Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The End is Near! The 33rd Sunday in OT


I was driving my son to his orthodontist this past week, and while touring through the back hills of Ohio, we passed a billboard in a farmer’s field that advertised to all passing by on OH-45: “God has a Judgment Day coming!” 

My son asked me if the farmer who had placed the billboard in his field was Catholic or Protestant.  I suggested he probably was a Protestant.  My son asked why Catholics didn’t put up billboards like that.  I theorized that perhaps fewer Catholics owned farms close to the highway, or maybe they were less convinced that announcing the coming judgment was really an effective means of evangelism. 

Billboards announcing judgment day are not a part of American Catholic culture.  Nonetheless, the Readings for this coming Sunday affirm the truth of that well-meaning farmer’s sign.  God does have a day of judgment coming.  Is that good news or bad news?  It would depend, I suppose, on whether we have suffered injustice or committed it.

1.  Our First Reading Malachi 3:19-20a:

Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven,
when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble,
and the day that is coming will set them on fire,
leaving them neither root nor branch,
says the LORD of hosts.
But for you who fear my name, there will arise
the sun of justice with its healing rays.

[These verses are numbered Mal 3:19-20 in the New American Bible (following the Hebrew), but Mal 4:1-2 in the Revised Standard Version (following the Vulgate).]

This Sunday is a celebration of endings.  It’s almost the end of the Church year.  We contemplate the end of the world.  And this reading is from the end of the last prophet, Malachi.

As the last of the Twelve Minor Prophets (Hosea through Malachi), the Book of Malachi occupies a decisive position in shaping the interpretation the minor prophets.  Writing sometime between the ministries of Haggai and Zechariah (late 500s BC) and the reforms of Nehemiah (c 444 BC), Malachi was remembered in the Jewish and Christian traditions as the last of the classical writing prophets of the Old Covenant, and thus the one to give the final divine instructions to Israel as she awaited the “Day of the LORD” and the coming of the Messiah.
Text Box: Versification of Malachi
The Masoretic Text and Septuagint both divide Malachi into three chapters, whereas the Vulgate adopts Mal 3:19-24 as a fourth chapter (Mal 4:6).  Thus, English translations that follow the Hebrew versification (NAB, JPS) end with Mal 3:19-24, whereas those descended from the Vulgate tradition (KJV, RSV, etc.) end with Mal 4:1-6.
There is little doubt that the Book of Malachi was written during Judah’s “Persian Period” (537–334 BC).  The Second Temple seems to be reconstructed and functioning (Mal 1:6–2:9), which would place the ministry of Malachi after Haggai and Zechariah (i.e. <520 bc="" span="" style="mso-spacerun: yes;">  On the other hand, there is no mention of Nehemiah (c. 444-420 BC), and his reforms seem not to have been implemented yet, because mixed marriages with Gentiles (among other issues) are still a pressing problem (Mal 2:11; cf. Neh 13).  Therefore, Malachi is almost universally dated within 500-450 BC.  Those who are impressed with Malachi’s similarity in language and concepts with Haggai-Zechariah tend to date the book toward 500 BC, while those who place more weight on the similarity of social pathologies addressed in Malachi and Nehemiah tend toward 450 BC.

As is the case with some others of the Twelve (Joel, Obadiah, Habakkuk), the superscription of Malachi provides no other information about the prophet other than his name.  Moreover, since “malachi” means “my messenger” in Hebrew, it is not clear whether it is a personal name or a title.  The Septuagint, for example, translates the superscription: “The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by the hand of his angelos (=”angel” or “messenger”)” (Mal 1:1 LXX).  Therefore, some believe the book is anonymous, and “Malachi” is simply a title given to an unknown prophet.  St. Jerome endorsed a minor Jewish tradition that the unknown “messenger” was Ezra, but other minor Jewish traditions identified him with Zerubbabel or Nehemiah.

