Word of God and Salesian Life Fr Juan Jose’ Bartolome’ SDB
33rd Sunday Year B Lectio divina on Mk 13,24-32
Today’s readings certainly seem strange to us, and for good reason. They speak of the end of the world – something that we are not conscious of with the same intensity and conviction that Jesus and the first Christians had. Moreover, they use strong images that appear unusual to us, and indeed do not make much sense to us today. They seem to us like things of the past, and so we run the risk of losing what God is saying to us in today’s Word. Just because it seems strange to us does not mean that the Word of God ceases to exist. We still have to put it into practice. We cannot hide behind the fact that these things do not happen in our day, as an excuse for not heeding and obeying what Jesus tells us.
Jesus said to his disciples 24 ‘In those days, after the time of distress, the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, 25 the stars will come falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken 26 And then they will see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. 27 Then too he will send the angels to gather his chosen from the four winds, from the ends of the world to the ends of heaven. 28 ‘Take the fig tree as a parable: as soon as its twigs grow supple and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 So with you, when you see these things happening: know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 I tell you solemnly, before this generation has passed away all these things will have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 ‘But as for that day or hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son; no one but the Father.
Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
The admiration of one of the disciples at the grandeur of the Temple prompted Jesus, ”seated on the Mount of Olives” to give one of his harshest discourses and one that is very difficult to understand. Apart from predicting to his astonished disciples that the Temple they admired so much was soon to be destroyed (Mk 13,2), he also foretold a series of calamities that would precede its destruction. He encouraged them to face these disasters with vigilance (Mk 13,5-23). Then, when he promised the coming of the Son of Man, he came to the heart of his discourse (Mk 13,24-32): the end of the world. For the disciples of Jesus, and for the Jews, the ruin of the Temple was indeed the end of their world. It would come with unimaginable catastrophes. The whole of creation will suffer unspeakable distress (Mk 13,24-32), before the Son of Man appears (Mk 13,26). His presence will be imposing and sovereign, and will mark the coming of the Kingdom of God and the beginning of its realization. The elect will be reunited (Mk 13,27). Divine salvation was frequently imagined in the Old Testament as a gathering together of those who were scattered (cf. Is 11,1.16; 27,12; Ezech 39,27). What they had hoped that God himself would do, will be done by the Son of Man, who thus takes on the garments of God.
The prediction is followed by an exhortation. If they are able to foretell the coming of summer when the fig tree blossoms, they should also learn to read the signs of the coming of the Lord who is near, “at the very gates” (Mk 13,29). This is not merely a matter of choice, as is made clear in the solemn statement that follows: this generation will see these things happening (Mk 13,30). The remark of Jesus may be obscure but it is very cutting: his listeners will be the witnesses of what is foretold. What is more, fully sure that what he is saying will indeed happen, he goes on with unaccustomed certainty. His words, like those of God himself (Is 40,8; 51, 6), are more secure than heaven and earth (Mk 13,31). It is worth noting that after speaking with such assurance, Jesus now affirms what he is saying with caution: nobody but the Father knows the precise time when all this will happen (Mk 12,32). This unexpected admission does not weaken or call into question what was foretold. Jesus refuses to answer the initial question put to him by the disciples (Mk 13,4), because it is not up to him to fix the date, but to fulfil the prediction. Only the Father can decide when the Son must come to reunite his chosen ones.
II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life
Turning to his disciples Jesus prepares them to see in the sad events that will happen after his death a forecast of the judgment that is imminent. The images, in typical apocalyptic style, increase and accumulate to add drama to the gravity and inevitability of what must happen. The disciples will have to live their lives waiting for the coming of the Son of Man and his judgement, against which there is no appeal. Jesus tells them not to calculate the days but he insists that his prediction will be fulfilled. If they can tell the coming of spring by the first blossoming of the fig tree, they should be able to recognise in the events of daily life the signs that precede the judgment. If they stay awake and await the dawn of tomorrow, they will be able to walk in the traces of the future, which are already present in this life. Their waiting for Christ should be marked by vigilance and discernment. Instead of getting more distressed at the evils that are imminent, or deluding themselves with a salvation that is not seen, Christians should live in hope of seeking and finding the signs of God in the present moment. Wanting to know when it will happen can be an excuse for not preparing for the coming.
