33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
Luke 21:5-19

XXXIII_TOC disastri

Courage, lift up your head!

Luke wrote his Gospel around the year 85 A.D. In the fifty years that passed since the death and resurrection of Jesus, tremendous events occurred. There were wars, political revolutions, catastrophes and the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed. Christians became victims of injustices and persecutions. How to explain these dramatic events?

Someone appeals to the words of the Master: “There will be great earthquakes, famines, and plagues; terrifying signs from heaven will be seen…they will lay their hands on you” (vv. 11-12). They begin to say: Here is the explanation—Jesus had foreseen everything. The misfortunes (especially the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem) are signs of the end of the world that is coming and that the Lord is returning on the clouds of heaven.

Today’s Gospel tries to answer these false expectations and corrects the wrong interpretation that some gave to the words of the Master. His apocalyptic language already lent itself to being misunderstood. Let’s look at the details of the passage.

Some people approach Jesus who is in the temple and invite him to admire its beauty: the huge white limestone rocks perfectly squared by the workers of Herod, the decorations, the votive offerings, the golden vines hanging from the walls of the vestibule and extending more and more through the branches offered by the faithful, the facade covered with gold plates with a thickness of a coin…. With reason, the rabbis maintain: “Who has not seen the temple of Jerusalem has not contemplated the most beautiful among the marvels of the world.”

The answer of Jesus is amazing: “There shall not be left one stone upon another of all that you now admire. Amazed, they ask him: When will this be and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” (vv. 5-7).

Jesus cannot specify the date: He does not know it, as he does not know the day and hour of the world’s end (Mt 24:36). He is not a magician, a soothsayer, so he does not answer.

Why does Luke introduce this episode? He introduces it for a pastoral concern: he wants to warn his communities against those who confuse dreams with reality. Some exalted ones attributed to Jesus, predictions that were only results of extravagant speculations.

The evangelist invites the Christians to stop chasing fairy tales and to reflect on the one thing that should be of interest: what to do, specifically, to collaborate in the coming of the new world, the kingdom of God.

The “false prophets” have always represented a serious danger to the Christian communities. Luke records that Jesus is also bothered and warns his disciples against those who foretell that the end of the world is near. He strongly recommends: “Do not follow them” (v. 9). The end will not come soon; the gestation of the new world will be long and difficult.

What will happen in the time between the Lord’s coming and the end of the world? Jesus answers this question using the apocalyptic language. He talks about the uprisings of peoples against peoples, earthquakes, famines, and pestilences, terrifying events and great signs in heaven (vv. 10-11). These will be taken up and explained later: “Then there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars, and on the earth anguish of nations, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and its waves. People will faint with fear at the mere thought of what is to come upon the world, for the forces of the universe will be shaken” (Lk 21:25-26). What does he mean to say?

One of the recurring ideas in the time of Jesus was that the world had become too corrupt and that it would soon be replaced by a new reality made to sprout by God. It was said that people would be caught by great fear in the time of passage from the old to the new. The peoples and nations would be upset; there would be violence, diseases, misfortunes, and wars. The sun would appear during the night and the moon during the day; the trees would begin to shed blood and the stones to break into pieces and launch screams.

This language, these images were well known.

Jesus uses it to say to the disciples that the passage between two eras of history is imminent. His is a proclamation of joy and hope. Anyone in pain and waiting for the kingdom of God should know that the dawn of a new, wonderful day is about to appear. That is the reason that he urges the disciples not to be afraid: not to be frightened (v. 9) “When these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads because your redemption is near” (Lk 21:28).

After having invited them to consider the time of waiting for his return as a gestation that prepares for the delivery, Jesus pre-announces the difficulties that his disciples will have to confront (vv. 12-19).

What will be the sign that the kingdom of God is being born and established in the world? It’s not the triumphs, the applauses, the approval of people, but persecutions. Jesus foresees for his disciples: prison, slanders, betrayal by the family members and best friends. In these difficult situations, they may be tempted to become discouraged, to think to have made wrong choices in their lives.

Why endure so much suffering and make many sacrifices? It’s all to no avail: the wicked will always continue to prosper, to commit violence, to get the better of the righteous. Jesus says that this will not happen. God guides the events of people’s lives and directs the plans of the wicked to the good of his children and the establishment of the kingdom.

