by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Some of the disciples were talking about the Temple, with its fine stones and the gifts offered to God. But Jesus said: “All this you’re admiring so much – the time will come when every stone in that building will end up in a pile of rubble…When you hear of wars and revolutions, keep your head and don’t panic. That’s the way of the world and no sign of the end…But before any of this happens, they’ll arrest you, drag you to court and into gaol…There’s no telling who will hate you because of me…But stay with it to the end. You won’t be sorry. Your perseverance will secure your life.” Luke 21, 5-19

A little bit of history might help give some context to today’s gospel reading and fill out its meaning. While Biblical scholars are uncertain about when Luke’s Gospel was written, most place it somewhere in the 70s AD (or CE), at a time when the Romans under Vespasian and Titus were so vigorously suppressing a Jewish uprising that they completely destroyed Jerusalem and its magnificent Temple. Rome itself had been experiencing political unrest. Nero suicided in 68 AD and his death was followed by a brief period of civil war. In the year 69 AD, there were four Roman Emperors in quick succession – Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian. The last of these had been busy suppressing Jewish unrest, and when he became Emperor, the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple was completed by General Titus in 70 AD.

It seems as though the early Christian community interpreted all the violence going on around them as signs that the world was coming to an end and the Second Coming of Christ was just around the corner. Understandably, these first Christians were restless, with a mixture of anxiety and expectation. Prophets of doom and destruction have long been part of human history. It would seem that there was no shortage of them in Judea at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. We ourselves have encountered them. In 2004, when the great tsunami affecting the Indian Ocean claimed nearly a quarter of a million lives, some prominent religious leaders interpreted it as punishment by God for humankind’s sinfulness and as an indication that worse was to follow if people did not reform their lives.

One of the consequences of being blessed by God with the gift of freedom is that we human beings can end up making choices that end up bringing disaster on ourselves and on those around us. Families fall apart because of petty jealousies, bickering and squabbles that their members just cannot resolve or put aside. Nations end up in armed conflict because their leaders are dominated by ego, self-interest and an insatiable quest for importance and power. Sound judgement is pushed into the background, and peace is given no chance. But God does not intervene by trampling on human freedom even when it is being misused. All actions have consequences, irrespective of the motives which drive them.

In today’s gospel reading, we see how Jesus used an innocent remark about the beauty of the Temple to prompt his disciples to practice looking beyond the surface of what they saw and experienced. I am reminded of a cynical but revealing comment made about Hollywood and its emptiness: “Scratch the veneer and you get to the real veneer underneath.” True, there was something magnificent about the Temple in Jerusalem, but its beauty distracted from some of the mismanagement and corruption happening within. This was coupled with the inability of Jewish leaders to read the events in the political arena that would eventually lead to the destruction of the city that housed the Temple. It was in this context that Luke urged his community to remain calm and do their best to rise above the political and civil unrest.

Is there a message for us in all this? Is it possible that the rot and corruption of some of our cities and their leaders are masked by the magnificence of our public buildings, the glitz of shopping malls and the empty rhetoric of those elected to leadership? We can let ourselves be lulled into a false sense of security by the oily pretence of bureaucrats and politicians who make high-sounding promises and contribute nothing to the common good they claim to serve.

Closer to home, we can stop and look at how we can build polite exteriors around the way we relate to one another. We can say the right words in response to the strong emotions expressed by those around us but those words can be as impersonal as the moves in a game of chess. We can even deny the pain in both ourselves and others with our arsenals of defence mechanisms and rationalisations. We can manage these situations by arguing that it’s not our place to interfere, that someone closer is assisting with the problem or that it’s better to leave well alone and not cause further harm or upset by digging too deep. Many of us have a lot going on in the depths of our hearts, but it is much easier to rearrange the furniture or tidy our office, simply because we don’t know how to reveal to someone we say we trust the real issues that preoccupy, worry or embarrass us.

There are even some people who seem to think that religious practice will offer good protection when difficulties arise. In today’s second reading we are given a sobering reminder that religion is not exactly a soft option. Paul does not mince his words when he points out to his Thessalonian audience that religion is not something that one wears but something to which we are committed and which makes demands of us:

“Don’t you remember the rule we had when we lived with you: ‘If you don’t work, you don’t eat’? And now we’re getting reports that a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings are taking advantage of you. This is not to be tolerated” (2 Thessalonians 3, 10-12).

In Paul’s mind, there is no room for pretending or lip-service. Commitment to Jesus and his community allowed no room for half-measures.

All the disasters, break-downs in interpersonal relations, wars and conflicts referred to by Jesus will continue to occur. They are all part of the mystery of life and the consequence of human choice. To those who have no hope, they make life and relationships meaningless. As we move towards the conclusion of our Church year, the readings invite us to stop and reflect on what we invest our time and energy, on whom we place our hope. We are prompted to ask ourselves if we are building lives that will ultimately end in ruin or whether we are investing in the things of God – in time for prayer and reflection, in building caring community, letting loose the love in our hearts to care for those who are discarded and forgotten. We are challenged to explore what is required of us to live authentically as disciples of Jesus.