33rd. Sunday (Year C)
(Malachi 3:19-20; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12; Luke 21:5-19)
The Lord of Hosts declared to the prophet Malachi:
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, God’s People were not be afraid, indeed they were not to be disturbed in any way because, ‘fearing the name of the Lord’ in spirit and in truth would lead them to fear naught else.
The Lord of Hosts’ picture – ‘published’ thus by the prophet Malachi-- of a people 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)
Catholic Christians are indeed, as we hear in the canon of the Mass, intended to be ‘a chosen generation, a people set apart’ for the glory of Him Who called them to Jesus.
In what respect are they set apart from others? Surely, not because they are aloof from, or indifferent to others, for charity is the very essence of the great commandment that rules their way of life, while the Lord and Saviour they worship and follow Himself gave the supreme example of fraternal love. Nor are individual Christians to set themselves apart by flamboyance or exuberance, for 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 spiritual strength of character: fearing the name of the Lord, they will fear no other, naught else; always trusting in the power of the Spirit and trying by moral discipline to bear witness to the teaching and love of Christ and His Church in all circumstances and before all people. To that end ‘fear of the Lord’ is an absolutely fundamental virtue because it alone can save us when our mind cannot comprehend or our heart appreciate. How many of those choosing to commit suicide would be saved by an authentic ‘fear of the Lord’! To have no fear of the Lord is indeed a great sin and an extremely dangerous one! Moreover, it can also merit the condemnation of Jesus Who said:
Occasions for stumbling (scandals) are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. (Luke 17:1-2)
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 threaten to destroy them:
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, do not yield yourselves to the inebriation and excitement of mob emotion. There Jesus is clearly seeking to form in His disciples a characteristic attitude that will distinguish them in the future: choosing to walk resolutely with Him rather than chase after the crowd, never fearing to be alone with their Lord. 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 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 in us above all by imminent and urgent threat to self: to one's life, one's reputation, one's family, one’s possessions; and only the supernatural virtue of fear of the Lord can overcome the effects that such natural terrors can trigger off.
Here, People of God, we should most carefully notice that Christian fear of the Lord is no ordinary gift from God but such an outstanding sign of His blessing that, according to the prophet Isaiah, 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. (Isaiah 11:1-3)
Isaiah was a great prophet of the Lord God inspired by His Spirit, but Isaiah was just a man and he used a language he understood and knew his hearers in Israel would understand; he was not the beloved Son of God revealing the full beauty and wisdom of God His Father to disciples called to become, in Himself, adopted children of God.
Therefore whereas Isaiah spoke of:
A Rod coming forth from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch growing out of his roots; and His delight being in the fear of the Lord;
Jesus spoke rather of His Father being always with Him; and though all others might leave Him alone, that abiding Presence of His Father was Jesus’ delight, which He treasured above anything and everything else, a delight He ‘feared’ to lose:
The ruler of the world is coming. He has no power over Me, but the world must know that I love the Father and that I do just as the Father has commanded Me. Get up (My disciples) let us go (to meet those sent to arrest Me). (John 14:30)
So, dear People of God, for us ‘fear of the Lord’ is no trembling acquiescence with impersonal demands from ‘on high’ made on us ‘against the grain’, it is a personal spiritual awareness of a ‘presence’ within us, a presence we fear to lose because we trust it, and humbly, quietly, and so very deeply rely on it, to such an extent that we can be said to delight in that ‘whose’ loss we fear would be to our enduring spiritual ruin.
Fear of the Lord, therefore, 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 that at such times they look neither to men nor rely on themselves, but rather turn to Him:
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 such things in mind, recall the command Paul gave his Thessalonian converts when he was with them:
When we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.
Notice those words, “we instructed 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, here we should remember that Paul was the apostle who suffered most for Christ, one who was also supremely conformed to 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. 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 6:17; 2:20)
In our modern Church too many are influenced by no-longer-practicing Catholics or Christians who choose to put themselves forward as popular ‘ethicists’ and proclaim personally-chosen bits and pieces of their former belief and exalt them out of all proportion to the balanced and living fullness of Christian faith; they have, for example, an idea of holiness that is not only sugar-coated but also carefully conformed to worldly standards, set up for the acceptance of people around, and against the ‘unfeeling’ teaching of Mother Church. True holiness however, is not worldly, but Christian and personal, being God’s gift by the Spirit, given only 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 most deliberately chosen by Jesus and uniquely endowed by God for his role as teacher of the nations, he was supremely one with Christ, and 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 was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.
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 sufficient to promote it. Of course St. Paul recognized sickness, but he would not allow the ‘popular immorality’ encountered today that castigates Christian teaching for aiming to form and develop strength of spiritual character in all called by the Father to believe in and obediently follow His Son become incarnate for us. We need to be trained as Christians and prepared as disciples if we are to appear with Jesus before the God of all holiness.
Today we find desires for quick, sugar-coated, easily seen and popularly appreciated, pseudo-holiness still preventing the wholesome teaching of the Scriptures and Mother Church from finding practical acceptance: how many parents, for example, wanting to appear well in human eyes, ‘don’t like’ to correct, let alone discipline, their children; with the result that the children suffer many and more serious future difficulties and dangers resulting from emotional indiscipline and moral weakness. Likewise, how often are the Scripture and Gospel warnings of eternal punishment, along with Mother Church’s doctrines and disciplines, watered down for public acceptance rather than proclaimed with apostolic zeal? The result is that, even among Catholics, discipline is being 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, physical punishment and :
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. (1 John 5:16–17)
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. (Mark 9:43, 48)
Jesus’ final words in today’s Gospel reading have special significance for those called to be witnesses to Him In today’s world. 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.