Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus,
James Tissot, 1886-1896, Brooklyn Museum
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
2 Thessalonians 1:11–2:2
October 30, 2022
We shall be reading the second letter to the Thessalonians for the next three weeks. It presents considerable technical problems. Scholars are uncertain who wrote it, from where, to whom, and indeed when. Some of these issues are interesting but examining them too closely may obscure that the letter reveals a consensus on the meaning of Jesus’ return for all time and fake news for ours.
The letter is called of “Second Letter to the Thessalonians.” It may not have been written by Paul nor to the Thessalonians, but it does examine the major theme of the letter, the return of Jesus.
Those Jews, most especially the Pharisees, who believed in an afterlife with very few exceptions held not to immortality, that the spiritual part of us would continue after our deaths but to the resurrection of the body, that by God’s gift our entire being, body and soul, would be given a new life and would return to this world. This is the background not only of this letter but to discussions of the kingdom of God in the New Testament. It is assumed not asserted.
As we have seen before, this idea of resurrection developed slowly within Judaism and was, we again note, not universal. The Sadducees who controlled the temple before its destruction were the most powerful sect in Judaism and did not believe in an afterlife. The belief in the resurrection of the body is a consequence of the Jewish experience of the LORD’s faithfulness to the convent. He promised that those who had a relationship with him would be rewarded for all to see. Obviously, this is not the case in this world. The evil do prosper and the good suffer. Therefore, for God to be truthful, there must be another life.
These are Jews and therefore it would not be a purely spiritual existence but, in some way, bodily and public. St. Matthew’s story of the separation of the sheep from the goats reflects this belief. This is not taking place in heaven but is very earthly.
The first letter to the Thessalonians is generally considered the first New Testament writing and is universally held to have been written by Paul. The Thessalonians ask him some, for us, overly technical questions, but do not in any way deny or even question this basic outline.
For the Lord himself, with a cry of command,
with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet,
will descend from heaven,
and the dead in Christ will rise first.
Then we who are alive, who are left,
will be caught up in the clouds together with them
to meet the Lord in the air;
and so we will be with the Lord forever.
(1 Th 4:16–17)
They knew what would happen, they did not know when or what the immediate signs would be. Paul reminds them that we are in the Lord’s time, he is not in ours.
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters,
you do not need to have anything written to you.
For you yourselves know very well
that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night
(1 Th 5:1-2)
They were certain as well that this would be the final age and that Jesus would be the one who would initiate it and rule over it.
Although we are not certain when this letter was written, it reflects the concern that Jesus had not yet returned. The second letter was written to assure them that Jesus has not abandoned them.
These questions most likely arose because of persecution.
This is evidence of the just judgment of God,
so that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God
for which you are suffering
(2 Th 1:5)
In the kingdom, the others, like the goats for St. Matthew, who have not followed the right path, will suffer the consequences.
These will pay the penalty of eternal ruin,
separated from the presence of the Lord
and from the glory of his power,
when Jesus comes to be glorified
among his holy ones and to be marveled at on that day
among all who have believed,
for our testimony to you was believed.
(2 Th 1:9-10)
We begin today with:
To this end, we always pray for you,
that our God may make you worthy of his calling
and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose
and every effort of faith
(2 Th 1:11)
Paul understands his ministry and I pray we all agree for our own that helping people forms a relationship with God. The calling is an invitation to a journey with him. The intended outcome of this journey is to be his presence in the world beginning now but most clearly when he returns.
that the name of our Lord Jesus
may be glorified in you,
and you in him,
in accord with the grace of our God
and Lord Jesus Christ.
(2 Th 1:12)
The name of the Lord is his reputation in the world. For his justice to be vindicated upon the return of Jesus there must be people who have clearly lived a just life: thus glorifying the name of Jesus. As Paul says to the Philippians: “the LORD will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body.” (Phil 3:21) The just will have real but risen bodies.
We now address some of the questions brought by the expectation of the return of the Lord.
We ask you, brothers,
with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ
and our assembling with him
(2 Th 2:1)
The manifestation of the Lord’s justice will require Jesus’ return—the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ—and his restoring all people beginning with all the tribes of Israel. One of the signs of the Messiah is that he will reunite the 10 tribes of the Northern Kingdom lost to the Assyrians in 721 BC with the 2 tribes of Judah. Jesus being more than the Messiah will not only do this but will bring all people together.
This is a great task and one that will be done by the Lord in his way at his pace at his time. They do not want to wait especially as they are now experiencing some problems and difficulties.
Not to be shaken out of your minds suddenly,
or to be alarmed either by a “spirit,” or by an oral statement,
or by a letter allegedly from us
to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand
(2 Th 2:2)
The day of the Lord is the return of Jesus and “at hand” could be better translated as already come. The author is uncertain how this rumor started but wants to confront it clearly and effectively.
By spirit, he means a person speaking ecstatically. Someone might speak a prophetic word, but it must be tested by the whole community. An oral statement is teaching. But that too must be tested by comparison to all of their previous teaching. This letter may not be written by Paul so that this may show some unintentional irony. However, it shows that others may have forged letters of Paul.
There are many questions raised in this letter as we will see for the next two weeks. One of them is how do we distinguish the truth from fake news. For the first generation of Christians, truth was established by asking the apostles. After they died, more rigorous means needed to be established. This we have come to call the magisterium, the teaching of the bishops of the church in union with the pope. Yet as the disagreements in the church have shown and as the conflict over the synod will reveal more clearly, this does not automatically solve the problem.
The belief in the ridiculous is a sign of lack of faith and hope. We see this with the QAnon conspiracy theories today. To believe that the world’s ills come from an international cabal of pedophile satanists may be convenient and certainly reflects a lack of trust in our institutions. Our faith in institutions should be at very least nuanced, but our criticism should be based on facts.
We do not have to take Paul’s language in the first letter to the Thessalonians literally—we may not all meet in the sky—to realize that the Lord’s return will be a worldwide and unmistakable event. How could the Thessalonians miss it?
Their questions reveal their frustration that they are being persecuted and Jesus has not returned to save them. They need to increase the depth of their faith but also its breath. The Lord will return when he will return. It is not for us to know when, but to always act as if we are ready. The temptation of our time is to believe that he will not ever return, that this is a mere pious legend.
Now as with the earliest Christians, it is faith that reveals the difference between the fake and the real.