“Make up your minds not to prepare your defense yet”—he recommends. What does this mean? Will the disciples have to expect miraculous deliverances?

No. Jesus warns them of the danger of trusting in reasoning and calculations that people are wont to do.

If his disciples believe to be able to defend themselves using the logic of this world, instead of God’s, they will equate themselves with their opponents and will lose. They will have to happily accept the fact that they cannot resort to the methods of those who persecute them with slander, hypocrisy, corruption and violence. They must be convinced that their strength lies in what people consider as fragility and weakness. They are sheep among wolves; they cannot dress up as wolves. If they will really be consistent with the needs of their vocation Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will defend them. He will give them power no one can resist: the power of truth, love, and forgiveness.

Finally, Jesus draws an expression much used in his time: “Not a hair of your head will perish.” He does not promise to protect his disciples from any misfortune and danger. The persecuted Christians must not expect miraculous deliverances: they will lose their properties, work, reputation and perhaps even life because of the Gospel. However, despite contrary appearances, the kingdom of God will continue to advance.

Those who have sacrificed themselves for Christ, may not reap the fruits of the good they have sown, but must cultivate the joyful certainty that the fruits will be abundant. In this world, the value of their sacrifice will not be recognized. They will be forgotten, perhaps cursed, but God—and it is his judgment that matters—will give them the reward in the resurrection of the righteous.

Fernando Armellini
Italian missionary and biblical scholar

From “when will it be? What will it be like?”
to the truly important questions.

Pope Francis

This Sunday’s Gospel passage (Lk 21:5-19) is the first part of Jesus’ discourse on the end times. He delivers it in Jerusalem, close to the Temple, prompted by people discussing the Temple and its beauty. The Temple was very beautiful. Jesus says: “As for these things which you see, the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another” (Lk 21:6). Of course they asked him: When will this happen? What will the signs be? But Jesus moves the focus from these secondary aspects — i.e. when will it be? What will it be like? — to the truly important questions. Firstly, not to let oneself be fooled by false prophets nor to be paralyzed by fear. Secondly, to live this time of expectation as a time of witness and perseverance. We are in this time of waiting, in expectation of the coming of the Lord.

Jesus’ words are perennially relevant, even for us today living in the 21st century too. He repeats to us: “Take heed that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name” (v. 8). This Christian virtue of understanding is a call to discern where the Lord is, and where the evil spirit is present. Today, too, in fact there are false “saviours” who attempt to replace Jesus: worldly leaders, religious gurus, even sorcerers, people who wish to attract hearts and minds to themselves, especially those of young people. Jesus warns us: “Do not follow them, do not follow them!”.

The Lord also helps us not to be afraid in the face of war, revolution, natural disasters and epidemics. Jesus frees us from fatalism and false apocalyptic visions.

The second aspect challenges us as Christians and as a Church: Jesus predicts that his disciples will have to suffer painful trials and persecution for his sake. He reassures them, however, saying: “Not a hair of your head will perish” (v. 18). This reminds us that we are completely in God’s hands! The trials we encounter for our faith and our commitment to the Gospel are occasions to give witness; we must not distance ourselves from the Lord, but instead abandon ourselves even more to him, to the power of his Spirit and his grace.

I am thinking at this moment, let everyone think together. Let us do so together: let us think about our many Christian brothers and sisters who are suffering persecution for their faith. There are so many. Perhaps more now than in past centuries. Jesus is with them. We too are united to them with our prayers and our love; we admire their courage and their witness. They are our brothers and sisters who, in many parts of the world, are suffering for their faithfulness to Jesus Christ. Let us greet them with heartfelt affection.

At the end Jesus makes a promise which is a guarantee of victory: “By your endurance you will gain your lives” (v. 19). There is so much hope in these words! They are a call to hope and patience, to be able to wait for the certain fruits of salvation, trusting in the profound meaning of life and of history:

the trials and difficulties are part of the bigger picture; the Lord, the Lord of history, leads all to fulfillment. Despite the turmoil and disasters that upset the world, God’s design of goodness and mercy will be fulfilled! And this is our hope: go forward on this path, in God’s plan which will be fulfilled. This is our hope.

Jesus’ message causes us to reflect on our present time and gives us the strength to face it with courage and hope, with Mary who always accompanies us.

Angelus 17/11/2013