The most obvious thing to say about what is called the “Olivet Discourse” or “Little Apocalypse” in Luke 21 is that it is not easy. This needs to be said since many people imagine this passage (and ones like it in Matthew 24 and Mark 13) is, for opposite and contradictory reasons, exceedingly easy. One simple “solution” to today’s readings is millennialism, which ignores the first half of the gospel. The other simple solution is modernism, which ignores the second half.
The millennialist solution to the riddle of Luke 21 is to see in every political adventurer and every trendy scoop or scare the Sure Sign of The End. It is not difficult to find people dedicated to the proposition that this or that world figure is the Antichrist or the architect of the Great Whore of Babylon. Thus, the media abound with various apocalyptic scenarios in a sort of anti-advertisement battle with various fearmongers vending different panic scenarios. Some time back, the Pope was a favorite candidate for this august role; then it was the European Economic Community; then Saddam Hussein; then the Y2K bug, now it’s the Chinese (though the Pope may be back in the running when they mint a few Euros with his picture on them). After that, it will be something else.
Now to be sure, the doomsayers sometimes get it partly right. It does not take a rocket scientist to predict, “There will be a war or an economic downturn or somebody famous will die.” That is the customary way in which the world has gone round since Adam and Eve found themselves deposited on the doormat of the Garden. It is also not hard to foresee that today’s robust civilization will be decadent tomorrow. As our Lord says of wars and rumors of wars, of earthquakes, disasters and the like, “All these things are bound to come” (Luke 21:9). But the trouble with the millennial mind is that is reads way too much into the normal flux of things. Not everybody who shouts “The time is at hand” is in tune with the mind of God.
On the other hand, while our Lord counsels against seeing too much in events, he also warns against seeing too little as well. He warns that there will indeed be “great signs” and tells us repeatedly to read the “signs of the times.” Otherwise we can fall into the opposite mistake of a fat, contented, bourgeois religiosity and become a vast population of plump, self-satisfied hobbits. We can become creatures of provincial, humdrum routine who seriously believe that merely because we are the Right Sort of People we have the right to a destiny of continual prosperity and earthly happiness forever and ever. We can start to believe all the foolish chatter that “every day in every way we’re getting better and better.” We can start trusting in the work of our hands rather than in God. This mistake (evident in the superstitious belief that the Temple could not be destroyed) is addressed directly by Jesus: “Not one stone will be left on another, but it will all be torn down.” Nothing in this world is forever. Thus, while we are not to spend too much time squinting at the newspaper in search of the Whore of Babylon, neither should we be tempted to erect the Tower of Babel by babbling nonsense like “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard what we can build!” The shipwrights of the Titanic spouted that sort of prattle. So did the fools who put their trust in princes when Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot declared, “I am he.”
Very well then, if we are to be neither presumptuous about nor terrified of the future, what are we to do?
We are to live in the present and have hope and faith in the only Christ there has ever been. This is the thrust of Paul’s teaching. Paul has no time for busybodies, either those who bustle about the neighborhood with tales of gloom and doom and the latest apocalyptic craze, nor for those who confidently say everything will automatically get better and who try to prove it by doing nothing. To these people, Paul’s counsel is blunt: “We enjoin all such, and we urge them strongly in the Lord Jesus Christ to earn the food they eat by working quietly” (2 Thessalonians 3:12). Paul, in the midst of a letter which is devoted largely to talking about the apocalypse and the second coming of our Lord, says that the best way to be prepared for that mind-boggling event is to be faithful to the small things like going to mass, changing diapers, saying prayers, and repairing the gutters-things God has called you and I to do today.