“Do not be terrified…This will give you an opportunity to testify.”
This week’s text is difficult. It is the reminder that peacemaking is not for the faint of heart.
The text begins on a positive note. “Some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God” (v. 5). Jesus beholds the beautiful edifice that overlooked the city, but he sees a darker side. He says, it will soon fall, “not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” (v. 6).
And he was right. In 66 CE the temple did fall. It was destroyed at the hands of the Romans only three years after it had been completed. More than 3,600 Jewish people were killed, including children. The entire city went into a riot. The priesthood and the council were abolished and all Jews were expelled from the city. It was a bloodbath.
But clearly Jesus has more on his mind than the fall of the temple in a physical sense.
Keep in mind that the temple was not only beautiful, it was also a voracious sacrificial machine, which consumed thousands of innocents (animals) each day to atone for the sins of the people-all of it based on the assumption God wanted these sacrifices. The smells and sounds were not pleasant. It was a giant abbatior-a sacred slaughterhouse. Jesus had come to transform the temple into a house of prayer for all nations (Mark 11:17). James Warren writes in Compassion or Apocalypse? “Eighty percent of employment in Jerusalem depended on the temple…The twice-daily official sacrifices on the vast ever-burning altar consumed thousands of animals and forests of wood. There were cattle pens on the north side and sometimes the water of the Kidron stream where the blood was flushed became so thick that it was sold to farmers as fertilizer. Over it all hung a pall of smoke from burning flesh.”
Such carnage and religious butchery is odious to God, which is why Jesus repeats the prophets, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Matt. 12:7). For Jesus, it is mercy that dismantles the temple stone by stone, showing us a new way of being human. However, there is one very large problem. We don’t know how to live without our sacrificial machines that require a constant and fresh supply of victims. Without a way to ritualize violence society becomes highly unstable and we turn on each other.
Without sacrificial systems to contain our violence there will be “wars and insurrections” (v. 9). “Nation will rise against nation” (v.10). Even the earth will suffer. There will be “earthquakes and famines” (v 11). It’s in the context of this chaos that followers of Jesus will be arrested, persecuted and imprisoned. Parents will betray children, friends will become rivals and some of us will be put to death (v. 12, 16). Jesus does not mince words and strips away any naïve romanticism about reality.
Now, here’s the truly crazy part and it is filled with the transforming power of the Gospel. In the midst of all this violence Jesus says, “Do not be afraid” (v. 9). He even goes further and says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify” (13).
Are you kidding me? Testify to what?
In the midst of escalating violence we are called to bear witness to another way-the way of mercy revealed on the cross. The Crucified One reveals to us that there is no violence in God whatsoever. In other words, there is no such thing as redemptive violence. There is only redemptive suffering that refuses to return violence for violence. That is our witness!
In the end, mercy transforms the temple of our hearts from stone to flesh (Ez 36:26). This confounds the world. Jesus says, “none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict” (v. 15) such a witness. If we take the long view, it’s true. Stone by stone, hearts are turned to flesh. Love wins!
This is the hope of the world and God knows our world can use a little hope right about now.