THE SUNDAY LECTIONARY
THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
YEAR B: YEAR OF MARK
Download>>> 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Times Yr B
A reading from the prophet Daniel 12:1-3
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 15:5. 8-11 R/. v.1
A reading from the letter to the Hebrews 10:11-14. 18
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 13:24-32
<> <> <> <>
Daniel the Boy Wonder
Chapters 1 - 6
The Book of Daniel may very well be the last book of the Old Testament to be written. It was completed in 164 B.C. just before the death of a cruel Greek dictator, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had gained control of the little territory of Judah. It is a very mysterious piece of writing. First, there is the hero after whom the book is named. It appears that the author reached into the distant past to find a name for his daring young man. He found the name in Ezekiel where that prophet mentions three just men: Noah, Daniel, and Job (Ezekiel 14:14, and see also 28:3, where Daniel is declared to be wise). The name Daniel means “God is my judge”. This fictitious young man, and his companions, keep faith when confronted by the power and cruelty of pagan kings and are presented as models to later generations who suffer the same fate.
Matters are further confused by that fact that in the Book of Daniel you get two for the price of one. First, chapter 1 to 6 recount stories concerning the ancient heroes Daniel and his companions. Nebuchadnezzar, ruler of the Babylonians, is the nasty king who, as a matter of history, did destroy the city of Jerusalem and its Temple in 586 B.C. He is presented in the Book of Daniel as the king who tested the faith of young Daniel and friends. But their prayer to God saves them from royal fury, some surviving a fiery furnace, and Daniel surviving lodging in a lion’s den (chapters 1-5). When King Belshazzar, another tyrant, comes along, he, too, challenges Daniel (“one of the exiles from Judah” - 5:13) to interpret the famous writing on the wall (Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin). Then King Darius, the king of the Medes, is introduced and another challenge to Daniel is concocted. Of course, relying on his faith in God, he overcomes the plots against him to such an extent that the king issues a proclamation that “in all my royal dominion people are to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel” (Daniel 6:28).
The message of these first six chapters is clear. Those of us who remember old hymns will realise that these far-fetched stories are told to encourage us to keep the faith of our fathers in spite of dungeon, fire, and sword. But why, as a general rule, does it seem that the almighty, all-powerful God stands by and does nothing? Why do pagan gods and pagan kings always win, always inflict the terrors of war and exile on a tiny people, while their God remains in heaven and people true to their faith in that God perish?
Daniel the Dreamer
Chapters 7 - 12
Chapters 7 to 12 begin to defend God’s good name and to provide a new answer to an old question. These chapters form an apocalypse, the only apocalypse in the Jewish Scriptures, though others were written but did not make their way into the Bible. There is one apocalypse in the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, often called the Apocalypse. We need to familiarise ourselves with what is meant by calling a piece of writing an apocalypse.
Apocalypse is a Greek word that means ‘revelation’, ‘disclosure’, ‘uncovering’, ‘unveiling’. Through the medium of angels, visions, and extraordinary symbolism of animals and strange creatures, secrets are revealed. Words of wisdom offer hope to the downtrodden by offering assurance that the perpetrators will get their comeuppance. Those who remain faithful to the end, those who are firm in the faith of their fathers, will be rewarded. The death of heroes will not be their end. God has stored up deliverance beyond the grave.
The language and symbolism that colour the pages of apocalyptic writings are meant to be secret. Only those who are initiated can interpret and understand. The secret thoughts and aspirations must be kept from the oppressors and, of course, criticism of imperial, coercive powers is always a dangerous business.
Daniel chapters 7 to 12
Chapters 7 - 12 of the Book of Daniel is an apocalypse. There are other bits of the Old Testament that have an apocalyptic flavour (Ezekiel 24-27 and 38-39; Joel 3). But these chapters of Daniel form the only extensive piece of apocalyptic writing, just as the Book of Revelation is the only full apocalypse in the New Testament.
Leaving behind the stories of Daniel and his companions, the author(s) present Daniel as the recipient of four visions that purport to reveal God’s intentions and how God will deal with the immediate problem of foreign domination.
The historical situation was this. After the death of Alexander the Great (356 - 323 B.C.) his generals carved up his vast conquests and the Middle East came under the control of imperialistic powers. These pagans sought, not only to conquer, but to insist on Greek culture as the dominant and exclusive way of living. Jewish adherence to its traditional faith was an obvious target. These chapters are directed against the foreign rulers of Syria and Palestine who sought to promulgate pagan ways. The cruellest of them, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruled from 175 B.C. to 164 B.C. He had imposed Greek culture even in God’s city of Jerusalem and in God’s House, the holy Temple (turned into a gymnasium). The visions revealed to Daniel by angels insist that God will judge and destroy these cruel pagans.
