As we move toward the end of the Liturgical Year, the Sunday readings continue to sound themes of “the end times”, general judgment, and ultimate salvation. Paradoxically, just when we might expect Scripture to convey a message of clarity and comfort, we encounter imagery that confuses and may even alienate many readers.
The Gospel passage for Sunday presents Jesus predicting the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction as well as more general catastrophes that will be preceded by an intense persecution of his followers.
Jesus uses the destruction of the magnificent Temple to make a statement on the impermanence of human achievement. In response to their wonder at the Temple’s beauty, he wants to divert the attention of his audience from their fascination with “all that you see here”; their focus should be on something else.
In the Gospel account, those listening to Jesus are concerned with what will happen to the building and when. In response, Jesus moves from discussing a specific catastrophic event to more general statements about the coming of false prophets, wars, and other calamities. Here Luke employs language and imagery that is conventional in apocalyptic literature from this period. This genre requires us to adopt the interpretive lenses that help us understand this type of language and its expressions on its own terms.
Apocalyptic literature uses unsettling language and imagery as a means to assure the faithful that they should keep their trust in God even when facing the most challenging of circumstances. Indeed, while describing the terrible events, Jesus tells his listeners not to be afraid.
His point is that when bad things happen — and they will — they should/we should “not be terrified” or follow anyone proclaiming these are signs of God’s judgment and “the end”. Instead, we should trust that God remains present in the good and bad times.
The assurance of God’s faithfulness in the face of difficult times is the real concern of these verses. Jesus details the persecution that his followers can expect to face: arrests; persecution; trials before government authorities; betrayal by family and friends; hatred on account of Jesus’ name; and even execution. Throughout his Gospel, Luke presents Jesus as a prophetic figure who is willing to risk rejection and death as a result of his message. Anyone who follows Jesus can expect the same hostility that Jesus and Israel’s great prophets endured. But, Jesus says, this persecution will “lead to your giving testimony”. And just as God gave Moses and other prophets the capacity to speak to and confront their doubters and opponents so too will Jesus himself provide strength and wisdom for such testimony.
Jesus assures his followers that not a hair on their head will perish. Their experience of persecution will not end in death but in victory for their souls. Despite its language and imagery of destruction, this proclamation is ultimately a passage grounded in assurance— in the assurance that God remains present in the world and in one’s life even when things have become so bad that it feels like the world is closing in on us.
Jesus is comforting his apostles, and also future witnesses, like you and me. He knows there will be times when his followers will be ridiculed, betrayed, ostracized, humiliated, imprisoned or even put to death. He tells his followers— then and now – not to despair. This is not a command, but a Gospel reassurance.
There comes a time in one’s life when we can choose either to despair or to endure. St Paul, writing to the Romans, says: “Endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us”.
We know that Paul did not survive his final imprisonment. We also know that when he was in prison, Paul not only endured, he sang hymns. He didn’t fret about his upcoming trial. When it came time to speak in court, he didn’t let the trumped-up charges get in the way. He preached the Gospel because he knew that it was what God wanted him to do. Sunday’s passage from Luke is about the steadfast belief in and proclamation of the Gospel, not the acquittal of the accused.
Jesus does not promise that life will be easy for us. What he does promise is that he will give us words and wisdom to hold fast to the Good News. This Good News includes the promise of our resurrection.
Even in the most severe trials Jesus promises to be with us always, to the very end of the age and that means even in the very darkest moments of our life. How much more will he be with us in all those moments that are merely difficult. He will be with us always, and forever.
This is why this Gospel passage—with all its talk of destruction, insurrections, and persecution—is so encouraging. Jesus mentions these components of the apocalyptic scenario only to insist that these disasters will never finally come between the Lord and his people. “Some of you will be put to death. All will hate you because of me, yet not a hair of your head will be harmed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.” How can people be put to death and still not have a hair on their head be harmed? Only if a caring God sustains them on both sides of death.
Yet Christ, who anticipates our wonder, offers this advice: “Do not be perturbed. … These things are bound to happen.” Bound to happen. Life is bound to be this way. He is not speaking about the end of all times, but the condition of every time.
Let us pray that we have the courage to proclaim, believe, and live the Good News and be true to our Christian values – whatever the cost.