At a recent class at our Cathedral in Reno Nevada Father Francisco discussed with the class the fact that our Cathedral is very much like the early church of St. Matthew and St. Mark. Our Cathedral is two faith communities that are very much one, E Pluribus Unum. One faith community is that of the Hispanics; the other the Anglos, the Italians, the Germans, and the Irish.
Scholars place the writing of the Gospel of St. Matthew sometime in the late first century in the city of Antioch, the capital of Syria. Early Christian tradition identifies St. Luke, the writer of Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles as a Syrian from Antioch, mentioned in the New Testament in Colossians 4:14, Philemon 24 and 2 Timothy 4:11. These two Gospel writers almost certainly each other and almost were commenting on each other’s work as they wrote their Gospels. The Syrian church, just like our Cathedral, had two faith communities. One was the main line community of St. Luke, mostly Greek, and the other the Jewish community of St. Matthew. They made up the grander Christian community of Antioch Syria.
Our first reading for the Solemnity of the Ascension is from the Acts of the Apostles. It reads, “When the apostles gathered together they asked Jesus, “HaShem, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus answered, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons the Father established by his own authority. You will receive power when the Dedicated Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
We need to read closely the location St. Luke presents, “In Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria.” “Samaria” refers to the region of the Samaritans, which no longer exists. The address is to the first century local people. The distance from Jerusalem, Israel to Antioch, Syria, is about the same as Reno Nevada to Bakersfield California.
Our Acts reading includes the sentence, “When the apostles gathered they asked Jesus, “HaShem, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Luke has the sentence in his Gospel, “The apostles asked Jesus, “Teacher, when will this happen? What sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?” One sentence alludes to the other. The Gospel passage is called the “Eschatological Discourse,” the “Mount of Olives Discourse,” and other titles. The Mount of Olives Discourse begins with the widow’s mite as a statement of Christian ethics, and ends with a statement that the event happened at the Mount of Olives. In St. Matthew begins with a statement that the events happened at the Mount of Olives and ends with a statement of Christian ethics, the “Address to the Nations,” Matthew 25:31-46.
In the middle of his Mount of Olives Discourse St. Matthew has the interesting statement, “Many will be led into stumbling; they will betray and gnash their teeth at one another.” In Hebrew and Aramaic, the word for “Hate” and the word for “Tooth” is the same word. When we hate we become tense and grind our teeth. Therefore, “Hate” and “Tooth” come from the same concept. St. Matthew writes, “Because of the increase of Russia/thinking themselves first, the love of many will grow cold.
This is much like Jesus’ teaching in the parable of the sower as related in, “The wolf of Gubbio, Legion, and the parable of the sower.” The seed the falls in the weeds are the Russia/those who think themselves first and deserving of a greater share of the world’s resources than everyone else. They are the richest 20% with 80% of the nation’s income and 85% of the nation’s wealth.
As to the time the Mount of Olives Discourse refers to, St. Luke’s Mount of Olives Discourse relates, ““Before all this happens they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues” Any anti-Christ today would find synagogues to be a poor choice to put people on trial. They do not have legal authority anywhere, including in Israel. The time must be in the first century.
Jesus tells us in the Mount of Olives Discourse, “You will hear of wars and reports of wars. These things must happen, but it will not yet be the end. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be famines and earthquakes from place to place.” We must keep in mind that in the generation of Jacob, Joachim, and Anne, the grandparents of Jesus Roman and Parthian armies were marching against each other. This included Mark Anthony and Cleopatra who went met in Tarsus, the home of St. Paul.
With the help of King Herod, Rome removed the Parthians from Jerusalem in 37 B.C. Only one generation removed from all of this fighting, Jesus, and his contemporaries knew what war meant. Jesus and his contemporaries were much like someone in northern France or in Belgium in ’39. They knew what war meant and what would happen when it came. The apostles knew how the Romans did things.
Jerusalem had a crowd control problem in the first century. Tens of thousands of people came to the city every Passover to celebrate freedom. When Acts 1 tells us that men dressed in white told the apostles that Jesus would come the way he left, the Aramaic word for “White” also means “Freedom.” The Sanhedrin was on edge at Jesus’ trial and so willing to convict Jesus was because they knew it was only a matter of time before Rome got tired of the Sanhedrin’s crowd control problem. When they did, they would do something about it.
Matthew 21 has an interesting statement about people talking. One asks another, “What is this?” The response is in essence, “Here is another Messiah. This one is from Galilee.” The Sanhedrin and the Romans knew it was only a matter of time before some Messiah did get a large enough following, and then war would come. Jesus warns against this. “Do not follow these war messiahs.” Israel, like Nevada, lies in the midst of fault zones. Africa is separating from Asia. That is why the Red Sea is where it is. All Jesus is telling his followers is that it will be a long time before he returns, but his kingdom is growing in the present, if they will it.
Therefore, when we read the Mount of Olives Discourse, we need to look, not at the great middle of the passage, but at the beginnings and the ends of the passages, at our role in promoting the reign of God. We need to be like the widow with her mite, not like the Romans with their might. We need to be like the sheep who graze gently in the field, not like the goats who gorge on everything and pride in their might. We need to be a spiritual community, always soft and compassionate towards others, not grinding our teeth, envious of what the other guy has.