At first glance, this is a tough gospel to enter into. Its apocalyptic language ranges from earth to heaven, promising wars between nations and kingdoms, powerful earthquakes, famines and plagues as well as "awesome sights. . . from the sky." It’s troubling to think about all of that, and tempting to keep it all at arm’s length. But Jesus doesn’t let either his original listeners or us off the hook ; rather, he circles back to say : "Before all this happens, however, they will seize you and persecute you." What might that have meant to the people who’d just been gawking at the costly stonework of the Temple ? What might it have meant for the people for whom Luke wrote this gospel ? Come to think of it, what are we supposed to make of it all ?
We see Jesus in full prophet mode here ; he uses the traditional language of earthquakes and war as he foresees the end of the Temple. The crowd is familiar with this language, and responds not by questioning IF he is correct about these things but rather by asking WHEN they will happen. Their history as a people chastised by God through the actions of other nations leads them to accept what Jesus has to say. They do ask for a "sign", however, "when all these things are about to happen."
Rather than answering directly, Jesus zeros in on the personal lives and fortunes of his listeners, telling them in graphic terms that they can expect to be persecuted on account of his name. But, like the excerpt from the Book of the Prophet Malachi which is the first reading of this Sunday’s liturgy, this portion of the gospel ends on a note of consolation. Jesus promises that "by your perseverance you will secure your lives." We’re not told anything about the reaction of his listeners to these words, but the end of Chapter 21 tells us that "all the people would get up early each morning to listen to him in the Temple area" (v.38). Perhaps they sensed the terrible truth of his words. What he said was painful but had the ring of truth to it, a truth that was hard to resist.
From their vantage point in the mid-80s, Luke and his community would have recognized that Jesus’ prediction about the Temple had been on target. Fifteen years earlier, in 70 A.D., the Romans had sacked Jerusalem and carried off the Temple’s treasure ; it was a bitter and well known fact indeed that not one stone rested on another. Similarly, they would have known that many of their fellow believers in Jesus had been "led before kings and governors because of [his] name." Moving testimony of such experiences was now circulating widely among Christian communities throughout the Empire. Thanks to these precious letters and eye witness accounts, Luke’s community could know that Jesus’ words were accurate.
But then we see, as they must have seen, that the script changed, and not for the better. They would have heard that after testifying to Jesus, many, if not most, of these "martyrs" (the Greek word for witness) had been thrown to the lions, or made into human torches, or crucified upside down, or suffered other unspeakable cruel ties – often for the entertainment of the local population. So what could Jesus have meant when he promised : "not a hair on your head will be destroyed" ?
One thing is for sure when we do "Lectio" : we shouldn’t pull verses out of context or stop reading if the pericope continues. We have to keep going. If we do, we see that immediately after the promise he makes in verse 18, Jesus says : "By your perseverance you will secure your lives" (v. 19). Examining the meaning of the word "perseverance" can widen and deepen our understanding of what Jesus is seeking to teach in this pericope.
This word is proper to Luke’s gospel, used by Jesus here in Chapter 21 and in Chapter 8, where it’s part of the explanation of the Parable of the Sower and the Seed : "As for the seed that fell on rich soil, they are the ones, who, when they have heard the word, embrace it with a generous and good heart, and bear fruit through perseverance." In both instances, it’s a word that "designates resistance to the dangers that threaten the word," according to the notes in the Traduction Oecumenique of the New Testament. It’s a word that is a favorite of Paul’s as well, used in much the same way in his letters to the Thessalonians (1 Th 1:3), the Corinthians (2 Cor 1:6, 6:4, 12:12), and the Romans (Rm 2:7, 5:3-4), 8:25, 15:4-5). In all these cases, perseverance stands as a word of exhortation and encouragement to brothers and sisters facing mortal danger because of their faith in and attachment to the Word of Life. In effect, it’s a recognition that followers of Jesus are going to have to walk the same road as he did, that is, gain "life" by way of the Cross. The "hairs on their heads" of which he speaks are not necessarily the ones they comb or braid or dye right now, just as their mortal bodies are not those they will enjoy at the Day of Resurrection, whenever that might come.
We have an advantage over those who listened to Jesus on that early spring day in Palestine in the first century. They could not know about his Resurrection, but we can. Having that knowledge, however, doesn’t mean that we don’t need encouragement. If anything, we might need it more, as we continue to await the Coming of the Lord, some 2000 years later. Resisting things that threaten the Good News — persevering, in other words – is a stance that can offer us strength and courage.
This past week, we celebrated the feast day of the Assumptionist Bulgarian Martyrs, executed in 1952 and beatified in 2002. Kamen, Pavel and Josaphat were just ordinary men who resisted the temptation to get along to go along. They persevered in their attachment to the Good News. And they died. But faith tells us that they are alive in Christ. That was almost 60 years ago. If we want something more current, we might consider the very ordinary parishioners of the church in Baghdad who were murdered several weeks ago while at prayer together. Unlike the Assumptionists, they weren’t called on to make a profession of faith "before governors and kings," but it’s fair to say that they made one simply by attending Mass in an environment where they are currently being targeted. They died. We should grieve. But we should also remember that faith tells us that they are alive in Christ. That same faith, that same type of resistance, is something that Jesus encourages us to cultivate and practice in the face of a fierce counter-resistance that desires death, not life. By resisting those threats, he says, "you will secure your lives." We have His word on it, as well as the witness of so many over so many generations.
Sr. Nuala Cotter, ra
Worcester - USA