Our Gospel today is difficult. Often it’s read almost as a blueprint for the end of the world, a fortune-teller’s description of what will happen before the last days. Books like the Left Behind series spin this out into an elaborate fantasy of good and evil. Even more disturbing are those voices on talk radio and elsewhere that encourage war, especially in the Middle East, because they think that it will hasten the Rapture that they believe is coming before the end.
Every natural disaster brings speculation in some quarters that the events of the evening news are beginning to sound like a catalogue of the events of which Jesus speaks in this Gospel. The Indonesian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina were believed by some to be God’s judgment on a sinful people.
But in Jesus day, and long before it, wars were a commonplace result of human greed and aggression. Earth-quakes, famines and plagues were part of a natural world that was imperfectly understood and beyond human control. Ironically in our own day some pf the droughts and famines that plague our world are as much a result of human behavior as war.
It’s a mistake to read this Gospel as Jesus predicting a particular sequence of events that will occur before the end. He’s saying that people will always interpret such things in this way. But he dismisses it here as he does elsewhere in the Gospels. His followers are not to focus on the end of time in fear and trembling. Nor are they to look to another’s tragedy as a vindication of their own virtue or another’s vice.
Jesus pulls the attention of the disciples back from these global, even cosmic events, and says, “Your own life and what you will face because of your faith in me is more than enough for you to be concerned about.” His words are both caution and comfort: “You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance, you will secure your lives.”
Don’t fuss about the future seems to be the message here. Rather, we are to conduct ourselves in our daily lives with a simple but absolute trust in God’s providence. As though to illustrate this daily routine, Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians admonishes those in the community who were so sure that the end was imminent that they were basically sitting around gossiping all day. As Paul puts it, “not keeping busy but minding the business of others.”
We do this when we get too caught up in the news of the day, forgetting that the 24-hour news cycle thrives on fear, uncertainty and doubt. We do it when we focus only on what other people are doing. Often we don’t know—or ignore—all the facts of an issue and make quick judgments based on long-standing prejudice.
Too often minding other people’s business is a good way to avoid taking a hard look at our own lives. Paul tells the Thessalonians, “Keep quiet and eat your own food.” If this brings to mind dinner table squabbles, school cafeterias, workplace lunchrooms or luncheons at private clubs, perhaps these are good places to start taking the advice of both Paul and Jesus. Instead of participating in the “ain’t it awful” chorus around us, we might try being attentive to the ways in which we can bring our own attitudes more in line with the mind of Christ. If we focus on bringing God’s goodness and healing to others, we will, in our own small way, begin to change the world.