The main stream of Jewish and Christian interpretation has understood “Malachi” as the name of the prophetic author, whether a given name or a “pen name.”  The book lends itself most naturally understood as recording, in abbreviated form, the prophet’s dialogical preaching and rebuke of the people of Judah (Mal 1:2–3:15) and Jerusalem in a specific time period (c. 500-450 BC), which resulted in a communal repentance on the part of the more religiously faithful members of the populace (Mal 3:16).  Thus, it appears to be rooted in the historical events of a prophet’s ministry, and not simply a literary creation.

The main body of Malachi consists of six disputations between the LORD and Israel (Mal 1:2–3:15).  The topics of the six disputations between God and Israel may be stated as questions:

(1) Does God really love Israel? (1:2-5)
(2) Do priests and people do well to offer blemished sacrifices? (1:6–2:9)
(3) Do Israelite men do well to divorce their wives and marry Gentiles? (2:10-16)
(4) Will God ever execute justice on the wicked? (2:17–3:5)
(5) Should the people shortchange the LORD in tithes and offerings? (3:6-12)
(6) Is it truly vain to serve God? (3:13-15).

After the disputations there is a very short historical narrative about a group of pious Jews (“those who feared the LORD”) who took heed of the prophet’s message and wrote a kind of covenant renewal document entitled “a book of remembrance” (3:16).  The remainder of the book (3:17–4:6) consists of four words of consolation and instruction to this repentant remnant:

(1) they will be God’s possession [3:17-18] and
(2) will be vindicated on the Day of the LORD [4:1-3] (This is our Sunday Reading.)  In the meantime,
(3) they should diligently observe the law of Moses [4:4] and
(4) watch vigilantly for Elijah’s arrival as harbinger of the Day of the LORD [4:5-6].

Text Box: Structure of Malachi
Superscription (1:1)
I. Six Disputations between God and Israel (1:2–3:15)
 A. On God’s love for Israel (1:2-5)
 B. On offering unblemished sacrifices (1:6–2:9)
 C. On faithfulness to the wife of one’s youth (2:10-16)
 D. On the apparent delay of God’s justice (2:17-3:5)
 E. On offering the full tithe to God (3:6-12)
 F. On the apparent vanity of serving God (3:13-15)
II. The Repentance of a Remnant (3:16)
III. Words of Comfort and Instruction to the Remnant (3:17–4:6)
Thus the structure of Malachi is as follows:

Being the last of the literary prophets, Malachi also shaped the messianic and eschatological hopes of Second Temple Judaism, especially the epilogue of the book, from which this Sunday’s Reading comes (Mal 3:17–4:5).  The exhortation of Mal 4:4 to “remember the Law of Moses” during the period of waiting for the Messiah served to summarize the message of the Twelve Minor Prophets, and in a sense, the whole prophetic corpus, thus aligning it with the teaching of the Torah.  In this way, the two divisions of the ancient Jewish canon, the Law and Prophets, are read as complementary rather than competing.  Diligent observance of the Mosaic law became the religious agenda for pious Jews up to the coming of Christ, and remains the agenda for observant branches of Judaism to this day. 

Now let’s look carefully at the passage read for this Sunday.  The prophet proclaims the coming day of judgment of the LORD, which has two different consequences: it will be a day of wrath for “the proud and all who do wickedness” (literally from the Hebrew), but a day of consolation for those who “fear my Name.”  For them, the “Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings” (literally from the Hebrew).  Our Lectionary translation fails us today by speaking of the “healing rays” of the sun, when the Hebrew uses the image of “wings” (Heb. kanaph).  It’s important to keep to the literal Hebrew here, because it allows us to see a connection with other parts of the Bible, such as this passage from Matt 23:37/Luke 13:34:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”

Jesus is the Sun of Righteousness who will rise with healing in his wings, and he longs to gather Jerusalem under those wings of healing.  However, Jerusalem will refuse, and that is the point of our Gospel Reading below, which concerns the judgment that will fall on unrepentant Jerusalem in AD 70. 