Chapters 7-12 come from the years just before the death of Antiochus in 163 B.C. These were dangerous times and the visions granted to Daniel terrify him (7:28), and reduce him to severe illness (8:27). The visions are:
The Vision of the Four Beasts (7:1-28)
The Vision of the Ram and the He-Goat (8:1-27)
The Revelation of the End-Time by Gabriel (9:1-27)
The Vision of Wars (10:1 - 12:13)
Each vision is of a tyrant who brings terror but in the end is brought down.
Many will awake
From the days when Moses led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt to the days of the author(s) of Daniel, there lies one thousand years. In all that time the sure and certain knowledge was that the dead, the good and the bad, are brought down to She’ol. The abode of the dead offered a ghostly existence, a nothingness, an extinction of all that is human. Life is hazardous. So prayers beg God to give length of days and the gift of wisdom, begging that our little time on earth might bring some joy and be blessed with prosperity. The psalms, the book of Israel’s prayers, have no inkling of eternal life. Psalms 90 and 91 face grim realities:
LORD, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
Before even you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You return man to dust
and you declare, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
You sweep people away as with a flood;
they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
The only hope is that God grants wisdom so that life, short as it is, might provide something to hand on your children:
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Return, O LORD!
Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favour of the LORD our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands.
There is no hope of eternal deliverance in this prayer. All humanity can hope for is the wisdom to chart one’s way through life with some joy and a modicum of prosperity. There is no everlasting joy, only joy in children and in the work of human hands.
Psalm 91 is slightly more optimistic. Yet it ends in equal sadness. God’s last words are:
With long life I will satisfy him.
No more than that. The best men and women can hope for is to be preserved to old age and grey hairs (Psalm 71:18).
There are some hints of hope beyond the dismal abode of the dead. Isaiah has a word of optimism:
Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
and the earth will give birth to the dead.
In the Book of Daniel hope of eternal life begins to dawn. The reason is that Job had raised the obvious question: why do bad things happen to good people? Throughout its tragic history young men have fought and died to defend God’s honour, and to insist that there is only one God, the God to whom Israel prays every day. Yet they die in vain. God never grants victory. Pagan gods on the banners of enemies always prevail over the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Just look at the facts. God’s people are always defeated by imperial powers. So what use is God? Why believe in a God who never does anything to defend his faithful people?
God’s good name
So there began to grown a belief that those who remained faithful would be delivered into peace, not in this world but in a new future beyond the grave. Valiant martyrs who fought for God’s people and God’s good name would have their reward. God’s reputation demanded that the righteous, those who endured dungeon, fire, and sword, would be raised to eternal glory at the end of time. So the imagination of some prophets and poets was stirred and a new hope began to take shape. The prophet Joel sees a day of reckoning:
For behold, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. And I will enter into judgment with them there, on behalf of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations and have divided up my land, and have cast lots for my people, and have traded a boy for a prostitute, and have sold a girl for wine and have drunk it. Joel 3:1-3
It is this and similar prophetical voices that begin to believe that God will defend his good name and will not allow good people to go down into everlasting dust. Apocalyptic writings began to appear that vindicate the elect of God. Michael, Israel’s guardian angel, will come to preside over the deliverance of faithful warriors, the deliverance, that is, of “everyone whose name shall be found in the book”, as today’s Gospel reading proclaims. Evil people will be destroyed but those who stand up for God will shine like the stars for all eternity.
The only Apocalypse in the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, expands in fearsome detail what will happen when the day of judgement dawns:
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it. Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
The questions we have to ponder when we read the visions of the seers in both Old and New Testaments are these: if steadfast love is to be steadfast love, is not God required to love as we are commanded to love? Does Jesus, the voice of God himself, not give us the most political of all commands: Love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you! Bless those who curse you! (Luke 6:27). Does not God have to obey what God commands? Does God not have to love, to do good, and to bless? Here and in eternity? Have all God’s chillun got wings? Or only some?
A reading from the prophet Daniel 12:1-3
At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. The word of the LORD.
In the second part of the Book of Daniel, Daniel the seer has a vision of Four Beasts, representing ‘four kings who shall rise out of the earth”. These are four imperialistic, coercive, exploitative tyrants who will descend on God’s people. But these kings shall not possess the kingdom of God:
But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever. Daniel 7:18
The angel Gabriel (9:11) comes and announces the coming of wars (9:11-27). But there will be an end to those wars, as Michael declares in today’s reading. Then all “who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake”. Some are destined for everlasting life and some “for shame and everlasting contempt”.
