Sunday reflection: Luke 21:5-19

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 21:5-19:

While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, Jesus said, “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.”

Then they asked him, “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?” He answered, “See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’ Do not follow them! When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end.”

Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.

“Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimony. Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”

The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Perhaps there is no greater shared human impulse than to predict the end of the world, either figuratively or literally. Even those who do not necessarily share in religious faith are not immune to it. History is filled with such predictions, whose consequences range from merely the embarrassing to massively deadly, in the case of a few cults.

Along with this impulse comes the desire to build bulwarks against impending apocalypses. In our Gospel reading today, we see this reflected in the awe given to the second temple of Jerusalem. Herod had rebuilt the temple on the foundations of the first temple, destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC, and which was seen then as well as a guarantor of the Lord’s protection. His presence would prevent any foreign power from sacking Jerusalem, no matter how many infidelities the Judeans committed against Him.

The prophet Jeremiah had attempted to warn the Judeans before the Babylonian captivity against this kind of idolatry. Rather than putting their trust in the Lord and serving Him, they had essentially assumed that their grip on the temple would prevent the Lord from removing His protection from Judah. In chapter 7, the prophet delivers this message from God: “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Ba’al, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?” Jeremiah tells the Judeans that they will suffer the same fate as Shiloh, the first Hebrew capital which was destroyed by the Philistines. “I will do to the house which is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place which I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh.”

The Judeans did not repent, and the Lord allowed the consequences of their sin and disobedience to occur. The Lord gave his presence when the people allowed Him to also dwell in their hearts and kept their faith in Him. They chose disobedience instead, shutting His law out of their hearts.

In this passage, Luke seems to suggest that the Judeans of his time had begun falling into the same trap. Rather than repenting of their disobedience and putting their faith truly in the Lord, they had rebuilt the temple as a hedge against the consequences of their actions. When Jesus follows in the path of Jeremiah in telling the Judeans that the temple would be utterly destroyed, they react with disbelief — and in another episode, with outright mockery.

But like Jeremiah, Jesus is not predicting the end of the world with the destruction of the temple. In fact, Jesus offers a message of hope — of time to repent and serve the Lord. The fall of the temple will be a call to action, not a signal of utter despair. As it was in Jeremiah’s time, it will call all those who serve the Lord to persevere in faith, to repent, and to provide testimony to the Lord’s salvation.

In what form are we called to persevere? Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians offers a rebuke to that church for the behavior of some Christians there. He has heard that they have eschewed work for gossip and meddling, and have apparently demanded a life of luxury. Paul reminds them that they are not just called to help build the kingdom but to sustain themselves so as not to burden others. When he came to Thessaly, Paul reminds them, he and his contingent worked hard to produce their own food so as to teach them to be self-sufficient, and calls them “to work quietly and eat their own food.”

As Christians, we are called to sustain ourselves in faith, but also in this life so as to prepare ourselves for the next. We are not called to take the shortcuts, but to persevere on the proper path to salvation. Christ predicted (all too well) that many false prophets of doom would arise for their own purposes, and use fear and despair to distract us from the Lord and His plan. Those false prophecies gnaw at our faith, creating dread and panic, and push us to grasp onto idols for our salvation in this world when we should be focused on eternal life with the Lord.

Two thousand years later, we still build temples to hide from that truth, expecting them to provide us shelter from every storm. That urge binds us increasingly to this material life and drains our faith in the Lord for our ultimate salvation. Rather than focus on whether or not the sky is falling, we should “work quietly and eat our own food,” patiently providing testimony to salvation until we enter the new Jerusalem and the blessed presence of the Lord.

The front page image is a detail from “The Sermon on the Mount” by Cosimo Roselli, from the Sistine Chapel, 1481-2. 

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.