However, since Jerusalem is the center of the earth, the destruction of that city portends the destruction of the world.  And so Malachi’s prophecy may be taken not only with reference to the judgment on Israel’s capital, but also with reference to the end of the world.  If we wish to escape being set on fire like stubble, we must “fear the Name of the LORD.”  That name is now “Jesus”:

Phil. 2:9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

Heb 1:3 [Jesus Christ] reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of powe. … having become as much superior to angels as the Name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs.

The image of receiving healing from the wings of Jesus is one of great comfort.  We who take refuge in Him realize all too well our own sins and brokenness.  We have been “proud” and done “wickedness” ourselves—so what is the difference between us and those who end as “stubble”?  Sometimes only that we flee to the LORD rather than from him, because we know we need healing.

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 98:5-6, 7-8, 9:
R. (cf. 9) The Lord comes to rule the earth with justice.
Sing praise to the LORD with the harp,
with the harp and melodious song.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
sing joyfully before the King, the LORD.
R. The Lord comes to rule the earth with justice.
Let the sea and what fills it resound,
the world and those who dwell in it;
let the rivers clap their hands,
the mountains shout with them for joy.
R. The Lord comes to rule the earth with justice.
Before the LORD, for he comes,
for he comes to rule the earth,
He will rule the world with justice
and the peoples with equity.
R. The Lord comes to rule the earth with justice.

The relationship of the psalm to the rest of the liturgy is clear: it is a song of praise to God for his imminent arrival as the judge of the earth.

3.  The Second Reading 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12:

Brothers and sisters:
You know how one must imitate us.
For we did not act in a disorderly way among you,
nor did we eat food received free from anyone.
On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day
we worked, so as not to burden any of you.
Not that we do not have the right.
Rather, we wanted to present ourselves as a model for you,
so that you might imitate us.
In fact, when we were with you,
we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work,
neither should that one eat.
We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in a
disorderly way,
by not keeping busy but minding the business of others.
Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly
and to eat their own food.

St. Paul’s exhortation here directly addresses Christians who were using the expectation of the end of the world as an excuse to quitting working and live at the expense of others.  St. Paul describes them with a Greek phrase which corresponds very closely to this English rendering: “they are not busy, but busybodies.”

What St. Paul teaches here is an important corrective or balance to the general Christian teaching on charity.  It is a work of mercy to feed the hungry; yet this work of mercy becomes perverted when it enables sloth on the part of the recipient.  Then we become “co-dependent enablers”—at least, that was the buzzword when I was in ministry back in the nineties.

The goal of the Christian, so far as it depends on him, should be economic independence: not to be a burden on others, but to produce a surplus that can help others.

Speaking to crowds in the Italian city of Lampedusa recently, Pope Francis spoke of the dignity that work provides to the human person.  It could transform the efforts of the Church in the area of social justice if we focused on the concept of providing work, and therefore dignity and long-term support, rather than merely immediate relief of physical needs.  Of course, this is not a new idea and many initiatives of the Church already aim toward this goal.

4.  The Gospel 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."

Jesus obviously speaks here about the total destruction of the Herodian Temple (that is, the Temple begun by Herod the Great and finished in AD 66).  Many people raise the question of the so-called Wailing Wall in Jerusalem: were not the stones of the Wailing Wall part of the Temple, and does this disprove Jesus’ prophecy?  Actually, the Wailing Wall was part of the retaining wall constructed to provide a large level plaza for the Temple and its courts.  The wall was not part of the Temple itself.  The Temple proper was located a little north of the present Muslim shrine of the Dome of the Rock, and nothing of it remains. 

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.

Jesus describes here the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.  The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus records the fearful natural signs in the sky and on the earth that preceded this catastrophe in his work The Jewish War.

