Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven,
when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble,
and the day that is coming will set them on fire,
leaving them neither root nor branch,
says the LORD of hosts.
But for you who fear my name, there will arise
the sun of justice with its healing rays.
While some people were speaking about
how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings,
Jesus said, “All that you see here–
the days will come when there will not be left
a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”
Then they asked him,
“Teacher, when will this happen?
And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?”
“See that you not be deceived,
for many will come in my name, saying,
‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’
Do not follow them!
When you hear of wars and insurrections,
do not be terrified; for such things must happen first,
but it will not immediately be the end.”
Then he said to them,
“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.
There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues
from place to place;
and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.
“Before all this happens, however,
they will seize and persecute you,
they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons,
and they will have you led before kings and governors
because of my name.
It will lead to your giving testimony.
Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand,
for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking
that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.
You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends,
and they will put some of you to death.
You will be hated by all because of my name,
but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.
By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
The prophet Malachi, from whom we have today’s first reading, was God’s messenger in the middle of the fifth century BC. It was a time when Israel was lax in its faith. People were withholding tithes and sacrifices to God and, when they did offer sacrifices, they offered the worst of their goods instead of the best. Israelite men were divorcing their wives and marrying women who worshipped foreign gods. Among the people of God there were sorcerers, adulterers, perjurers, and those who exploited workers. Priests, who ought to have been reinforcing God’s law and instructing people in God’s way, instead told the people what they wanted to hear, preaching a message that was soothing to the ear rather than challenging to the heart.
There is a heresy that is very popular in our day. It teaches that, because God loves us, He desires only to affirm us and the decisions we make. God does not condemn us for anything, regardless of our actions, except those sins that are generally not tolerated by our culture, the most grave of which are being intolerant, offensive, and not affirming. Refusing to affirm another’s life decisions, no matter how ridiculous, how harmful to themselves, how contrary to God’s will, is judged as the worst thing a person can do. You must affirm me and the lifestyle decisions I’ve made. If you don’t, it can only mean that you hate me.
A book written a few years ago by a priest claims that Jesus accepts everyone as they are. He doesn’t demand that they change for the better first or become righteous first. Of course, this is true. Jesus accepts us as we are. It was “while we were still sinners that Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). But the key is, He doesn’t leave us as He finds us. Rather, He calls and challenges us, with the help of His grace, to conform our lives according to His gospel, to believe in Him, repent of our sins, and “share in the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). Somehow, the priest never gets around to making this crucial point in his book. It’s as if Jesus’ mission was simply to affirm everyone in that place where they already stand before God, not calling anyone to repentance, because calling someone to repentance is judging them as not already being the person God wants them to be, and God would never do that because God loves us. God is nice. He tolerates us. He would never offend us by judging our life or our decisions as contrary to His will. That would not be affirming, and not being affirming is intolerant, offensive, and mean. This is the message the priests of Malachi’s day preached to the people of Israel. “Don’t concern yourselves with reforming your lives. You’re doing fine! Don’t concern yourselves with following God’s will. Follow your own will and you’ll be fine!” How wonderful, even miraculous, that God’s will is always perfectly in line with my own!
Malachi preached a different message. This is why prophets are unpopular. He told Israel that God condemns their wrongdoing and their lax faith, demanding that they reform. He announced a future reckoning when the wicked will be destroyed, but those who fear the Lord will be raised and restored by the healing rays of the sun of justice.
The Church still preaches Malachi’s message. Those who give God little regard, who see no point in following His way, who look to cheat Him out of the devotion, the time, talent, and treasure that are His due, who live lives that reflect priorities and preferences that are contrary to God’s will – these will feel the fire of God when His justice consumes them, while the righteous will be raised to glory.
Jesus’ message in today’s Gospel, however, is not especially comforting to the righteous! He is speaking of the end times before His second coming, when the Church expects to suffer a fierce persecution. Christians will be handed over to the authorities, which implies that Christianity will be illegal. Even family members will turn their believing relatives over. Some will be imprisoned, and others killed. All this suffering will be because of our devotion to Jesus. Even still, in the end, if we remain faithful, we will be rewarded with eternal life in the kingdom of God.
But the truth is, these sufferings are already occurring in many countries. In fact, it has been part and parcel of the Church’s experience throughout every century. Even today, in some countries, Christianity is illegal, and Christians are imprisoned or executed for their faith. How is this consistent with Jesus’ message that these things will happen at the end times? Even in the signs Jesus gives that the end is near – nations fighting, earthquakes, famines, plagues – these are all part of the history of every age. If all these things have been happening and are still happening, how can we be sure when the end will be, and Jesus will come again?
The point is to be ready at all times, because we don’t know the day of Jesus’ return. We don’t know when Jesus will come back for all of us. Furthermore, you don’t know when Jesus will come for you, and I don’t know when Jesus will come for me. Jesus doesn’t want us kicking back, thinking, “I’ll wait until the earthquakes start before I get myself right with God!” That’s not how it works. The earthquakes are here. I usually like the Zach Brown Band’s music, but they have a song called “No Hurry” where they sing, “Gonna get right with the Lord, but there’ll be hell to pay, and I ain’t in no hurry.” No hurry to get right with the Lord? How foolish! How stupid! Do you think you will live forever? We are not promised even the next moment! St. Paul says, “Now is the time of God’s favor; today is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 2:7).
Malachi and Jesus both preach a message that is discomfiting to our present times. God is love, but He is also justice. Sometimes, the most loving thing we can do is, like the prophet Malachi, tell a brother or sister in Christ that their actions do not reflect God’s revealed truth, are not consistent with God’s loving will. This is called admonishing the sinner, and it is a spiritual work of mercy. Mercy? Not judgment? No, mercy. Because it is mercy to call the sinner to repentance, just as it is an act of healthy self-love and self-care to repent of our own sins and confess them in the sacrament. It is not judging another. Only God can determine a person’s ultimate salvation or damnation. It is not condemning another. We are called to speak the truth; people make their choices. If we fail to speak of God’s justice, we have no business speaking of His love. Justice without love is tyranny; love without justice is chaos. We are not called to impose tyranny on others, but neither are we called to leave them in chaos, uncertain of what is God’s revealed truth. Only by hearing God’s truth can people make an honest decision about whether they want to commit their lives to that truth.
The truth that we are called to speak, and speak plainly and boldly, is that God’s will is for our salvation. But we are not saved by our own gospel or by our own truth. The one by whom we are saved is Jesus.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.