We must not take these sentences literally. We do not have a ringside seat on eternity; nor do we know in any great detail what God has in store for humanity, good or bad. Apocalyptic writings always begin in a siege mentality. They see everything in black and white because they come from times of oppression and suffering. Their visions are presented as secrets that only the wise initiates can understand. We have to try to see through the exotic images and fearsome expectations. At the end of the day, what these dreamers dream is that humanity is ultimately God’s concern, even if it does not always seem to be blindingly obvious. All we know is that God’s steadfast love endures forever and that that love will have to cope with the good and the bad - and somehow make all things well. The last words of the Book of Daniel are these:
But go your way till the end.
And you shall rest
and shall stand in your allotted place
at the end of the days.
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 15 (16):5. 8-11 R/. v.1
R/. Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
I have set the LORD always before me;
because he is at my right hand,
I shall not be shaken. R/.
Therefore my heart is glad,
and my whole being rejoices;
my flesh also dwells secure.
For you will not abandon my soul to She’ol,
or let your holy one see corruption. R/.
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
R/. Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
This is a difficult psalm with a number of exceedingly obscure verses, especially verses 1-4, that are not in our Responsorial today.
Verse 5 begins a short litany of the reasons that show God to be “my LORD”, and “my protector”. Ever mindful of the presence of the LORD, the singer of this song has a joyful, hopeful heart, an unshaken faith, and a sense of security in God’s good care. A sense of security prompts a conviction that “you will not abandon my soul to She’ol”. A faithful soul should not be sent down to that bottomless pit. The prayer must be that perfect joy can only be unending presence and delight with the LORD forever. The psalm is an expression of a desire that will be fulfilled when the resurrection of Jesus confirms the destiny of humanity. St Peter’s sermon on Pentecost Day announces that what is hoped for in Psalm 16 has come to pass:
Men of Judaea, hear these words:
Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know — this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.
Acts of the Apostles 2:22-25
A reading from the letter to the Hebrews 10:11-14. 18
Every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified… Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. The word of the LORD.
The Letter to Jewish Christians continues with the comparison between the earthly priests who offer sacrifices in the Temple with the heavenly Priest, Jesus our Lord, who eternally offers his sacrifice. For the sacrifice of Jesus does not require daily repetition. It is offered once and for all time. Those who are embraced by the saving death of Jesus are made holy. Their sins do not forever stand between them and God. In God’s good time they will come safely home. Unfortunately, an important verse is omitted from today’s reading from Hebrews. It is a glorious statement from Ezekiel, that prophet of many glorious and reassuring words:
I will remember their sins
and their lawless deeds
quoting Ezekiel 31:34.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 13:24-32
Jesus said to Peter, James, John and Andrew:
“In those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” The Gospel of the LORD.
After Jesus has commented on the true piety of the widow woman, and as he and his disciples were leaving the Temple area, one of them commented on the magnificence of that amazing edifice:
Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings! Mark 13:1
The words of Jesus in reply will have caused shock and utter disbelief in those fishermen from Galilee:
And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down”.
When they reached the Mount of Olives, on the other side of the Kidron Valley, from which every visitor appreciates the wonderful view of the Temple Mount, Peter, James, John and Andrew privately ask when all these things will happen. What follows is much more than an answer concerning the destruction of the Temple. To understand what Jesus says and why, some details need to be brought to mind.
First, the setting. Note: as he was sitting. The verb here occurs eleven times in Mark’s Gospel but only here and in 4:1, where Jesus delivered the long homily full of parables. Only at 4:1 and 13:3 does Mark deliberately inform his readers that Jesus is seated. That’s what rabbis did when delivering important teaching. Notice that the famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel begins ‘when he sat down’ (Matthew 5:1). The importance of what follows is signalled by the formal sitting down.
Secondly, in Mark, remembering the conversations between God and Moses on Mount Sinai, ‘the mountain’ is often the place of important matters. In 3:13-19 Jesus goes up ‘on the mountain’ to call to him the Twelve, who are to be sent out and to have power over demons. It is on this mountain that Judas is identified as ‘the one who handed him over’. At 6:46 Jesus goes up ‘the mountain’ to pray. In 9:2-8 Mark provides his account of the Transfiguration of Jesus and informs his readers that it takes place on ‘a high mountain’.
