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Homily notes: 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B, 18 November 2018

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ  |  09 November 2018

Lectionary reading

First reading: Daniel 12:1-3.

Responsorial Psalm: 15(16):5, 8-11.

Second reading: Hebrews 10:11-14, 18.

Gospel: Mark 13:24-32.

Link to readings.

Commentary

As we approach the close of the Church’s liturgical year, the Lectionary takes as Gospel the climactic scene from the long instruction Jesus gives his disciples on the future (Mark 13). Texts focused on the future (eschatology), filled as they are with vivid imagery and symbol, pose more than ordinary difficulty for preachers. How are we to make sense of them today? More particularly, how are we to avoid the pitfalls that flow from interpreting the symbolic and mythological language too literally?

It is good in fact that a reading from Daniel (12:1-3) appears today as First Reading, since the Book of Daniel really inspired the later biblical literature cast in this mode – especially Revelation (the Apocalypse). The important thing to grasp is that such religious writing usually arises out of a situation of oppression and great difficulty for the faithful. It aims to interpret what is happening and give assurance. The basic message to the faithful is “Hang in there! Despite all that is happening to you – painful though it may be – the world remains in the hand of God, who will not let evil and oppression triumph forever. A great reckoning is coming – a great judgment – when those who are oppressing you and the wicked will be cast down, and you will be vindicated and brought into the fullness of life”. The fundamental message, then, to the faithful is not threat but encouragement, comfort and assurance.

The brief extract from Daniel 12 that we have as first reading refers to this moment of judgment and the great upheaval that will precede it. Since Israel lacks an earthly leader, the archangel Michael will be the particular protagonist (“Prince”) of the faithful. The text is significant because here for the first time explicitly in the Bible we have a clear reference to the resurrection of the dead. This belief allows for final justice to be done. Those who have lost their lives in the cause of right or who have simply died before the time of reckoning will not lack vindication and reward. They will be raised to everlasting life. Those who have not been faithful and have profited from their cooperation with evil will rise to “shame and everlasting disgrace.” Daniel does not elaborate on what this might mean for them. But the prophet does go on to single out for special approbation the learned, like himself, who have “instructed many in virtue.” In time of oppression faithful leaders and educators would have been particularly targeted for persecution. Now they will “shine brightly as the stars for all eternity.”

A  similar message runs through the discourse on the future in Mark 13. Jesus foresees the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, wars and turmoil on an international scale, the persecution of his followers and even betrayal and deceit within the community. When all this happens many will be tempted to give up in despair. Why, granted all this upheaval and suffering, has he not returned as Son of Man to vindicate the faithful and bring in the final Rule (Kingdom) of God? Jesus foresees such sentiment and counters it in advance with a double message: 1. “Hang in there! the Son of Man will come. But, 2., Don’t think you can calculate or know when that will be. The time of his coming is known to God alone.”

The Gospel for today, Mark 13:24-32, features the climactic moment in the discourse when Jesus describes the arrival of the Son of Man. The vivid apocalyptic imagery is there to portray the truth that the One who was crucified and seemingly overcome by evil, is now about to extend the triumph of his resurrection over the entire universe. The events described have their forbidding aspects but it is important to stress that the message for the faithful remains one of assurance and vindication. Things may be dismaying and tough now but the future belongs to God and to the values demonstrated in the life of Jesus, rather than with human forces of death and exploitation. What we do not know is how much longer the struggle must go on. That remains wrapped in God’s mystery – even, in Mark’s view, for the earthly Jesus (“the Son”) himself.

Understood in this way, the Gospel, for all its outward strangeness, addresses  fittingly the present uncertain situation of our world and the dismay many experience as a result of it. Jesus knows and has taken into account the way we feel.

The Second Reading, Heb 10:11-14, 18, expresses in its own imagery a similar picture. Christ, his work as High Priest concluded once and for all (on the cross), sits in triumph at God’s right hand, until the full effects of what he has done work themselves out in the universe.

Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost 40 years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media

 

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