a Homily for Proper 28B
Text: Mark 13:1-8
The origin of the Temple.
Let’s go back more than three thousand years. Long before Jesus takes His disciples to Jerusalem. Back when tribes fought with one another, a young shepherd boy became king. His brothers were bigger and stronger. This boy was a musician and sort of a mama’s boy. And yet, as king, David did what nobody ever had before. He united the 12 tribes and combined Israel and Judah into one kingdom. And in a remarkable demonstration of equality, moved the capital to the middle of the united territory, to a city called Jerusalem.
His son, the lone survivor of a bloody war for succession, built a great testament to this unity, giving not only a home to the divine presence, but a monument to the land given to this mighty people by their god. Solomon built the first Temple and the Hebrew people became a people that made a regular pilgrimage to the Temple to sacrifice animals on its altars to the glory of their god, named YHWH.
In building the Temple, Solomon transformed the religious character of the Hebrew people by changing the nature of their worship. The city became a holy city and the site became a holy site. The Temple came to define the worship of the Hebrew people.
Centuries pass and the people still worship at the Temple, but the kingdom has long since split. Shrinking unity, shrinking power. In their weakness, they are easily conquered, and the Babylonians sweep in in two waves and take half of the Hebrew people from their land (the land given to them by GOD) and their Temple (their very means of worship). Because of the importance of their land and their Temple as part of their religious and geopolitical identity, they are essentially divorced from GOD and kidnapped. It gets worse; in the conflict, the Babylonians destroy the Temple, essentially destroying their entire religious identity.
As the people were in exile for a generation, the religious scholars were all brought in one place and were determined to reshape the religious identity of their people. They gather the many stories told by the people and put them into writing, for the first time organizing them into not only discernible narratives, but into the books that would become the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They began to see their faith as not dependent on the land or to a site of worship in the Temple, but through Scripture and practice. They began to formalize their faith into a religion.
Long after returning home, they rebuild the Temple, but it is imbued with a new spirit and a new religious tradition. It is no longer the only means of worship, but it is again the monument to worship. And when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, it becomes the symbol of the Jewish leadership’s misplaced loyalty.
Why will the Temple be destroyed?
In proclaiming the inevitable doom of the Temple (it was destroyed forty years later), Jesus is trying to make a statement about the tradition.
Let’s go back a couple of days. It is Sunday of Holy Week, the day we celebrate as Palm Sunday, and Jesus rides a donkey or perhaps a small horse into Jerusalem, mocking the Roman expression of power. He peaks into the Temple and then leaves. They leave the city to go stay in the suburban town of Bethany.
They get up Monday morning and head back to Jerusalem. As they walk, they pass a fig tree. Jesus declares that He is hungry and commands the tree to give him figs, but it doesn’t. It isn’t the season for figs. And in what seems like a completely irrational display, Jesus condemns the tree and moves on to the city. They head to the Temple and it is there that Jesus drives the bankers and the merchants out. On their way back to Bethany, they pass by the fig tree and it is shriveled and dead.
Tuesday morning they go back to the city to visit the Temple one last time. There, Jesus teaches a giant crowd of people during the Temple’s busiest week. Like going to the mall on the Saturday before Christmas. The place must be packed. And he proceeds to humiliate and condemn the Temple leadership in those familiar lessons, including the one about the coin (give to Caesar what is Caesar’s) and the Great Commandment (love God and your neighbor). Then on the way out, they talk about the Temple.
Looking at this whole arc and what the Temple means to the Jewish people, we can see where Jesus seems to be going. On Sunday, he condemns Roman power and arrogance. On Monday, he condemns the Temple’s economic systems. On Tuesday, he condemns the Temple’s leadership for its hypocrisy. And on Tuesday evening, he condemns the Temple itself for what it has become. The real clue to this is how Jesus interacts with the fig tree.
The Fig Tree.
What seems irrational to us in Jesus getting angry at the fig tree is that it is, well…a tree. It didn’t make a bad choice. It didn’t choose to not give Jesus any figs. It wasn’t the season for figs! Besides, if Jesus has superpowers, why didn’t he make the tree produce figs?
That isn’t how it works.
The problem with the tree is that it gives figs only when it wants to, not when it needs to. It isn’t prepared to feed the hungry when the hungry are hungry. Jesus then goes and condemns the structures and the people and then the Temple itself because they take advantage of the weak and only help them when it is convenient. The Temple only produces figs when it is “time” to do so. But Jesus is showing them that GOD wants the Temple to produce based on need, not on “season”. Think of it this way: Jesus only cares about demand, not the Temple’s supply.
Out of season.
This stuff about the Temple can seem a bit distant. So does the way Jesus condemns the Jewish leadership. It is easy to rope this story off and turn it into a history exhibit. To tell ourselves that this isn’t about us. About our church. About our faith or traditions. Many Christians have used this text to condemn Judaism and call Christianity its successor. But we are no more innocent of this problem than they. Of giving only “in season” when we are able and willing, rather than when it is asked for or needed.
St. Paul’s is a very generous congregation and our successful stewardship campaign proves that. But Jesus is compelling us to be generous in a different way: not our giving when it is convenient for us, but to give when invited—and out of the other’s need.
In the end, what Jesus offered the world in his ministry, his death, and his rising again isn’t a new religion, but a new way of understanding our relationship with GOD. A god that wants us operating out of generosity and not selfishness; out of hunger, not satisfaction; out of love, not pity.
And to be free of temples and monuments and our human shackles of ego and power and certainty; to dance in a new garden of delight, below a new tree, full of hope, joy, and fascination at the wonders of the new world GOD is creating.