I’m grateful to Dominic Crossan for pointing out something I’d never noticed. In his book God and Empire, he shows how the Book of Revelation differs from the apocalyptic sections of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, especially when it comes to the “end of the world.” Familiar with C.S. Lewis’ Tales of Narnia, and the Left Behind series, most of us picture a vengeful, destructive God finally “setting things straight” on earth. On that fateful day, and in periods leading up to it, God will punish all evil doers with great calamities. (Think of the four horsemen, not of Notre Dame, but of the Apocalypse.) When this horrible earth and its horrible inhabitants are finally decimated, God and Jesus will welcome the just into the realm of eternal, heavenly joy.
In all the Christian Scriptures, we find such a vindictive divine personality only in the book of Revelation. In today’s Lucan pericope Jesus certainly talks about “things (which) are about to happen,” and mentions “wars and insurrections,” warning that “nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom.” He tells us that we’ll have to endure “powerful earthquakes, famine and plagues,” and experience “awesome sights and mighty signs (coming) from the sky.” But for Luke these happenings are to be looked upon as “natural” phenomena.
Never does his Jesus say these are how God inflicts God’s wrath on a sinful earth. Christians are not to think these happening are prerequisites for Jesus’ arrival. They’re simply things that occur in the course of our existence, not signs of Jesus’ imminent return.
According to Luke, his readers must be prepared to live their normal lives until their natural deaths without expecting Jesus’ Parousia to interrupt that process.
Luke’s theology directs his readers’ eyes from heaven (from whence Jesus will come) to the everyday people and events of life (in which the risen Jesus is already present.) Here, right now, disciples of Jesus should be able to discover and surface his/her presence, even in the middle of persecution.
The author of II Thessalonians, writing at least a generation after Paul’s death, seems to buy into the same theology. Though his mentor, Paul, expected Jesus’ return in his lifetime, today’s writer mentions nothing of that belief in this passage. Instead, he or she zeroes in on the most down to earth happenings in the community. Addressing readers in the “person” of Paul, the author reminds them that the Apostle was no slouch. Even while evangelizing others, he constantly worked for his room and board - unlike those free-loaders in earshot of this original letter. Others, because of the free time their refusal to work provides, are “conducting themselves... in a disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others.” The things which people are concerned with right here and now are far more important than wasting time in futile attempts to pinpoint the exact time and place of the Parousia.
Malachi seems, at first glance, to be more at home with the book of Revelation than with Luke or the II Thessalonians author. He speaks about the “proud and evildoers” being burned into stubble. Yet, we must remember that when the prophet was active, there still was no concept of an afterlife as we know it today. Malachi seems to presume that the same sun which is a problem for proud evildoers will be a blessing for those who “fear (Yahweh’s) name.” The latter will experience it as a “sun of justice with . . . healing rays.” What some judge to be a curse, others receive as a blessing.
No one knows why Jesus’ Second Coming still lies in the future. We can only be certain that the time we’re allotted before that glorious day should be a period in which we imitate the non-vindictive historical Jesus, even on those occasions when we’re tempted to put the book of Revelation at the top of our reading list.