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Sunday Scripture: Waiting for the end

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Nov. 17, 2010
By Terrance Callan 
Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time: Malachi 3:19-20a; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12; Luke 21: 5-19
There are times when such things as the prospect of nuclear proliferation, terrorist threats or ecological disasters cause us to think about the end of this world. But most of the time we presume that the world will keep on turning indefinitely. And we Catholics tend not to focus much attention on God’s plan to bring this world to an end at some point and replace it with a new world.
The reading from the Book of the Prophet Malachi reminds us that a day is coming when the history of our world will be brought to an end. “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble,….” This is a fearful prospect, but Malachi encourages us not to be afraid. For those who fear the name of the Lord, “there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”
The reading from the Gospel of Luke is the first part of Jesus’ discourse on the last things. In it He predicts the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, which would occur at the end of the world. Jesus makes it clear that the end of the world will involve suffering even for His followers. He says that we will be manhandled, persecuted, brought to trial, hated by all and even put to death.  
But Jesus also seeks to reassure His followers. He says that we are not to worry about what we will say when we are put on trial, “for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.”
He further promises, “not a hair on your head will be destroyed.” Since Jesus has already predicted that some of his followers will be put to death, this promise that not a hair of your head will be destroyed must refer to safety from ultimate spiritual destruction.
The readings from Malachi and Luke seem intended to encourage those who might fear the coming of the end of the world. The reading from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians has another concern. Far from fearing the end, the Thessalonians await it eagerly. They are so eager for the end, and so sure that it is coming soon, that some of them have stopped working and are simply waiting for the end to come.  Their idleness has become an occasion for unruliness and “minding the business of others.” 
 Although Paul also looks forward to the end of the world and the return of Jesus, he thinks the zeal of the Thessalonians is excessive. He urges them to follow his example; he supported himself by working with his hands when he evangelized them. And he reminds them of his rule that “if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.”
Taken together these readings warn us about two extremes of reaction to the expectation that the world will come to an end. On the one hand, although the end of the world has its terrors, we should not fear it. We can rely on God’s protection in the midst of this final trial, and even look forward to it as the occasion when God’s kingdom will be fully manifest. On the other hand, our expectation that the world will come to an end should not lead us to disengage ourselves completely from this world.  We should continue to work so that we may eat, and live orderly lives.  But all of these readings presuppose that we should be conscious of our belief that the world will end, and also presuppose that this consciousness should affect the way we live.
Callan is a faculty member at the Athenaeum of Ohio. 
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