(I wrote this three years ago, and it seems more relevant today, especially with this week's announcement that Andover Newton Theological School, my alma mater, is selling its physical campus and moving.)
This week I was trying to get a feel for what the disciples were thinking and seeing as they walked through the great Temple in Jerusalem. Through the power of the web I was able to find out a great deal about the size and layout of the Second Temple, which had been renovated by Herod during Jesus’ lifetime. The Temple complex, which is considered most holy ground by Jews, Muslims and Christians today, contains the Western Wailing Wall, and the Al Aksa Mosque. It all sits on a leveled out mountaintop that Solomon had built up with stone to make room for the first great Temple destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC. Herod built great walls surrounding this area and in Jesus day the walls enclosed an area about 36 acres, which is the size of seven high school football complexes with quarter mile tracks surrounding them (about 5 acres each), laid out side by side. The Wailing Wall is what remains of Herod’s walls and it is about 187 feet high. For perspective, that is about the height of Giant Stadium in New Jersey or the height of a 12 to 15 story building. So this was a huge open air complex that would have swallowed Giant stadium. For historical comparison, this is larger than the Coliseum in Rome, which ironically was built in 70 AD, the year the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.
So this truly was one of the wonders of the ancient world and the disciples were justifiably in awe walking into the outer courts. So in the presence of such grandeur on holy ground which is revered and fought over by three great religions of the world, why is Jesus so unimpressed? For clue number one let’s start with who built it-Herod. If you remember your Christmas stories, Jesus had reason to not hold Herod in high esteem, since his family had to flee to Egypt to escape Herod and the slaughter of the innocents. So Jesus may have a few left over issues with any landmarks of Herod’s grandeur. Where others gaze in wonder, Jesus sees blood money, taxes pilfered from people who can’t afford it, national wealth spent on Herod’s glory while people suffered in poverty.
Think for a minute when this episode takes place in Jesus’ ministry. This is the day or so after the cleansing of the Temple, when Jesus took a whip and drove out the moneychangers and turned over their tables. Are you surprised they let him back in? If you did that at Walmart or Rockefeller Center, you would probably be banned. But the Chief Priests feared the crowds, who were enthralled with Jesus at this point. So Jesus is now back at the Temple, warily eyed by moneychangers ready to defend their piles of shekels, and probably a few bouncers at the ready. I like Mark’s Gospel better for this episode, where one of the disciples blurts out, “Teacher, look at these buildings and huge stones.” The wiser and more sophisticated of Jesus disciples were probably thinking, “What a moron! Were you paying attention yesterday? Jesus does not like the Temple or the Priests, because they want to kill him. They are the bad guys. Try to keep up, OK?” Mark’s Gospel is much more anti-Temple than Luke, and I’ll say more about why in a minute. In Luke, the scene is more like a huge offering time, where lots of people are putting in gifts to the Treasury, and apparently many wealthy people are making a great show of their lavish gifts to the Temple. Jesus makes note to his disciples that a poor widow drops in two copper coins, perhaps her last ones, and says to his disciples, “She has put in more than all of them, for others gave of their abundance, but she gave all out of her poverty.”
Then someone notes all the great memorial gifts to Temple, all the beautiful stones and gifts that adorn the Temple walls, and Jesus has had enough of the opulence of the Temple. He says, “The day will come when all of this will be thrown down and not one stone will be left upon another.”
Now Jesus is getting everyone’s attention. He really likes to poke the hornet’s nest. “When will this come about? Look around Jesus, this is a big place. Those stones are humongous. This will be here forever, like the Great Pyramids of Giza (which we had a hand in by the way). What has God revealed to you about the future?” Jesus then has to calm everyone down, before one of the Chief Priests listening in has an aneurism on the spot. Jesus then delivers this warning:
“Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.
Here is my paraphrase of what Jesus would say today, “Everyone needs to relax. Quite a few terrible things happen in life. I know it is scary, but you should see the opportunity to serve others. Don’t be led astray by leaders who offer easy and simplistic answer and blame other people for our problems. Pull together in the hard times, that is how you get through. I’ll be with you too, and I will show you the way. Things will get difficult, but stick together and remember what is important in life – to love one another.”
I also want to say a few words about the context of the first readers of the Gospel. They read this episode after the Temple had been destroyed by Roman armies in 70 AD, just a generation after Jesus had said these words. I read the account by Josephus, the Jewish historian who was present at the destruction of the Temple and sack of Jerusalem. The Roman soldiers were so frustrated by the tenacious defenders of the Temple, that when they finally gained the upper hand, the troops went wild and killed everyone, raping and pillaging, much to the embarrassment of Titus, the commanding general. Josephus said Titus tried to restrain the slaughter and the burning of the Temple, but he was too late to stop the atrocity. The world was probably appalled, much like we were when we heard stories My Lai coming out of the Vietnam War. When Titus was offered the traditional wreath of victory by the Roman Senate, he reportedly refused it and said, “There is no glory in destroying a people whose God has forsaken them.”
I believe Mark’s Gospel was written right after this terrible atrocity, so it is no wonder that he has the sharpest contrast between Jesus and the Temple Priests. Mark is making clear that Christians had nothing to do the Jewish rebellion that lead to the destruction of the Temple. In fact, they were oppressed by the Temple aristocracy as well. Jesus warned them and see what they did to him. Mark is saying to Rome, “We aren’t them, so don’t kill us too.” Luke is writing later and is more circumspect. His message is to not lose heart or be lead astray during terrible times, for Jesus will guide you through. Don’t be impressed by wealth or grandeur because it does not last, but also don’t be overwhelmed by tragedy, because that will not last either.
This is an important message in our uncertain times. I said to Jeanne this week that these days feel like my youth during the farm crisis. I watched a way of life end in bankrupcy for many friends. I wonder if today a way of life for the suburban American middle class in ending as well. The days of working for IBM your whole life and comfortably retiring are over here in the Hudson Valley. Ever increasing prosperity and the American Dream of owning your own home are under threat. I think we need to find a way between the doom and gloom of expecting the next Great Depression and thinking that everything is going to return to normal. Life as we know it in America may be completely altered, but maybe it is a chance for new dreams, a vision of life that is more sustainable and not as harsh on our planet and natural resources, a way of life that is less materialistic and more oriented to community. As Jesus reminds us, tough times can be an opportunity for the church. Don’t cringe in fear at all the change and financial uncertainty. The world has need of us. Remember Jesus was more impressed with the widows two coins than the grandeur of the Temple, so let us not diminish what we too can give our world.