Some thoughts on chapter 21 in the Gospel of Luke. Some say that the Gospel of Luke should be called the Gospel of Mary because Luke wrote his account from the point of view of the Blessed Mother.
The chapter begins with the story of the widow’s mite. By the time this lesson takes place, Mary is a widow. She has contributed her only offspring, Our Lord Jesus, to the service of God. The widow remains in the Gospel forever as an example of faith and generosity. Her kind little gift is enough to light one candle or pay for a mere morsel of food for the Levites serving in the Temple, not much more than that. Unbeknownst to her, God is watching her actions right there in the Temple. The gift of the poor widow is seen in contrast with the gifts of other less meritorious faithful that give from the abundance that God has bestowed on them. The poverty of the widow – something not desirable – is now revealed as having a multiplying effect on grace. God Himself is there to approve it, only He sees the true measure of the gift.
Luke 21:1-4 – He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
The Destruction of the Temple Foretold
Then the story jumps forward to the prophecy of the destruction of the Temple. That awful destruction took place three and a half decades later when the Roman general Titus Vespasianus laid siege to Jerusalem, destroying the Temple and carrying off the surviving population into slavery.
Luke 21:5-6 – When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
The majestically beautiful building is there in all its glory. Herod and the great men of his kingdom have contributed huge amounts of money to build a Temple even more beautiful than Solomon’s. There is a catch: Herod is not a Jew and he is not of the true royal line of David. King David had contributed most of the money to build Solomon’s Temple and so Herod the Hasmonean king wanted to build something bigger and better to affirm his right to a throne and a kingdom that was not naturally his. The Temple is a gift of Herod to the Jews, the nation is therefore proud of the King’s generosity and the majestic structure.
The counterpoint here is: the gift of the widow has entered eternity in the Gospel with Jesus’ blessing. The Temple is remembered there also but Jesus prophesies that one day not one stone will survive unturned. Some stones of the old retaining wall – the one Christ’s disciples are pointing at – still survive to this day. Will one day even those stones be brought down to fulfill Jesus’ prophecy completely? That may happen but the contrast of the two gifts shocks us out of our complacency: the widow’s mite will survive much longer than Herod’s Temple and fortune.
Signs and Persecutions
The following connection is even more obscure. Right after those ominous words, Christ goes right into his “little Apocalypse” when the disciples ask about the time of the Temple’s destruction.
Luke 21:7-19 – They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by 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 of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
There is a message for the end times hidden in Jesus’ words. Only thirty-seven years later the Temple will be destroyed but Jesus goes into a more universal theme. Implicit in his words is the appearance of various false prophets and leaders, dangerous schisms, wars, and other tribulations to come. His talk takes on a cosmic scale that goes way beyond the days of his first disciples but the figure of the widow is still there at the beginning of the chapter, that radical mercy looms large against the tribulations and final destruction of the world. Just like the widow made her tiny contribution to a Temple doomed for destruction and gained solid eternal fame and favor with God, the disciples of Jesus, the Church will contribute something to save a world set on a path of destruction. Like the image of the widow, they will be preserved. By enduring their share of tribulations they will gain their souls. The lesson here is “gain the world, lose your soul” for the pagans, “lose the world, gain your souls” for the Christians. Herod and his Temple can be seen as a model of a dying world that has no right to exist. The widow instead represents the Church solidly established and preserved for eternity.
The Destruction of Jerusalem Foretold
Jesus then enters into the details of his prophecy. The slow death of the world will begin with the destruction of Jerusalem. That actually happened in the fall of 70 A.D. when the Romans came but just three and a half years earlier, the Roman general Cestius Gallus had surrounded Jerusalem. The siege was not completed because the legions of Cestius were called back to Rome to take care of more urgent problems. That was beneficial for the Christians living in Jerusalem and Judea; those who were trapped inside Jerusalem took off immediately. They remembered Jesus’ words and heeded them thus saving their lives. Those who remained in Jerusalem were either killed or captured when the Romans returned forty-two months later.
Luke 21:20-24 – “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfillment of all that is written. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
The Coming of the Son of Man
After the short warning for those in Jerusalem, the prophecy retakes its cosmic scale. The disciples knew that Jesus’ birth was mysteriously written in the stars, that sages from a far distant country had read those heavenly signs that foretold the birth of a Jewish king that would end the Hasmonean dynasty and the Roman oppression. Now Jesus was pointing again at signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars. Those were the very things that God had created to mark the “divine appointments” from the beginning of time: “And God said: ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years.” Genesis 1:14.
Luke 21:25-28 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
The roaring of the sea, earthquakes, universal distress, and a noticeable shaking of the powers of the heavens are signs that transcend Judea and Jerusalem, even the Roman Empire. Jesus is now talking about the end of times, the period of history when the gentile nations are submitted finally to the will of God and Israel is redeemed forever, the beginning of the Great Sabbath, the reign of the glorious Messiah.
The Lesson of the Fig Tree
That crescendo of destruction precedes the redemption of Israel and the Church. Christ is giving us hints so we can “raise our heads up” and be glad in anticipation of our rescue.
Luke 21:29-33 – Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Truly the men of that generation were witnesses of the Crucifixion and later of the destruction of the Temple that initiated a centuries long descent of the world into greater and greater rebellion against God. Some believe that this is a double-fulfillment prophecy, others believe it is divided in two parts – but this is one block of solid prophecy about the entire twenty plus centuries of spiritual battle that will begin after the Resurrection – In the midst of that growing chaos the Church must give witness of Christ. It is a dangerous mission that will put many temptations in the disciples’ path. We are to remain alert to the battle surrounding us and to the signs of the times. The utmost loyalty is expected from us, we have to put all our blood and treasure on the line if we are to be considered worthy “to stand before the Son of Man.” Every human being that has lived in this world since the days of Christ has fought this battle on one side or the other.
