by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Some of the disciples were talking about the Temple, how beautiful it looked with its fine stones and gifts offered to God.”    Luke 21: 5-19

The disciples’ appreciative remarks about the ornateness of the Temple elicited from Jesus a list of comments that they probably least expected. After all, it is likely that they were repeating comments of the kind made by countless visitors and pilgrims who had come to the Temple before them.

Jesus, however, gave them a list of weighty issues to ponder and digest. What is worthy of note about this section of Luke’s Gospel is that it parallels similar passages in both Mark and Matthew that are something like Jesus’ final thoughts to those close to him before he was arrested, tortured and sent to his public execution. Today’s gospel-reading is a summary to his disciples of what they could expect if they committed themselves to practicing everything he had taught them.

In a response that must have deflated the disciples, Jesus offered a list of grim and unambiguous assertions, the meanings of which are probably best paraphrased:

The first was a grim reminder that the beautiful Temple which the disciples so admired would one day be nothing more than a pile of rubble. Shocked by his prediction, the disciples wanted an indication as to when such destruction would happen. But Jesus bypassed their question and proceeded to give them a further warning.

He warned them about expecting too much from organised religion that can sound as though it is able to offer quick answers to people’s hopes for instant salvation. He also made reference to religious charlatans who would come offering false hope by claiming to speak on behalf of Jesus himself: “Take care not to be misled. Many will come in my name saying: ‘I am he’ and ‘The time is at hand.’ Do not follow them.”   (Luke 21:8)

Then, without so much as a pause to breathe, he launched into a third point about war and violence. Extreme abuse of power resulting in war and conflict deter all our efforts to bring peace and calm fear. But we need to remind ourselves that such violence is bound to occur when greed and competition rear their ugly heads. “Be sure”, he said, “not to let news of such events paralyse you with fear.”

Then, as though he were running out of time to say everything he wanted, he had moved to his next point about the inevitability of the occurrence of natural disasters that would turn people’s lives upside down. “But don’t rush to interpret such events as signs that the end of the world is near. Wars between nations and natural disasters such as earthquakes, famines and plagues will all come and go, but, ‘for you who would be my disciples, even worse experiences await you!’”  (Luke 21:11)

Then followed a brief comment on how government institutions can pervert the law to destroy the lives of those they are meant to protect. Acutely aware of people intent on ridding their world of him, Jesus warned that similar injustices awaited his disciples: “You will be arrested and persecuted and brought to trial before kings and governors” (Luke 21: 12).
The final point that Jesus made was to be alert to the possibility of animosity and betrayal coming even from family members, some of whom would stop at nothing. (Luke 21: 16).

Some of us may conclude that this outburst from Jesus was the result of the emotional pressure he felt as he reflected on his own experience of rejection, injustice and prejudice levelled at him by those whose lives he had made uncomfortable by the challenges he put to them. I’m inclined to think that he was more intent on urging his disciples to be alert to the painful forces that could be loosed against them not just by a violent and greedy world, not just by forces of nature, but by those who controlled the power of the religious institution to which they were adherents. There is something attractive about the flowers, the icons, the statues, the music, the incense and the rituals that are part of our religious practice and worship. But some of us have had experiences that make these things pale into insignificance. There comes a time for some of us when more painful events impinge on our religious consciousness. We all know of someone who has been emotionally or even sexually abused by religious people in whom they placed their trust. Such abuse does not belong only to our religious world. It has invaded the fabric of our political, institutional and sporting worlds.

Sometimes, we can delude ourselves into thinking that religion is meant to desensitise us to the painful issues at work in our Church and our world. Jesus and his Gospel are surely intent on encouraging us to face openly and honestly those painful issues, however complex they happen to be. God’s Spirit is present and at work in the complexity of our own lives and in the complexity of the world around us. While we might be inclined to want to simplify complex situations and challenges, it is vital that we try to face them openly and squarely. In today’s second reading Paul gives us a good example of mixing reality with genuine love and care. He seems to have no hesitation in speaking the truth in love to the Thessalonian community to whom he wrote: “Indeed, when we were with you, we used to lay down the rule that anyone who would not work should not eat”  (2 Thessalonians 3: 10).

However we choose to live our religion, it is empty if it fails to lead us towards discipleship of the Jesus who taught us to live with courage, compassion, integrity and fearlessness, ever conscious of God’s Spirit somehow present under the messiness of the troubles which surround us.