Time of Jesus’ Return

The readings for Sunday, November 13, 2016, Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C, are
Malachi 3:19-20a; Thessalonians 3:7-12; and Luke 21:5-19.

The setting of this Sunday’s Gospel reading is Jerusalem. Jesus is sitting in an outer court of the temple. He and those with him were watching people drop contributions in chests set up to receive them. Some of those around Jesus made comments about the offerings of faithful Jews, and also of the stonework on the temple. Flavius Josephus, a Jewish general and historian, had seen this stonework and describes it: “covered all over with plates of gold. At the rising of the sun, it reflected back a fiery splendor…. This temple appeared to strangers at a distance like a mountain covered with snow. The parts that were not gold were extremely white.”

What was Jesus’ response to comments on this magnificence? “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.” Luke writes on two levels — the time of Jesus and the time of composition of his Gospel. Jesus died in the early thirties of the first century. Luke is writing in the mid-eighties of the same century. The temple was destroyed by the Roman army in 70 A.D., about fifteen years before Luke composed his Gospel. For the early Christian community the temple had been center to its worship of God. Its destruction was a shock to Christians everywhere. To them it was a sign that the end of the world and the return of Jesus were at hand. All four Gospels, but in differing ways, had to deal with this outlook. John dealt with it in his story of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. The other three Gospels dealt with it through a final discourse attributed to Jesus. This Sunday’s Gospel is part of Luke’s version of Jesus’ final discourse.

Disciples questioned Jesus about his prediction of the destruction of this wonderful building. “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?” The Gospel of Mark, written close to the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., indicated that the end was at hand. No expected end arrived. Luke has to deal with what was thought to be a delay in the action. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ first words were, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is at hand.” So thought Mark, but it was not to be. Therefore the Lucan Jesus says, “Do not be deceived, for many will come in my name, and say, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’ Do not follow them!” For Luke, the end was rescheduled.

Luke adds a chain of predictions of disaster. These were stock phrases associated with doomsday sayings of Old Testament prophets concerning what is called “the Day of the Lord.” This day was expected to be a day when the Lord God would rescue his people and destroy their enemies. In the New Testament these phrases were given a new direction by applying them to an expected “Day of the Lord Jesus.” What would happen? “Wars, insurrections, nation rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom, powerful earthquakes, famines, epidemics, awesome sights and mighty signs in the sky.” But neither the end of the world, nor the end of time, nor the return of Jesus happened.

Nevertheless, Luke later in this final discourse of Jesus affirms that Jesus will return, but not just yet. He assures persecuted Christians that what they have suffered and are suffering are all part of God’s plan to prepare them and the world for the final times and Jesus’ return. What he now lists are events that had already occurred, disasters that struck Christian Communities from early persecutions by the Jewish hierarchy in Jerusalem and beyond to Nero’s bloody persecution of Christians in Rome in the sixties. Paul’s Letters and Luke’s Acts of Apostles detail these early persecutions. The Lucan Jesus assures his followers of divine help.
A final assurance: “Not a hair on your head will be destroyed.” This is simply a proverbial saying found in both New and Old Testament meaning that God will take care of his own. Since all these “predicted” events had happened, continued to happen, and still happen, what are we to do with this material? We know next to nothing about the end or the return of Jesus. Sincere people and scammers have been predicting ends and returns since the beginning of Christianity. Rather than speculate about the unknowable, we can consider our own end, as Luke writes, “Watch at all times, praying that you may have strength … to stand before the Son of Man. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”