The prophet Malachi heard the Lord declare:
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. But for you who fear My name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.
Though terrible events be taking place all around them, the People of God will not be afraid, neither will they allow themselves to be disturbed in any way, because, ‘fearing the name of the Lord’ in spirit and in truth will lead them to fear naught else.
Malachi’s picture of a people thus set apart from all others agrees with St. Peter's description of the true disciples of Jesus:
You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, (the Lord’s) own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
Catholics and Christians -- say the prophet Malachi and the Apostle Peter -- are indeed, as we hear in the canon of the Mass, ‘a chosen generation, a people set apart’.
In what respect are they set apart from others? Surely, not because they are aloof from, or indifferent to, others, for charity is the essence of the great commandment that rules their way of life, while the Lord they worship and follow Himself gives the supreme teaching and example of fraternal love. Nor are individual Christians to set themselves apart by flamboyance or exuberance; indeed, St. Paul told us that Christians ought to be quiet in their life-style:
We command and exhort (you) in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in a quiet fashion and eat (your) own bread.
So we realize that Christians are to be "different" from others, above all, by their strength of character: fearing the name of the Lord, they will fear no other, naught else; always trying, in the power of the Spirit and by their moral discipline, to bear witness to the love of Christ in all circumstances and with, and before, all people.
If we now turn our attention to Jesus Himself we can see Him forming the character of His disciples along those lines:
As some spoke of the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and donations, (Jesus) said, “These things which you see -- the days will come in which not one stone shall be left upon another that shall not be thrown down."
Here He would seem to be weaning them from such false supports as national pride, or a vain-glorious enthusiasm which could be sparked off by external stimulants such as the magnificent Temple recently built by King Herod in Jerusalem; for He then went on to give them yet more serious counsel for storms that would soon engulf and threaten to destroy them personally:
Take heed that you not be deceived. For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am He,' and, 'The time has drawn near.' Do not go after them!
‘Take heed not to be deceived’ even though many others be misled; ‘do not go after’ the crowd, to join in the inebriation and excitement of communal emotion. There Jesus is clearly seeking to form in His disciples a characteristic attitude that will distinguish them in the future: never fearing to be left alone with the Lord, always choosing to walk with Him rather than chase after the crowd.
That was not to be all, however, for Jesus went on to warn of yet greater trials:
When you hear of wars and commotions, do not be terrified; for these things must come to pass first, but the end will not come immediately.
Mature Christians must be able to stand resolute amidst widespread anxiety and contagious panic: having sufficient spiritual courage and moral discipline to wait for and confidently trust in the Lord though everything else -- be it the very heavens themselves -- might seem to be falling apart:
There will be great earthquakes in various places, and famines and pestilences; and there will be fearful sights and great signs from heaven.
Fear is instilled above all by imminent and urgent threat to self: to one's life, one's reputation, one's family; and only the supernatural Christian fear of the Lord can overcome the effect that such natural and fundamental fears can easily trigger off. Here we should appreciate, People of God, that Christian fear of the Lord is no ordinary gift from God, but such a sign of His blessing that, according to the prophet Isaiah ( 11:1-3), the Messiah Himself would take special delight in it:
There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord. His delight is in the fear of the Lord.
Fear of the Lord, therefore, is indeed a supernatural gift from God which we ourselves are called upon to co-operate with and develop as part of our character; but, much more than that, it is a supreme sign of God’s love and favour, meant to be our special delight and ultimate defence against anything this world can throw up against us or the devil devise to ensnare us.
And that is just the final situation which Jesus puts before His disciples now:
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.
Then, indeed, fear of the Lord and trust in His mercy and power must be seen to be the disciple’s great delight and sure shield. Jesus insists they then look neither to men, nor rely on themselves; but, rather, turn to Him and:
Settle it in your hearts not to meditate beforehand on what you will answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to contradict or resist.
People of God, recognize what Jesus is looking for in His disciples, appreciate the sort of character He wishes us to have; and with these things in mind, recall the command Paul gave his Thessalonian converts when he was with them:
When we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.
Notice those words, “we used to give you”: this order – it was more than advice -- was not given, mentioned, just once or twice in passing, it was his usual and repeated teaching. Moreover, we should not forget that Paul was the apostle who suffered most for Christ, one who was also supremely conformed to, one with, Christ in his mind and heart, as the following texts show:
From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus. (Galatians 6:17)
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
In our modern Church many have an idea of holiness that is not only sugar-coated but also largely conformed to worldly standards, set up for worldly acceptance. True holiness, however, is not worldly, but Christian and personal, being God’s gift, by the Spirit, to the committed disciple of Jesus. Therefore we should appreciate that Paul’s teaching, though it does indeed reflect his own character and his personal appreciation of Christ, nevertheless, since Paul was specifically chosen and endowed by God for his role as teacher of the nations, and was, moreover -- as we have remarked -- supremely one with Christ, we should in no way presume to suspect, let alone criticise, the intentions which inspired his mind and heart to write those words:
If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.
St. Paul was following the example and purpose of Jesus Himself by preparing and promoting in his converts, as best he could, that moral discipline and spiritual strength essential for disciples who would, inevitably, have to carry the Cross with their Lord for God's glory and mankind's salvation; and such strength is never acquired through indulgence, nor is mere encouragement or comforting exhortation usually sufficient to promote it.
It would seem that, in the original Christian community in Thessalonica, there were some who considered -- as many are inclined to think today -- that perhaps the Apostle was being too hard in this matter; and so, they had continued to indulge those Paul wished to cure. Paul was disappointed to learn:
That some of you are (still) living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.
Had his original command been obeyed the matter might not have needed any further attention. It did not turn out like that, however, because some of the community were spiritually weak and continued to indulge their own emotions and pander to those who were being led astray by idleness and curiosity. Paul did not openly and directly reprove those mistakenly indulgent people -- after all it was weakness in them, not malice -- and so he just re-iterated what he had originally said but this time addressed it exclusively to those who were the greater sinners, those busybodies who were doing no work:
Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and to eat their own food.
Today we find similar weaknesses, similar desires for quick, sugar-coated, easily seen and popularly appreciated, holiness still preventing the wholesome teaching of the Scriptures and Mother Church from finding practical acceptance: how many parents, for example, today, ‘don’t like’ to correct, let alone discipline, their children; with the result that the children suffer many and more serious difficulties and dangers resulting from their emotional indiscipline and moral weakness. Likewise, how often are present disciplines and Scripture’s warnings of eternal punishment in the Gospel watered down for public approval rather than proclaimed with apostolic integrity. The result is that, even among Catholics, discipline is gradually downgraded, while sin -- even depravity at times -- is passively passed-over or regularly excused for ‘medical, psychological’ reasons, all because it doesn’t ‘seem nice’ to speak of, people don’t like to hear of, God punishing sin; punishing it, above all, with eternal punishment:
If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly.
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. …. Where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. (1 John 5:16–17; Mark 9:43, 48.)
In today’s world, Jesus’ final words in the Gospel reading have special significance for those called to be witnesses to Him. They are not soft words to coax, for He wants all who are called and aspire to become His disciples in truth, to be strong enough, in Him, to glorify the Father by the Spirit; and to this end He chooses to help us with clear words that give inspiration and offer strength:
You will even be handed over by parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and some of you will be put to death. You will be hated by all for My name's sake, but not a hair on your head will be lost. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.