I continually remind my college students that their first step in surfacing a biblical author's original message should be to find out what was happening when the text was written. By nature, most of us do the opposite. We ignore the period during which the author wrote, and start our exegesis by investigating and studying the period about which he or she was writing.

We can use Sunday's Gospel (Lk 21:5-19) as an example. Before we inquire about Jesus' earthly ministry in the late 20s or early 30s, or the distant, future end of the world, we should first explore what was occurring in Luke's community during the middle 80s.

Scripture wasn't written in a vacuum. Our Bible is a library: a collection of books written at different times and in different places by authors responding to the needs and situations which their different communities faced. Only when we take time to understand those needs and situations can we appreciate what the authors were trying to convey.

Future look

Each of Sunday's readings was composed for people looking toward the future. Because of the anticipation of some great, glorious event, those who first read these writings weren't very concerned with the present.

The prophet Malachi, for instance, addresses some mid-fifth century B.C.E. Israelites who believe Yahweh is coming soon to judge the Chosen People (Mal 3:19-20). Zeroing in on that event, they ignore their present behavior. This monumental mistake motivates Malachi to take their image of Yahweh as "the sun of justice with...healing rays" and turn it into a metaphor of a blazing oven in which "all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble," an oven which will "set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch."

The prophet reminds his people that those who spend all their time concentrating on the future, often forget the implications of the present.

Paul and Luke face a parallel problem. Jesus' earliest followers presumed He was going to return quickly in the Parousia, end the world as we know it and take His elect with Him to heaven. Both the Pauline disciple who (probably) composed II Thessalonians and the third evangelist write for communities who have their eyes fixed on the Second Coming. Each author focuses those eyes on the problems of the present.

The problem in the Thessalonian community (2 Thes 3:7-12) is evident: "goldbricking." Certain individuals are asking, "Why should someone spend the precious small amount of time allotted before the Parousia in hard labor?" Those chosen to take part in such a tremendous event shouldn't be expected "to do windows."

Present

The author first counters this corrosive belief with the example of Paul who "worked day and night, laboring to the point of exhaustion so as not to impose on any of you." Then he reminds the malcontents of a basic Pauline rule: "Anyone who does not work does not eat." No one should be so engrossed in his or her future that they forget to do what's necessary to get them to that future. Jesus is Lord of the present as well as Lord of the Parousia.

Luke, on the other hand, warns his community not to be so anxious about Jesus' second Coming that they follow any person or join any movement that even vaguely resembles Jesus or His Parousia. "Take care not to be misled," Luke's Jesus cautions. "Many will come in my name, saying, 'I am he and the time is at hand.' Do not follow them. Neither must you be perturbed when you hear of wars and insurrections."

If Jesus' followers are living the life of Jesus right here and now, no one should be running away from the persecution which is part of that life. Luke is more concerned with helping his community face the opposition which comes from being Jesus' disciples than in giving them clues on when to expect Jesus' return. "By patient endurance," Jesus assures us, "you will save your lives."

No matter what age we live in, we always need someone around encouraging us to really live in it.

(11-12-98)