Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down

Stone Pillar in Mountains

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.Stones with Trees

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.


Stone Pillar in Mountains

The Stones That Weigh Us Down

Stones in river

Proper 21 (26) | Mark 9:38-50

The Stones That Weigh Us Down

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing out demons in your name, someone who does not follow us, and we forbade him because he does not follow us.”

Mark gives us such odd things. Why have John say this to Jesus? Why John? Why not just ascribe it to the disciples in general—”and they came and said to Jesus…”?

Perhaps, if early church tradition is correct and Mark was Peter’s disciple, it is simply because Peter remembered it that way, and Mark recorded what Peter had told him. Perhaps we are meant to see that John, later famous for preaching love, was once not so keen on love himself. Perhaps we’ve got it wrong, and John was not complaining about the rogue exorcist; maybe John came tattle-tale to Jesus and threw the other disciples under the bus for rebuking the fellow.

We see that the unnamed exorcist is managing what the disciples have just failed at doing. Perhaps they did not rebuke him for being an outsider, but for succeeding where they themselves had failed.

You have to love the disciples. They are so much like us, so prone to selfishness and to failure.

Jesus throws them some encouragement, telling them that just giving someone a cup of water to drink can be an act of faith. They may not have cast out demons, but surely they could manage a cup of water or a crust of bread.

Then Jesus goes off in a different direction. In Mark’s Gospel, he is always the Jesus they know and the one they do not.


It is better to tie a great stone around your neck and be thrown into the sea, he says, than to lead a child astray. It’s better to cut off your foot or your hand, he says, or to tear out your own eye, if they cause you to go astray—better your body be maimed than your spirit. It’s hyperbole, we hope, throwing out images that are over the mark, clear exaggerations, such astounding word-pictures that we cannot forget them.

In hell the worm never dies, he tells them. In hell the fire is never quenched. It is not at all clear that the hell Jesus describes is a future thing, a one day place. In the gospels, he invites people to join him—presently—in the kingdom of God. If the kingdom of God is at hand, why should hell have to wait? We may walk, maimed or whole, in either.

Looking at a person’s face, can we see the landscape of his soul? Sometimes we might. Sometimes joy or pain is so etched in faces we see that we know where the souls behind them are walking. Hell is where our doubts gnaw at us. Hell is where our regrets burn us. We cannot say what is within another person, and who knows how many souls are trying to walk a narrow valley between water and fire?

We are lost ourselves. How can we help but lead others astray?

Candle in SaltHave salt within you, Jesus says. Be seasoned. Be preserved. Be kept whole.

There is so much symbolism in salt. Purity. Preservation. Consecration. Friendship. But do not forget the great salt sea, deep, and ever moving, and as treacherous as the people lost beneath its waves, held there by the weight of regrets they’ve carried like millstones tied to their souls.

We might start cutting things off and pulling things out, just not our hands or our eyes. Maybe we could pull out the notion that we are smarter than we are, or better than our neighbors, or more deserving than the strangers at our doors. We might throw away eyes that only see faults. We might throw away feet that step on hope.

We might let go of the stones we throw. In the end, they only weigh us down.

Stones in river