Age of the Gentiles

Here in the last week of the liturgical year (cycle B), the gospel for the day is taken from Luke 21:5-11. The text speaks of the coming destruction of the Temple (vv.5-6), signs of the end (vv.7-11), and then in verses 12 and following describes the persecutions that will follow. But pause at this moment and consider how you understood what was meant when you just read, “signs of the end.” If you are like most people you probably inserted “signs of the end times.” In our age we often take the apocalyptic sense of a reading to mean the end of time, the second coming, and all that has been portrayed in popular culture, movies, books, and even some scriptural commentaries. But Luke simply describes what follows the destruction of the Temple as “the time of Gentiles” (Luke 21:24)

In 2021, the 34th week of cycle B uses the entire eschatological discourse in Luke to form the gospel for Tuesday through Friday – interrupted by Thanksgiving Day as well as some optional memorials for St. Cecilia and Vietnamese Martyrs. This post considers the whole of Luke 21 to make a point about the perspective of St. Mark and St. Luke on the pericope each describes.

In Mark’s version of this episode, Jesus comes out of the temple, allowing the disciples to get the impressive view that prompts their statement about the temple’s beauty. Luke presents Jesus as teaching within the temple; this will be his last appearance in the temple, his final statement announcing its destruction. The destruction of the temple was connected in the popular mind with the end of the world. This had been true when Solomon’s temple still stood: the Israelites felt that they were secure because of God’s promise of an eternal heritage to David, and the temple was a symbol of divine protection. Jeremiah pointed out the illusion of relying on the earthly temple (Jer 7:4). Herod’s temple was a glorious sight, too. Its adherents tended to base all their hopes on its sturdy security. Only the cataclysm of the end could shake it.

This connection of the fall of the temple with the end of the world leads Jesus to involve both ideas in answering their question “When will this happen?” First he speaks of the end of the world. Fear and expectation will make people vulnerable to false messages and fake messiahs. They will point to apocalyptic signs (wars, earthquakes, plagues, signs in the heavens) to show that the end is near. Jesus has already said that the attempt to calculate the end is a waste of time (17:20–21). The signs he mentions can be observed in every age. They indicate that the end is indeed coming, but they are no help in determining the day or the hour.

The core of the discourse goes back to Jesus himself, but it has been affected by the experience of the early church in witnessing the fall of Jerusalem and the persecution of the first martyrs. Readers of the Gospel would be able to think of concrete examples of the persecution foretold by Jesus. In the mention of “kings and governors” they would see the faces of Herod and Pilate, and probably Agrippa I and Agrippa II, Felix and Festus (Acts 12; 24–26). Jesus’ disciples are not to become frantic and anxious about the coming persecution. It will give them the opportunity to bear witness (Acts 3:15; 4:20). They must not worry about what to say at the time of trial; they will speak with a divine wisdom that no one can contradict (Acts 4:13). Family ties will not protect the disciple (Luke 12:51–53). Jesus’ followers are to carry the cross all the way to Calvary, as he did. The promise that no harm will come to even one hair seems strange in the prediction of persecution. It is simply a graphic statement of the ultimate spiritual protection of all those who endure persecution for the sake of Jesus.

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