Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
By any measure, the Temple Jesus and his disciples visited on their Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem was an impressive structure. Commissioned around 20 BCE by Herod the Great, the Roman client King of Judea, “Herod’s Temple” was on one hand a conciliatory gesture toward the priestly class and leaders of the Temple who were deeply suspicious of the king (Herod had slaughtered a number of priests when he took power not that many years earlier), and on the other hand a narcissistic monument to Herod’s ambition to be regarded among the day’s great rulers, all of whom taxed their citizens mercilessly to fund extensive, self-aggrandizing building programs.
Herod’s reconstruction of the Second Temple employed more than one thousand priests, who worked as masons and carpenters, and although the Temple proper was rebuilt in less than two years, the surrounding buildings, courtyards, and walls were not completed until nearly eighty years later. It was a massive project, occupying the entire plateau atop the Temple Mount and reflecting in its design Herod’s affinity for Hellenism.
It must have come as something of a shock, then, when Jesus told the disciples who pointed out the monstrous stones from which the buildings were constructed, “See these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Jesus’ remark about the great stones serves as an allusive beginning to what is often called the “little apocalypse” of Mark 13, in which he warns of a coming time of great personal, political, and even ecological crisis, characterized first of all by the persecution of the disciples and the desecration of the Temple, ostensibly by the erection of a pagan idol or the sacrifice of an unclean animal in its holiest inner reaches. These events, he intimates, are signs of an impending cataclysm in advance of which the prudent will hastily flee to the hinterlands.
Depending upon their bent, New Testament scholars tend to regard Jesus’ words in one of two ways, both of which converge on a central conclusion, which is that he is talking here about the horrific Roman siege and annihilation of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 CE. Some scholars take this passage to confirm the “traditional” dating of Mark’s gospel, around 65 CE, since according to the text, the destruction foretold seems not yet to have happened.
Others, working from the assumption that Jesus was no more prescient than any of the rest of us, take the text’s mention of the destruction as clear evidence that Mark was written sometime after 70 CE, which strikes me as a strange conclusion given that Mark’s Jesus seems, at least on the surface, to associate these events with his second advent. Why would Mark have Jesus saying something that Mark already knew was not the case?
Ultimately, this seems a matter best left to the guild of Biblical scholars to sort out, for the text is less about Jesus’ clairvoyance concerning the end of history than it is about the instruction he is offering his disciples, both proximate and historically distant. Jesus here treats the razing of the Temple as both a future historical event foretelling other events linked to the consummation of God’s work in history and an object lesson about the kinds of things to which those calling themselves Christians ought to attend and ascribe worth.
This kind of teaching is characteristic of Mark’s Jesus, who is a man of action more than words and whose teaching typically takes the form of parable or aphorism, rather than discourse. The lesson Jesus seeks to convey through his remarks about the Temple seems to connect by way of analogy to parts of his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, where in Matthew chapter 6 he talks about the fragile impermanence of “treasures on earth” and the futility of a life devoted to accumulating or even worrying about accumulating them.
Even though Herod’s Temple was one of the great architectural and construction marvels of its day, it was nonetheless historically ephemeral, subject to the destructive whims of Caesar’s armies. Like the siege, destruction, and ensuing exile brought about by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar 600 years earlier, its end served to scatter the people of God to the corners of the earth, where they had virtually nothing except each other.
While it existed, the Temple served an arguably salutary purpose, in that it was the focal point for Israel’s highly ritualized communal worship. Yet Israel’s existence as God’s people did not depend on the Temple; as they had learned in a previous era, so long as they gathered to pray and hear the stories of God’s mighty saving acts recounted in the Torah, so long as they allowed themselves to hear and heed the words of their prophets, so long as they continued to love God and neighbor and even their captors, they could continue even in dire circumstances to serve as agents of and witnesses to God’s faithful, redemptive work in the world.
And I see Jesus making points analogous to this one in both the “little apocalypse” and the aforementioned passage from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Regardless of what else might happen, whether famine or war or persecution or “natural” disaster, God’s steadfast love could be relied upon, not only in the cosmic sense that God was ultimately sovereign over history, but also in the more immediate sense that God would continue to work, as he had since his covenant with Abram, through the common life of a people he had called, gathered, and instructed to love – God, each other, and even the very enemies that were real threats to their lives.
When Jesus exhorts his disciples to remain steadfast; when he warns them not to be deceived by Messianic pretenders who proclaim other ways of “making it”; when he encourages them not to worry about food, or clothing, or wealth, all of which are important, if less than ultimate goods; when he tells them not to be like “the Gentiles,” whose lives revolve around acquiring these things; when he invites them to seek God’s kingdom before all else; in all these appeals, he is inviting them into that community of God’s people that serves as a foretaste, a glimmer, a token, of God’s reign in a broken world.
All of us who have been baptized into Christ’s body have been made members of that people. May we be mindful of God’s promise that the struggles of this world are but the birth pangs of the New Creation. As for the dwelling places of this world, “all will be thrown down.”
Thanks be to God.