Mark 13:1-8 | Proper 28 (33)
Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.
Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down
We have a fascination with the dark. We cannot turn away from the spectacle of destruction or catastrophe, the specter of death. A plane crashes, an earthquake or storm brings havoc, ebola begins killing people, and we cannot help but watch. It’s mesmerizing.
The people near Jesus had just heard him admire a poor widow placing two coppers in the collection box, but being who they were, they missed the point. They did not know the truth of it, that God would value so small a thing. As soon as they walked out the temple gates, they began to look back, forgetting the lesson of Lot’s wife, admiring the buildings, the stonework, the massive scale of the temple complex.
Everything you see will be destroyed, Jesus tells them. All of the great stonework will be thrown down, all the great buildings of the temple will be in ruins.
It happened, of course. The Romans destroyed this second temple in 70 AD, responding to Jewish resistance with overwhelming force, just as the Babylonians had destroyed the first temple one a few hundred years prior. It was nothing new.
The 13th chapter of Mark is often called the little apocalypse. It portrays Jesus making predictions of a dire future. Prophecy in scripture is not really about telling the future — it is about the consequences of our choices. Prophecy reveals the truth about our relationships with one another, with God, with the universe. Some say that the calamities described in these verses came to pass with the destruction of the temple. Many scholars suggest that the presence of this passage in Mark’s Gospel means that it was written after the events described — how else could such a thing be foretold, they reason — but as Bob Dylan said, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. People of faith and good intentions have interpreted these predictions as pointing to that brutish Roman response, or to the dark ages with the collapse of western civilization, or to suffering yet to come, some future apocalypse. All of these interpretations are differing versions of the truth, different — albeit authentic, faithful, well-intentioned. All of them miss the point.
Even without the Romans, the temple would have fallen. Everything passes. Buildings fall, stones crumble—and that is nowhere to put your faith.
It wasn’t about the temple. That was only stones piled one on top of another, stones that had already been torn down once, the woodwork burned, the gold taken. The Babylonians — six centuries prior — destroyed the temple, destroyed Jerusalem, took the best and the brightest of the people into exile.
The temple looked like it was made of stone, but really it was built of ideas. It was a symbol. All that the Jewish people thought of themselves, all that they thought about God, that is what the temple was.
And Jesus was never talking about buildings. He was talking about ideas. In particular, Jesus was talking about the ideas we construct about ourselves and the framework of beliefs that we have built up about God.
Ask the religious folk, and they will tell you all about God. Not that all of us are in the same temple. Oh, no—we’ve built lots of them, piling our stones higher to separate us from the errors of other religious folk.
Come into our temple, and we will tell you what God is like, or so the invitations go. Some people insist on telling you how God went about creation — this is how God did it, and how long it took — and they may even give you the date it happened. Other folk will explain God’s plan for the world and the universe, with explanations built either on the idea that things have gone as they should or that things have gone wrong, that there is something inherently flawed in the nature of our world. They will explain the future. (It’s really good for them. Maybe not so much for us, unless we join them.) We have constructed all of it, our entire religious framework, idea by idea, stone by stone, building walls around our ideas of God and walls around our ideas of humanity, so as to keep out other people’s thoughts.
Jesus said that it would all come falling down. Stone by stone. Brick by brick. Idea by idea.
So long as we think we understand God, we do not need to look. So long as we think we know God’s plan, we do not need to listen. We are safe within the walls of our belief systems. A belief system, no matter how well constructed, is not God any more than a telescope is a star. It’s fine to use a telescope. It is insane to think it creates the light we see when we look through it.
If ideas about God get in the way of finding God, let them go. If our own thoughts are so loud we cannot listen, it is time to be quiet. If our explanations about God prevent us from being open to God, our temple has become a prison. We need to tear down our walls.