At the same time, Jerusalem was the Holy City, the center of the earth, the navel of the cosmos, a microcosm of the Temple of the Universe.  As Josephus writes:

“For if anyone do but consider the fabric of the tabernacle, and take a view of the garments of the high priest, and of those vessels which we make use of in our sacred ministration, he will find … they were every one made in way of imitation and representation of the universe (Jewish Antiquities 3:180). 
So what happens to Jerusalem in AD 70 is a type and sign of what will happen to the whole universe.  Therefore our Lord’s words are also rightly taken as applying to the end of the world.

"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.

Here Jesus prophecies things we find fulfilled in the Book of Acts, when, during the AD 50’s and 60’s, the Apostles were seized, persecuted, handed over to synagogues and prisons, led before kings and governors, and some put to death.  All these things took place before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.  At the same time, these persecutions have been characteristic of the Church throughout history, and will recur in a particularly intense way just before the Second Coming.

You will be hated by all because of my name.”

The hatred of those around us is particularly hard for Christians to bear, because we desire their love and conversion intensely.  We bear others no ill will, but because we will not comply lifestyles and beliefs we know to be false, harmful, and contrary to God’s will, we provoke resentment of others. 

But not a hair on your head will be destroyed.
By your perseverance you will secure your lives."

Since Jesus acknowledges that some will be put to death, his statement “not a hair on your head will be destroyed” cannot be taken in a simple sense, to the effect that no physical harm will come to those persecuted for their faith in Christ.  Rather, “Not a hair on your head will be destroyed” must be understood as an eschatological statement, that no ultimate damage will be sustained by the Christian because his entire body will be restored at the resurrection.  Thus we tie in the theme of resurrection, which dominated last week’s Readings.

Perseverance is a form of the virtue of fortitude, an ability to endure under the stress of pain and hardship.  Let’s pray at this Mass for God to grant us the perseverance we are going to need to endure the persecution that is brewing for us in this culture, in order that we remain faithful to the end and receive back our bodies at the resurrection, without a single hair missing.


Myshkin said...

First, your descriptor of Jerusalem as the "navel" of the cosmos is so rich!

Then, I would recommend to other readers that they take the occasion of Malachi's descriptor of the Messiah as the "Sun of Justice" to listen to one of the musical settings of "Felix Namque Es," a motet for the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which ends, "Quia ex te ortus sol justitiae, Christus Deus noster" ("For out of thee (the BVM) arose the Sun of Justice, Christ our God.").

I recommend especially Nicholas Wilton's modern, though classic, setting of this motet. http://www.catholicmusic.co.uk/menu/music_samples.htm (Note: I have no personal connection with Wilton but have so much enjoyed this particular Motet of his.)

Nick said...

The end is imminent because the End is with us under the appearance of bread and wine.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, the "Sun of Righteousness" has a wide number of parallels in the Ancient Near East. First, this imagery can be linked to very old images of YHWH associated with the sun and the Jebusite sometime-solar god Shedeq - that is, Righteousness personified, god of Melchizedek - who, like YHWH, was also identified with El. (Heiser, Michael. "The Divine Council in the Late Canonical and Non-Canonical Second Temple Literature.")

Second, "healing in its wings" also refers to the winged solar disc common to the ANE under Egyptian influence - which was also adopted by Zoroastrianism as a symbol of Ahura Mazda. By some Jews and evidenced by an altarpiece, it was considered acceptable to represent the presence of YHWH under a solar disc.

(Sommer, Benjamin. The Bodies of God in the World of Ancient Israel: Appendix)

Then there are some interesting parallels tied up in this phrase by Malachi between YHWH and Amon-Re who were both placed under sometimes solar imagery and other times under forms of the Bull, both creators and fathers of gods and men, the Unique One (cf. Deuteronomy 6:4).