Luke 21:34-38 – “Be on the watch so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Every day he was teaching in the temple, and at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the Temple.
Here comes the Sun
For many years the Church believed that the second advent of Christ was just around the corner. Like any loyal bride, the Church wants the day of the wedding to come but her very anxiety makes the days grow longer. Habakkuk complained to God about having to wait long for God’s intervention while all kinds of wickedness flourished around him.
Habakkuk 1:2-3, 2:2-4 – How long, Yahweh, am I to cry for help while you will not listen; to cry, ‘Violence!’ in your ear while you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing, why do you countenance oppression? Plundering and violence confront me, contention and discord flourish […] Then Yahweh answered me and said, ‘Write the vision down, inscribe it on tablets to be easily read. For the vision is for its appointed time, it hastens towards its end and it will not lie; although it may take some time, wait for it, for come it certainly will before too long. ‘You see, anyone whose heart is not upright will succumb, but the upright will live through faithfulness.’
It is true that twenty centuries is a long wait but giving witness to the whole world is also a huge time-consuming task. We must be patient and keep the faith but for how long? The answer to that question is easy: for as long as God is pleased to make it last. We have no say in the duration of our struggle. Saint Peter says in 2 Peter 3:8 “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” That simple equivalency may have a hidden meaning. Christ died and he resurrected in the morning of the third day. Also, at the end of the chapter (21:38) we learn that he preached in the Temple “early in the morning.” If we follow the rule of St Peter we may be now approaching the dawn of the third day of a thousand years since Christ died. Many prophetic signs are piling up in our times: are we going to see the Great Sun rise in our lifetime? I believe and I certainly hope so.
The usefulness of faith
The apostles thought it was a matter of quantity. The more faith we get, the better. Since faith is a divine gift they asked Jesus for some extra measure so they could be more like him, able to do miracles and convert many souls. Didn’t Jesus attribute those miraculous cures to the faith of the cured? They had heard him many times say: “Be on your way, your faith has cured you.”
Luke 17:5-10 – The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’ The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith like a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you. ‘Which of you, with a servant plowing or minding sheep, would say to him when he returned from the fields, “Come and have your meal at once”? Would he not be more likely to say, “Get my supper ready; fasten your belt and wait on me while I eat and drink. You yourself can eat and drink afterwards”? Must he be grateful to the servant for doing what he was told? So with you: when you have done all you have been told to do, say, “We are useless servants: we have done no more than our duty.”’
I understand the answer as follows: Christ will give us perfect faith but only after we fight the battle as we are. While we struggle our faith will mature but first we must give witness in our weakness. If this group of men of little faith can achieve sainthood, that will give witness to the power of God. Our duty is to wear ourselves out just like the disciples toiled all night fishing but only accomplished something when Jesus arrived at sunrise. (See John 21:1-14)
So for twenty centuries the Church has been announcing the return of Christ in glory. In recent years, many wise men have concluded that the signs are there. Many Jews are awaiting the Messiah, many Christians are hoping to see the return of Christ and yet, to this day all we have is signs, sometimes ambiguous, sometimes suggestive, even precise coincidences that simply cannot be the result of chance. But the world keeps on turning and we, like Habakkuk keep enduring this wicked age. Even a faithful follower of Christ like Fr. Leonardo Castellani (1899-1981) gave one of his books this impatient title: Is Christ Coming or Not?  That impatience is nothing new, it happened to the prophet Ezekiel.
Ezekiel 12:21-28 – The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, what is this proverb of yours about the land of Israel, which says, “The days are prolonged, and every vision comes to nothing”? Tell them therefore, “Thus says the Lord God: I will put an end to this proverb, and they shall use it no more as a proverb in Israel.” But say to them, The days are near, and the fulfillment of every vision. For there shall no longer be any false vision or flattering divination within the house of Israel. But I the Lord will speak the word that I speak, and it will be fulfilled. It will no longer be delayed; but in your days, O rebellious house, I will speak the word and fulfill it, says the Lord God. The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, the house of Israel is saying, “The vision that he sees is for many years ahead; he prophesies for distant times.” Therefore say to them, Thus says the Lord God: None of my words will be delayed any longer, but the word that I speak will be fulfilled, says the Lord God.
Ezekiel prophesied about dispensations, times of penance and also times of redemption for the people of Israel. It seems that God in his mercy “kicked the can down the road” to give Israel time to repent but then one day the actual punishment came. Those were the times of the first destruction of Solomon’s Temple when the Babylonians took the Jews into captivity some six centuries before Christ.
Prophecies are often ignored or misinterpreted but for some they have a salutary effect. We can read about one positive example in the book of Jonah, when Nineveh repented avoiding sure destruction. The small Christian minority that heeded the words of Jesus about fleeing Jerusalem was also spared destruction.
1 Peter 3:2-7 – […] you should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken through your apostles. First of all you must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!” They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless.
The clock keeps on ticking and there is still time to read the words of the prophets. The generosity of Mary Most Holy and the widow that gave all she had, still show us that there is a way to gain our souls by pouring ourselves whole in the service of God the best we can. The moment to act is now: “None of my words will be delayed any longer” says the Lord. All the gold there is, all the heavy stones and foundations, all the strength of the world will come to nothing tomorrow.
 Luke 21:8 Greek ‘I am’
 Luke 21:8 ‘at hand’
 Luke 21:15 Greek ‘a mouth’
 Luke 21:20 ‘is at hand’
 Hebrew ‘sacred convocations and divine appointments’