• Mal 3:19-20a
• Ps 98:5-6, 7-8, 9
• 2 Thes 3:7-12
• Lk. 21:5-9
By my highly unscientific estimation, the world has ended several hundred times in my lifetime, courtesy of nuclear war, overpopulation, famine, disease, global cooling, global warming, and so forth. This is not to make light of those serious realities, to the extent that they are realities. But we can be tempted to interpret every sort of current event as a sign of world’s imminent demise. And, unfortunately, this can lead to all sorts of problems, including a misreading of certain passages of the Bible.
Today’s Gospel reading from Luke 21 is one such passage. This passage, along with Mark 13 and Matthew 24, are sometimes called “little apocalypses,” and have been subject to just about every sort of interpretation imaginable. C. S. Lewis was so distressed by the contents of these passages that he wrote, in the essay “The World’s Last Night,” that Jesus’ statement, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all has taken place” (Lk 21:32) is “certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.” Lewis then argued (not very convincingly) that Jesus had indeed been ignorant in saying that world would end within forty years of His utterance.
Lewis’s perplexity is understandable, even if his attempt to solve the difficulty is not. A challenging feature of Luke 21 is that it records Jesus talking about three different events or realities: the persecution of Christians prior to the fall of the Temple in A.D. 70, the time of the fall of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman army, and the time of the Son of Man. Although Jesus distinguished between these three events, He also presented them as being closely related to one another.
Jesus had, throughout His ministry, proclaimed that He was the true Prophet, the fulfillment of previous prophets’ statements and desires, and the savior of Israel. In today’s reading from the prophet Malachi, we are presented with a prophecy about “the day”—the day of liberation from the oppression and bondage endured at the hands of “the proud” and “the evildoers.” Many first-century Jews believed this liberation involved political and military revolution and would result in the overthrow of Roman rule. But Jesus went to great lengths to teach—often with parables—and to show—by signs and miracles—that His kingdom was being established to liberate the people from far worse sources of oppression: sin and death.
In Luke 21, Jesus prophesied that the Temple, one of the most impressive structures of the ancient world, would be torn down, stone by stone. Asked for a sign indicating the timing of this stunning event, Jesus exhorted His listeners to be both vigilant and wary against false preachers. He used the language of the Old Testament prophets to describe the sort of political and social upheaval that the early Christians would hear about and experience. These included persecution, for just as Jesus would be persecuted and killed (Lk 9:44; 18:32), many of his followers would undergo the same, described often by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles (cf., Acts 4:3; 5:18; 8:3; 9:4).
The destruction of the Temple one generation from the death and Resurrection of Christ was a sign that the beginning of a new era in God’s work of salvation had begun. As the Catechism points out, Jesus “even identified himself with the Temple by presenting himself as God’s definitive dwelling-place among men. Therefore his being put to bodily death presaged the destruction of the Temple, which would manifest the dawning of a new age in the history of salvation…” (par 586). That age, of course, is the age of the Church, which is the seed of the Kingdom.
The fulfillment of Jesus’ words demonstrated that He is a true prophet and that there is nothing to be embarrassed about. On the contrary, Luke 21—as challenging and complex as it is—proves once again the truthfulness of the promises of the Son of God.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the November 18, 2007, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)