(Oswalt, John. "The Golden Calves and Egyptian Concept of Deity." Evangelical Quarterly 45.1; Rendsburg, Gary. "The Egyptian Sun-God Ra in the Pentateuch." available from his CV page on Rutgers University's Jewish Studies page)

One could speculate theologically that in this passage the God-fearers and Evildoers are separated precisely by the burning presence of God under a solar guise, not unlike the conceptions of the Eschaton by some Orthodox. Both experience the rays of this divine Sun but differently, one as healing and another as destroying. I don't know it's ever been used that way so I may be thinking off the cuff.

Nick said...


"One could speculate theologically that in this passage the God-fearers and Evildoers are separated precisely by the burning presence of God under a solar guise, not unlike the conceptions of the Eschaton by some Orthodox. Both experience the rays of this divine Sun but differently, one as healing and another as destroying. I don't know it's ever been used that way so I may be thinking off the cuff."

This was declared heresy by the Church, and it was a reason - among many other heresies - why the Great Schism took place. The Church and the Eastern Orthodox have the same Faith, but the Eastern Orthodox also believe in certain heresies and practice certain pseudo-mystical works. Since the Eastern Orthodox Church refuses to condemn them, one would have to conclude it accepts them.

Cindy Hogan said...

Some great insights this week Dr. Bergsma. Though I do have a quick question regarding the gospel. In one sense, everything is present for an imminent return of Christ. In the last two thousand years, we have already seen all of the elements discussed in scripture....The destruction of the sun and moon in the temple when it was burned to the ground, the appearance of lawless leaders like Nero and Hitlar, among many other elements of christian persecution throughout the last 2000 years. I guess my question is does there necessarily have to be a further completion at the end of the world, or could Jesus just return at any moment? I realize that there has to be a second coming as in Jesus coming back and putting his foot on the ground. I'm talking specifically about all the events that lead up to the second coming. Is it mandatory of catholic doctrine that these events still have yet to come, or can we view them as completly fullfilled and simply waiting on the final coming itself? thanks and God bless

Anonymous said...


I'm not certain that the concept was declared heresy and would like to know the source.

In many of his writings, Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft - by all means a very orthodox Catholic - has used the idea


And, while I know priests can certainly be heretical, I have recently heard a Catholic priest at one of my parishes say something along those lines.

Furthermore, I am almost certain that this was not a cause of the Great Schism at all. To be honest, most Christians at the time didn't even realize a schism had occurred, and intercommunion was quite common until the fall of Constantinople. Furthermore, this conception of Hell was very much - until the regrettable, starkly anti-Catholic polemics of Vladimir Lossky - a very minority position even in Orthodoxy. I strongly doubt that it was even known about to be condemned.

I could be wrong though.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

The website didn't post for some reason. It was .

To be quite frank, I am not certain what those "many heresies" are of which you speak. The only debates I can think of are the Filioque, the Energy-Essence distinction, Dormition, and Papal Authority.

Several popes have expressed the opinion that Mary did in fact "fall asleep" before being assumed in line with the East. Regarding the question of energies and essence, I have recently read this is not a Church-dividing issue, and Eastern Catholics to this day do not use the Filioque in their liturgies - a tradition which presiding popes have maintained (cf. "The Ground of Union in Aquinas and Palamas"). Admittedly, that leaves papal authority.

Anonymous said...

OK. Apparently, websites do not post. Sorry about that. If you're interested, go to Peter Kreeft's webpage, click Featured Articles, and go to the one titled "Hell."

God bless.

Anonymous said...

OK. I reread your post. I was in a rush. Regarding Hesychasm, that was a contentious issue - particularly in its relationship to Quietism and Jensenism. Not all Catholic theologians and historians have, looking back on it, have seen anything wrong with it. And Pope John Paul II spoke approvingly of it to my understanding.

John Bergsma said...

Cindy: That's a good question. I know the common tradition of the Church is to anticipate a uniquely painful tribulation of the Church just prior to the Second Coming. See Catechism §675-77.

John Bergsma said...

Anonymous: thanks for your reflections. I'll check the Kreeft site.

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