A Provocation: Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost: November 18, 2018: Mark 13:1-8

Mark 13:1-8

1 When he went out of the Temple

he says to him,

one of his disciples does:

Teacher,

Look!

What stones and what buildings!

2 and Jesus said to him:

You see these big buildings?

There will not be left here

stone on stone,

There will be nothing,

nothing not destroyed.

3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives

opposite the Temple

Peter asked him alone

and Jacob and John and Andrew:

4 Tell us,

When will these things be?

and

What is the sign

that these things are about to come to an end?  

5 Jesus began to say to them:

Look out so no one deceives you.  

6 Many will come on the basis of my name saying:

I AM,

and they will deceive many.  

7 But whenever you should hear war and rumors of war,

do not raise an outcry.  

It is necessary to happen,

but the end is not yet.  

8 For nation against nation will be raised,

and dominion against dominion,

there will be earthquakes,

place by place,

there will be famines.  

These things are the beginning of the contractions of labor.  

A Question or Two:

  • Why did Jesus go to the Temple?
  • Answer slowly.

Some Longer Reflections:

The Temple.

The center of the Jewish world.

The place where God touched a finger to the world to create one still point in the midst of swirling chaos.  

The Temple: the building built by Solomon and obliterated by Babylon.

The Temple: rebuilt by people who returned from Exile, by all accounts a poor substitute for the original Temple: small, poorly built, at best a trigger for memories of what the Temple had once been.  But still it was the place where God held the world still and safe.

The Temple: enlarged, elaborated, improved, made glorious by Herod, the King of the Jews.  Herod, the murderer of his children.  Herod, the murderer of John the Baptist.  

“What stones and what buildings!!!”  And what a reminder of life under brutal domination by foreigners.

During the life of Jesus, the Temple was a conflicted place. 

It was the center of the world and the center of Jewish life.  The gospel of Luke lays down a pattern of regular observance under its Jesus story: Jesus’ family goes up to Jerusalem and the Temple for the pilgrimage festivals, “every year, as was their custom.”  The gospel of Mark may not imply such a pattern of observance (the disciples, at least, look like out-of-towners visiting New York for the first time, gawking at the big buildings), but still the Temple is the center of the world.  

And it was the Temple that Herod built to glorify himself (and, of course, God, etc.).  

In this scene it comes clear that there is yet another kind of tension underneath this story.  The Temple that is the center of the world and of the story that Mark is telling (read Don Juel’s Messiah and Temple), is also a heap of rubble at the time Mark’s story is composed in its current form.  That means that any imaginable 1st century audience for this story would listen to this scene and mourn for what had already been destroyed.  

We mistake this scene if we (following the lead of older interpreters) imagine that Jesus is pronouncing judgment on the Temple and rejecting it. 

He is not.

It does not matter who says differently.  He is not rejecting the Temple.  He is mourning for it.  When he says: “There will not be left here stone on stone…” he is not celebrating or simply making a prediction.  He is grieving.  He is a mother holding her baby’s little sweater, now never to be worn.  He is a grandfather trying to remember the things his father used to say, things that would be immensely helpful in the present moment, if only he could remember them properly.  When Jesus looks at the Temple and sees not a stone left standing, he is me.  He is me reading the last things my sister wrote before she died, the last incomplete things that point forward to a future she never got to see.  

And every imaginable 1st century audience would have joined him in that grieving.  Rome had knocked God’s finger off the world, and chaos reigned.  “And,” Jesus says, “this is only the beginning.”

Read the next things he says, read them carefully.  

There is a tradition of reading them as “signs of the end.”  You can see why people would read them that way.  And if you know history, or think about theology, you also know the mischief that this will always cause.  

I read them differently these days.  In fact, I read them in pretty much the opposite direction.  When Jesus says: “Nation against nation will be raised, there will be earthquakes, there will be famines,” I think he means more or less what Buddhists like my sister mean when the cite the first of the Four Noble Truths: There is suffering.  

The point is, I think, that even a catastrophe as great as the loss of the Temple is more common than we might like to imagine. 

There is suffering.  There is catastrophe.  That is no cause to be complacent.  The point is not that we should look at people whose lives have been swept away by fire or flood or earthquake or war and write them off.  You have heard it, and so have I.  “What do you expect?  Forest mismanagement!”  Etc.  Usually in capital letters.  Usually at 3:00am.  Or on Facebook.  Or at Thanksgiving dinner.  

The point is, I think, that we should stop imagining that we will someday run out of disasters to respond to.  Even the coming of the Messiah does not change that.  At least not yet.  

The question that matters, I think, is if these are the contractions of labor, what is being born into the world in the messiah story that Mark tells?  

That is not an easy question to answer.  The shattered end of the story leaves us with silence and flight, and no sighting of an unambiguous Messiah who will make everything easy.  

Maybe that is what is being born into the world. 

Gershom Scholem, as I remember it, thought something like that.  The messianic age would not be, as he conceived it, an age in which we no longer had to care for each other.  Quite the opposite.  When you think of it, that makes pretty good sense.  If our dreams of “heaven” are dreams of easy perfection, it is worth asking whether we might just be wishing that we could be free from needing to care about separated children, families living in dangerous cities, crumbling schools, or people going broke when their pre-existing condition isn’t covered by insurance.  If we want to go to heaven to escape from the needs of other people, that’s not a heaven I think we would enjoy.  We can watch reality shows on TV to see self-absorbed people take advantage of each other.  

And it’s not just Gershom Scholem that sees Messiah that way.  Why did it matter to Martin Luther that we live as “little Christs?”  He, too, seems to see that messianism birthed a shared responsibility into the world.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer sees the same thing.  There is suffering.  There are earthquakes.  There is war.  Tragedy is frighteningly normal.  There will never be a day on which we do not have to love, protect, and care for each other.

Thanks be to God for that.  

 

 

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