Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The End is Near!: The 33rd Sunday in OT

Some years ago I was driving through the back hills of Ohio with my son, and we passed a billboard in a farmer’s field that read: “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.

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.

Note: 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.

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].

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. kanaphîm).  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 some years ago, 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.

Furthermore, there has to be a balance in the Christian life between keeping our eyes on heaven and be faithful to our duties here and now.  Looking forward to the the return of Christ should give us hope and encouragement, but not produce sloth and laziness. There are some persons who become overly concerned about the unfolding of the events of the end times.  This happens both in Protestant and Catholic circles, expressed as the Tim LaHaye “Left Behind” series or in sensational books about various eschatological Marian apparitions. Concern about such things becomes disordered when people spend more time trying to figure out the sequence of events of the last days than actually growing in holiness in the present through a life of prayer, mortification, and faithful fulfillment of one’s duties. 

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 in AD 70 (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.

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