by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see things happening, know that the Son of Man is near…Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Mark 13, 24-32
Once again, context is all important in grasping the significance of today’s gospel. At the beginning of Mark Chapter 13 from which today’s reading comes, we hear that Jesus had foretold the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. That prompted two questions from his disciples: “Tell us, when is this going to happen? What sign will we get that things are coming to a head?” (Mark 13, 4). Not surprisingly, Mark has Jesus respond to these questions in reverse order. But instead of giving the disciples dates and times and signs of impending disaster, Jesus points out that squabbles and wars will always be going on around them because that’s the way of the world. Consequently, they should turn their attention to living true to themselves instead of upsetting themselves with what is going on around them. Moreover, he adds that there is no reason for them to assume that the end of the world is just around the corner, “for the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations” (Mark 13, 10). This is also Mark’s way of countering a view that was seemingly held by some in his community. They held fast to the belief that Jesus was God’s perfect and last involvement in human history. It was logical, then, that the fullness of God’s kingdom would soon become a reality and, as a consequence, the world would come to an end. In this rather lengthy explanation that Jesus gives his disciples Mark attributes to him a reference to the persecution of Christians that Nero had initiated in Rome. When Nero was accused of starting the fire that destroyed the city of Rome, he scapegoated the Christians of the city, and set about having them exterminated. And so, Mark has Jesus say: “…and you will be hated by all because of my name” (Mark 13, 13). Scripture commentators point out that Christians of Mark’s era were seen as losers on opposite sides of the Roman Empire. They were being blamed by Nero in Rome as arsonists (for which they were executed) and accused by Jews, who had no time for Jesus, as deserters who got out of Israel to avoid the unpredictables of the Roman occupation.
Mark was writing for a community, at home and abroad, a community that was dealing with physical and political hostility. His Gospel includes allusions to some of the historical pressures directed at that community. In so doing, he acknowledges just how difficult it was for them to be true to their new-found faith. But he assures them that Jesus offers hope.
All this is part of a long lead-in from Jesus before he offers answers to the two questions his close disciples asked when he made his surprising prediction that the grand Temple edifice in Jerusalem would end up in ruins. Having urged them not to get upset by the wars and natural disasters going on around them, he answers their two questions (Mark 13, 4) in a way that, on the surface, looks less than satisfactory. In fact, he includes comments about the end of the world and the return of the “Son of Man” – things they had not specifically asked about. And he does so, using the symbolic language that is associated with apocalyptic writing and speaking. What’s more, in referring to the upheavals in both the political and natural worlds, he uses the term “these things” so ambiguously that neither his disciples nor we quite know whether he is referring to the end times or the destruction of the Temple. I suggest that Mark deliberately tells the story this way to put the focus on the real message that Jesus wanted to give his disciples: In the long run, their knowing exactly when the Temple would fall into ruins and when the Son of Man would return in glory was trivial, in comparison with a commitment to live in hope, trusting that, no matter what happened around them, God would lead them through, even through death and persecution. Therein lies the central message of today’s gospel, both for the disciples and for us: no matter what troubles, disappointments and tragedies are visited upon us in the course of our lives, we can be sure that God, who loved us into life and who continues to love us day in and day out, will continue to walk beside us, even when those challenges don’t evaporate.
There is one sentence at the very end of today’s gospel-reading, that calls for attention. In reference to when the world might end, Jesus says: “As to the exact day or hour, no one knows it, neither the angels in heaven nor even the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13, 32). This underlines the reality that in coming among us Jesus embraced the human condition in its totality. There were limits to his knowledge, just as there are limits to ours. In this context, we ought not forget that Jesus also cured many people of the illnesses and disabilities that limited them. He even restored to life people like his friend Lazarus and the son of the widow of Naim. But they all eventually died and were buried, just as he himself died and was buried. But, he has promised us the fullness of life, life that will come to us only through death.
We are all familiar with St Paul’ encomium about love, in which he concludes: “When all is said and done, there are three things that last: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13, 4-13). Yet, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ very last words of encouragement to his disciples are not about love, but about living with hope in God. In more recent times, we have seen two popes, Benedict and Francis, make strenuous efforts to encourage us to attend to the importance of living in hope.
On the importance of hope, Gustavo Gutiérrez, the great Peruvian theologian, Dominican priest and exponent of liberation theology, mirrors Popes Benedict and Francis in their call to us to live in hope. In an interview in 2003, he stated: “Hope is based on the conviction that God is at work in our lives and in the world. Hope is ultimately a gift from God given to sustain us during difficult times. Charles Péguy described hope as the ‘little sister’ who walks between the ‘taller sisters’ of faith and charity; when the taller sisters grow tired, the little one instils new life and energy into the other two. Hope never allows our faith to grow weak or our love to falter.” (Daniel Hartnett, Remembering the Poor: An Interview with Gustavo Gutiérrez, America Magazine, February 3, 2003)
Let’s not forget that hope, just like every other virtue, is not a collectible item. It is an attitude to living, to relating to God and to others, to engaging with the events of life. It is something that we integrate into our lives with practice and over time. Moreover, it is contagious. When others see hope in us, they learn to imitate it. Our hope gives hope to those around us. As we cope with the Covid pandemic that has taken our world by surprise, with the threat of global warming, with trauma and tragedy of every kind, we will not manage unless we have the conviction that God is present and to be found in everything that happens, however it turns out. Heaven and earth will surely pass away, but the things of God, the values that Jesus lived and taught will be forever constant and life-giving.