The setting, therefore, is a clear indication to Mark’s readers and hearers that what is being revealed to Peter, James, John, and Andrew is of particular importance. The very last sentence of the sermon tells us that what is here revealed is not only for the ears of these four disciples:
And what I say to you, I say to all.
All who read Mark are solemnly warned:
Whether all of this chapter of Mark may be called ‘Mark’s Apocalypse’ is debatable. The questions the disciples put to Jesus in v. 4 go beyond the fate of the Temple:
Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished.
The reply of Jesus includes warnings to the disciples to be on their guard against false prophets, and to realise that they will face persecutions. They must know that their future will include betrayal by their own, and, indeed, that they will be hated by all “for my name’s sake”.
Mark’s Gospel, we need to recall, was written in Rome shortly after Nero had brutally killed many Christians. We must recall, too, that Christians betrayed their brothers and sisters in that terrible ordeal. Mark’s first readers and hearers, as they listened to these prophetic words of Jesus about brother handing over brother to death, of father delivering up his child, will surely have wept.
Only when Jesus has warned of betrayals to come and outlined the very real evils that his followers would endure (13:5-23) that he becomes the apocalyptic seer and turns to the destiny of all humanity. Jesus looks to a future beyond earthly persecutions when “the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light” (13:34). Then the Son of Man will be seen “coming in the clouds with great power and glory” (13:26). In the two paragraphs that are offered to us in today’s Gospel reading (13:24-32) we encounter the images that are the stock-in-trade of apocalyptic writings.
The study of what the Bible has to say about the destiny of humanity is called eschatology. This is a word in origin is Greek. The adjective eschatos means remote, far away, last, and is used to refer to the last things, the final fulfilment of God’s purpose in creating all that is. Eschatological reflections about the destiny of creation are found in many part of the Bible and are usually expressed in very speculative language. Probably the best known among Christians who read their Bible is that at the end of the Book of Revelation:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.
The first paragraph of our Gospel reading today leaves behind the account of the turbulent times of Christian persecutions. These are not the signs of the end. Rather there will be, in true apocalyptic imagination, cosmic events warning suffering Christians that the end has come. The claims of false messiahs and false prophets and the wonders they perform do not mark the end. The cosmic signs of darkened sun and falling stars are not warnings that the Son of Man is about to appear. These cosmic upheavals are creation’s response to the sudden coming of the Son of Man. For the time of his coming is not known. It follows that followers of Jesus must be always ready, always prepared to meet the Lord on his return. The prophetic voice of Jesus warns his disciples that they must stay awake (13:35). For neither the angels nor the Son of Man know when these things will happen. Only our Father in heaven knows.
St Paul adopts this kind of poetic imaginings. It is worth reading his excursion into the preserve of apocalyptic visionaries. Paul draws from the stockpile of apocalyptic imaginings but he provides a reason why such imaginings are part and parcel of the gospel of God. For they are given to us to reveal great truths concerning the destiny of creation. Paul is trying to reassure his little church of converts in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, trying to convince them that death does not mark the end of the story of those who have fallen asleep:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
It is Paul’s last sentence that reveals what we need to hear: Encourage one another with these words.
No matter how exotic the language used and how fearful the images are, what is certain is that the future belongs to God. It is important to realise that the end of the world does not mean the end of the world. The word ‘end’ here does not mean the extinction of all that God creates. It does not mean here today, gone tomorrow. It means the destiny, the purpose, the future, for which God called creation into being. The destiny of the world is the fulfilment of a loving God’s intentions.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus reveal that our hope that all will be well is not in vain. But that hope is not yet. It will be realised for all humanity, past, present, and to come, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. The purpose of the Christian Church, the community of believers, is to live that hope and give it to the world. When the world has been brought to the perfection God has always purposed, then truly the kingdom of God will have come. Our faith is always a path of hope. We live for God’s future and the Christian duty in the world is to convince the world that it has got a future, a future in the safe hands of God.
Perhaps a more straightforward statement is that in the First Letter of John. Without the fireworks of the apocalyptic writings, John provides a less-is-more assurance of what is to come:
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are … Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet been disclosed; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. 1 John 3:1-2
Our Bible outlines our hopes. Sometimes only poets get the message. Certainly Emily Dickinson grasped the meaning of things:
This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond -
Invisible, as Music -
But positive, as Sound -
It beckons, and it baffles -
Philosophy, don’t know -
And through a Riddle, at the last -
Sagacity, must go -
To guess it, puzzles scholars -
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown -
Faith slips - and laughs, and rallies -
Blushes, if any see -
Plucks at a twig of Evidence -
And asks a Vane, the way -
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit -
Strong Hallelujahs roll -
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul -