I think it is important to place today’s extract from St Luke’s Gospel in context. Jesus has by this point arrived in Jerusalem. He entered the Holy City on a donkey and was acclaimed by his followers as the Messiah. He then spends the next few days teaching in the Temple and we are told that he spent his nights on the Mount of Olives. His teaching has become more apocalyptic and he predicts the destruction of the Temple and weeps over Jerusalem. It is in this context that he gives this warning to his disciples to be on their guard and prepare themselves for persecution.
Immediately after spending these few days in the Temple he tells his disciples to prepare the Upper Room and then he goes there to celebrate the Last Supper with them and then the events of his arrest, trial and death on the Cross take place. These last days that Jesus spends in Jerusalem were filled with significance for Jesus. He knows that this is the last opportunity he is going to get to prepare his disciples to face what is to come. He wants to prepare them for the experiences that await them and he wants to warn them what to expect as they undertake the task of building up the Church.
Jesus knows that the disciples will meet with severe persecutions and that many of his followers will face martyrdom. He wants to strengthen them to face these attacks from their enemies and from the civil authorities and he assures them that despite these attacks they will be vindicated and will ultimately receive the crown of glory.
In the text Jesus first of all predicts the destruction of the Temple and we know from our history books that this took place in the year 70 AD. There had been a series of riots by the Judeans because of excessive taxation and increased religious tensions as a result of the looting of the Temple by the Roman Governor. In 66 AD, however, the rebels finally took control of Jerusalem. The Romans and their sympathisers fled and regrouped outside the territory occupied by the Judeans. A Roman Legion was dispatched from Syria but they then lost an important battle against the rebels and 6,000 Roman soldiers were massacred. The Emperor Nero then sent Vespasian and his son Titus to sort things out and to re-conquer the territory. Incidentally, both Vespasian and his son would become Emperors in their turn.
After some time, the Romans reached Jerusalem and besieged it for over four months. Inevitably, of course, as a result of overwhelming force they managed to conquer the city. Although it was not actually the intention of Titus to destroy the Temple it caught fire and nothing could be done to save it. The Jewish resistance was crushed and much of the city was destroyed in the process. An enormous number of people were killed and it is claimed that 97,000 Jews were sold into slavery and a significant number of fit men were forced to become gladiators and ended their life in the arena.
So, you can see that this war with the Romans was a complete and total disaster for the Jews and it was what ultimately led to their exile from Palestine; many of them ending up in Eastern Europe or Russia and another significant group spreading to the countries of North Africa.
In the text today we can see how Jesus predicted these events. As he says, ‘the time will come when not a single stone will be left on another: everything will be destroyed.’ The disciples ask when this will happen but he does not answer them. Instead he tells them to prepare themselves for what is to come and for the persecutions that they themselves will inevitably face as a result of embracing the Gospel.
Jesus tells his followers that when they are seized and handed over to the courts it will be their opportunity to bear witness to the truths of the Gospel. Although he wants to prepare them to face such terrible events, he tells them not to worry what to say because he will give them an eloquence and wisdom that their accusers will not be able to resist. And indeed, this proved to be true since many onlookers were so impressed by the courage and wisdom of the martyrs that they themselves made the decision to embrace Christianity.
Christians down the centuries have been constantly called to give witness to Christ. And this essential requirement to give true witness is as relevant today as ever it was. We know that in this country our forebears endured what we call the Penal Times when they were openly attacked for their faith and hundreds were tortured and executed in the most brutal way imaginable. This lasted several hundred years and yet it was impossible for the authorities to eradicate the faith in these lands.
Today we might not be subject to open hostility and persecution from the civil and religious authorities as were our ancestors. But, actually, we find ourselves facing different and more insidious challenges. In the modern world what we are confronted with is, on the one hand, a widespread indifference to religion and, on the other hand, an increasing political correctness that subjects us to social opprobrium if we express views that are in any way different from what social liberals regard as the proper outlook to hold. Make no mistake about it, this is a form of persecution. What is demanded of us is that we keep our religious opinions quiet and if we do not keep our views on moral issues under wraps we will find ourselves ostracised in the workplace or in our schools and colleges.
We ought to resist these pressures and speak up boldly for the truths of the Gospel. For example, we should make our views clear on issues such as marriage. Today with state approval of same-sex marriages it is considered taboo to express the view that the Bible teaches us very clearly that marriage can only ever be between one man and one woman. We know that people such as registrars have lost their jobs because they have refused to go along with the opinions of so-called modern society.
There are others areas where our views are considered suspect, most obviously as in the case of abortion. We need to be aware that in our Universities freedom of speech is increasingly under attack and the expression of particular religious and moral views is not considered acceptable. We need to resist these developments and we need to do what Jesus requires of us which is essentially to have the courage to face up to those who want to keep us silent.
As the Lord says, ‘You will be hated by all men on account of my name, but not a hair of your head will be lost. Your endurance will win you your lives.’
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket