Father Nicholas Lang
The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Time and its passage are no doubt on the minds of Jesus and his disciples as they wander through the crowds on the streets of Jerusalem, crowds that are a little larger than usual due to the upcoming Passover festival. Things, in fact, are getting tense, down to the wire. Groups like the Sadducees, the Elders and the chief priests, who all vie for control within the Jewish religious establishment, have been stepping up their challenges to Jesus and his disciples.
The Roman army’s presence is felt more keenly here in the capital city, and the rituals surrounding the temple have become corrupt. In Jerusalem, home of the mighty temple, the disciples encounter a confusing compilation of politics and religion and power and money that no doubt led them to question the times. Jesus has just been hailed as the new king. What is about to happen? For what has Jesus led us here? When exactly will God bring his kingdom to fulfillment?
This Gospel, taken at face value, is pretty scary. Some of the experiences mentioned in it—nation taking on nation, earthquakes, famine, viruses without apparent cures and a host of other dreadful circumstances, like the threat of terrorism and use of nuclear weapons corroborate for us the gloom and doom picture that this text presents.
Natural catastrophes we have seen raise the red flag around the integrity of our own infrastructures in the face of potential disaster. Wherever we land on the philosophical, political, or theological spectrum, I think we can all agree on one reality and truth about many of our time-revered institutions: we need something new.
Perhaps our anxiety about national and local infrastructure can help us understand the reaction of the audience to whom Jesus was speaking in the first century. As Jesus was teaching outside the temple, someone in the crowd calls attention to the beauty of the building. The temple whose demise he foretold stood at the heart of Jerusalem. It was the most prominent and sacred structure in that city.
The temple brought traders who sold sacrificial animals and craftsmen who provided various ritual objects. More than 20,000 people were employed there by the priestly hierarchy. Scores of pilgrims visiting the temple created a huge tourist industry. How could such a significant edifice and the very foundation of their lives be subject to destruction? If this focus of their religious, cultural, and economic strength is demolished, what would be left for them.
It also occupied the center of their culture. It was a symbol of God’s dwelling among the Hebrew people. By predicting its destruction, Jesus was proclaiming that the religious institutions of Israel had lost their life-giving properties and pointed to a new kind of temple in the Kingdom of God?
As in many instances, his listeners were not able to understand what Jesus was trying to tell them. Jesus was talking about a new relationship and covenant with God—one built on love and not just rigid, legalistic regard for the Torah. He was trying to tell them that old ways needed to make way for the new. They just did not get it.
And it is easy for us to miss his message as well. Whereas we might construe this Gospel text as nightmarish, I believe that God would have us see it as the forecast of a dream. For it paints us a reality beyond what is. What is now is not what God will bring in the fullness of time. This Gospel is meant to encourage and support us as we hope, wait, and endure together until the realm of God is firmly established and we are all living in the new heavens and a new earth.
In the interim, God wants us to have a foretaste of that kingdom in the here and now. God wants us to at least stand on the threshold of a “new world.” The Prophet Isaiah tells us that God is about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. Until then, we wait and that is not easy. Like for the first disciples, the confusing compilation of politics and religion and power and money can lead us to question the times and to lose hope.
In his blogspot at saidanotherway, Philip W. Martin Jr. writes: “Followers of Jesus know that they are living within this tension where we know God is victorious, and we know death has been conquered, and we know that love wins in the end, but that is not always evident by what we see and what we experience.
The mindset we are to take within this tension will take its lead from Jesus who did not withdraw from others, but who engaged the world in love.It will be an opportunity to testify, to be a part of the wondrous effort that changes the world to live on God’s good time.”