakenly — they stopped working. Those who had nothing were sponging from those who were better off, and spent their time as gossiping busybodies. The letter informs the non-workers that, no matter when the Second Coming arrives, people are expected to meet their daily responsibilities.
There have been other reactions to the prospect of death through history. Take the Black Death, for example, which spread through Europe beginning in 1348. People were dropping dead everywhere, in some cities far more than half the population. No one was without a relative or friend who had died, and all could well expect that their turn might be next. It was worse than the AIDS epidemic or any other epidemic in any part of today’s world. Knowing nothing of bacteria, many, people at that time thought the Black Death was a scourge from God. Their reactions? While it is true that some turned to God and prayer, others invented defiant “Dances of Death”, and lived according to the philosophy, “Eat, ‘drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
So what do we do now about our thoughts on the “last things”? For one thing, within ourselves we ought to develop a deeper spirit of responsibility so that we seek to become dependable rather than dependent, givers rather than takers, generous rather than addicted to self-interest. Should we become painfully anxious about our future – whether because of ill health, unemployment, economic hardship, career choices, broken relationships, bereavements, or other reasons — we should be consoled by the Lord’s promise that “not a hair of your head will be harmed.” Outside ourselves, we are to be busy with the calamities around us; not just to deplore the world’s trouble spots, but to help their victims.
Above all, we are to remember the Lord’s promise in the last sentence of today‘s Gospel that our endurance will win us our lives. Perseverance is an essential quality of character in high—level leadership. Much good that might have been achieved in the world is lost through hesitation, faltering, wavering, or just not sticking with it.
To illustrate perseverance, there is a good story. One morning, a couple of cowpunchers went out to bring in a wild steer from their range in the mountains. They took along one of those shaggy little gray donkeys — a burro. Now a big three—year-old steer that has been running loose in the timber is a tough customer to handle. But these cowboys had a technique. They got a rope on the Steer and then they tied him .neck and neck, right up close, to the burro. When they let go, that burro had a bad time. The steer threw him all over the place — against trees, over rocks, into bushes. Time after time they both went down.
But there was one great difference between the burro and the steer. The burro had an idea. He wanted to go home. And no matter how often the steer threw him, every time the burro got to his feet he wound up a step nearer the corral. As the cowpunchers left, this was going on and on. After about a week the burro showed up at ranch headquarters. He had with him the tamest and sorriest-looking steer you ever saw.
Benjamin Franklin once observed (in Poor Richard’s Almanac): “The noblest question in the world is, ‘What good may I do in it?’ ” To do anything good, it is necessary to patiently endure reverses, and to persevere in loyalty to Christian values.