What help is it to us to know that the end of the world is near? What meaning does this message have for us today? In reality, the word of God does nothing other than make us reflect on the hard experience of present-day life, even if it uses language that is somewhat obscure. Our day-to-day experience, which we would often prefer to forget, is that we are living in a world that is not worth living in. The world stands idly by while whole peoples are wiped out by war and genocide, or by famine that could be avoided. It is a world where people kill for very little and many choose suicide for trivial reasons, a world in which mothers decide to end the lives of children not yet born, and grown-up children abandon their parents. The world seems to be getting worse every day. It is a world that seems to be coming to its end, without realizing it, and yet people still prefer to live as if there were no end in sight.
Our world and our society show concern for the environment but do nothing about the disintegration of family life. We cannot be happy facing a future where life is not safe for all. We should be concerned about the future of a world in which human life is constantly under threat. The lack of solidarity is making people enemies of each other. The human person in flesh and bone is considered less important than some political programme or personal enrichment. People are offered new forms of entertainment every day, but we refuse to take responsibility. Love is sold cheaply but it becomes ever more difficult to encounter genuine love. We find ourselves more and more alone, less and less loved. A world like this has no future.
This is precisely what the Word of God is saying to us. The world we have built has no future but will certainly have an end, and the signs of it are already to be seen among us. However, the message of today’s Gospel is not one of pessimism. The Gospel is good news. It is a word of hope and a reason for serenity and joy. Jesus speaks to us of the end of the world, this world that we have built with our own efforts, working behind God’s back when not actually against him. Jesus wants us to take our place here and now in the midst of this world in order to bring meaning and hope, by working actively against the forces of death, and witnessing to the Living God who is the God of life. He wants us to love every sign of life and respect all living beings, to work for good and for brotherliness, to build solidarity and goodness. In this way we can try to give our world a future.
Perhaps seldom in the history of the Church has the message of this Word of God been as relevant as it is at the present time. Precisely because we feel secure in this world that we have built, because we have never enjoyed so much comfort and convenience, such economic and social progress, so much peace and civil liberty, we have relegated God to the last place. We believers know well that our world without God, our house without a Father, is steadily becoming a less human place and a home without brothers. We have exiled the Father. Our brother has become our enemy, our neighbour has become a stranger. Our suffering has no value in a world without God, and a society that has no God and no future.
This is the message we have to proclaim by our hope-filled lives and by our active opposition to evil. We believe that God still has a place in today’s world and a role to play. To make our witness credible we must be Christians with greater commitment and hope, with no discouragement or pessimism, as we face up to the task of proclaiming to our world that a world without God will surely end.
Saying this clearly nowadays does not make us prophets of doom, because our hope is not anchored here but in God. Our strength does not depend on everything going well and according to our wishes, but on the fact that God trusts in those who believe in him. Every now and then, we need to lay aside the inferiority complex with which we live our faith, and take on once again the courage and vigour of the first Christians as they looked forward to a new and better world. We should deny the word to those who seek to build a world far removed from God, a world that holds no future for us. We cannot continue to agree with those who seek to destroy our faith.
It is no longer enough just to pray. We need to enter the forum where decisions are taken, where our society is programmed. We do so without any pretence but also without any complex. We don’t have to beg pardon for giving witness to our hope, but neither can we oblige anybody to think as we do. We accept that others follow different goals, but we cannot allow others to have more hope than we have. Let’s get back to being witnesses to God in a world that is coming to an end. Let’s get back to insisting on respect for life. Let’s return to the virtues of gratitude and brotherly love. Let’s go back to being a pilgrim Church. Let’s return to an attitude where there is respect for every man of flesh and bone, especially the neediest. Then we will rediscover the joy of living, and we will go back to inhabiting a more human world, a world with God, today and tomorrow. And remember, we are not alone in this task! Jesus is our priest. He continues to pray for us and to sacrifice himself for us. He is seated with God, waiting until all evil is overcome. He wants us to bring forward the hour of victory. It is in our hands, then, to bring forward the end of this world of hatred and death, a world marked by the absence of God and the irresponsibility of mankind, a world with no future and no God. In the midst of evil that surrounds us, the evil that we see in the world and in our own hearts, is ”our little world” where we have to read the signs of a new spring and new life, as the farmer interprets the blossoming of the fig tree. “Know that he is near, at the very gates.” If his nearness overwhelms us, it should also push us to work for a better world as we wait for him. There is no better way, no clearer way and none more worthy of our faith, to tell him that, despite everything, we have not lost hope in him, because our hope is anchored in God.