Isaiah 65:17-25 – The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
Malachi 4:1-2a– The day is coming when the arrogant and evildoers will be stubble. But for those who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.
Isaiah 12 – The First Song of Isaiah. Surely it is God who saves me. I will trust in him and not be afraid.
Psalm 98– Sing to the Lord a new song! Let the seas roar, and the floods clap their hands! Let the hills sing together for joy!
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 – Keep away from believers who are idle. Imitate us, for we were not idle when we were with you. We worked day and night to not be a burden. Do not grow weary in doing good.
Luke 21:5-19 – The destruction of the Temple foretold. Nation will rise against nation. They will arrest you and persecute you. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
A Hope Beyond Our Religious and Political Institutions
Our text comes from Luke, chapter 21.
Jesus is in Jerusalem as of Luke 19. He has told a parable explaining why the kingdom is not coming right away. He weeps over Jerusalem with a prediction that sounds like it comes straight from Josephus’ later recounting of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. A.D. Indeed it might have, since Josephus wrote “The Jewish War” in 75 A.D. before Luke wrote his gospel in 90 A.D.
Luke’s Jesus interprets the reason for the Temple’s destruction:
They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
Crush you to the ground, you and your children. Not one stone left upon another.
If Luke used Josephus’ verbiage, this does not discount Jesus’ prediction. Lots of messiahs predicted the destruction of Jerusalem by human or divine agency. No one doubts this prediction. It is simply to say Luke may have had Josephus’ writing in front of him. Why not borrow, for precision?
Josephus was a Jew who had surrendered to the Romans, then defected and had been given full Roman citizenship. He became a friend and advisor to Vespasian’s son Titus, who led the siege of Jerusalem. He served as translator during the siege. So Josephus likely had a front row seat to the carnage, right next to Titus, from his comfortable perch on the Mount of Olives.
The Destruction of the Temple
The phrase “not one stone left upon another” is not as much of an exaggeration as one might think. The Jewish rebellion began in earnest in 66 A.D., but the seeds were sown a few years earlier when the high priest Jonathan (paid handsomely by Rome, and wealthy beyond belief) was assassinated right in the temple, likely by the sicarii, who considered him a traitor.
In 66 A.D. the Sicarii, under the leadership of a messiah named Menachem, took control of Masada back from the Romans, and used its weapons to liberate Jerusalem, along with another messiah named Eleazar. Rome, fed up with years of quelling rebellions in Palestine, decided to deal with the problem once and for all. Nero sent Vespasian to Syria with a massive army of 60,000 men. He sent Vespasian’s son Titus to Egypt to gather the troops of Alexandria and march north. Titus and Vespasian would meet in the middle, leaving a bloody trail of destruction and forming a vice to smash Jerusalem. By 68 A.D. the entire region was back in Roman control with the exception of Jerusalem and Masada. Receiving the news of Nero’s death, Vespasian went back to Rome and Titus began the siege of Jerusalem.
Titus ordered his men to build a stone wall around Jerusalem, cutting off all access to supplies. The famine began almost immediately. Josephus’ stories are too gruesome to recount here. People who tried to escape Jerusalem were caught and crucified on the Mount of Olives where the entire city could see. In 70 A.D. Titus attacked. His orders were to wipe Jerusalem off the face of the earth. No mercy was shown. Everyone was killed. Everything was burned. Titus marched into the holy of holies and his soldiers took everything including the Torah. As Reza Aslan puts it, “This was a victory not over a people, but over their god.” Aslan continues, “The whole city was set ablaze… With the last of the rebel fighters trapped inside the inner courtyard, the Romans set the entire foundation aflame, making it seem as though the Temple Mount was boiling over at its base with blood and fire. The flames enveloped the holy of holies, the dwelling place of the God of Israel, and brought it crashing to the ground in a pile of ash and dust. When the fires finally subsided, Titus gave orders to raze what was left of the city so that no future generation would even remember the name Jerusalem.” Henceforth, every Jew in the Empire would be ordered to pay two drachmas a year to build a Temple to Jupiter.
Not one stone left upon another
Rewind to 33 A.D. or so. Jesus has entered Jerusalem on a colt. Jerusalem and the massive, opulent Temple are still standing, seemingly indestructible. People are hustling and bustling on their way. As he enters the gate, his followers shout, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” People try to shush them for their own good. This alone is enough to get him crucified. A victory parade announcing the arrival of a new would-be King of the Jews is pure sedition. Sedition was the primary crime for which people were crucified.
Luke then records in chapter 19 that Jesus went to the Temple and caused a riot in the Court of the Gentiles, by driving out “those selling things” or “money-changers.” He said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” The money-changers are a critical part of the Temple system and the economy. They change foreign coins into shekels (for a price). The shekel is the only form of currency accepted in the Temple. You will need shekels to pay the Temple tax and to purchase your animals to sacrifice for the forgiveness of your sins.
In Luke 20, Jesus answered the Sadducees’ question about resurrection and critiqued them too. The Sadducees are wealthy priests from landowning families. They are making a mint off of the Temple system. He has been preaching and teaching in the Temple, likely in the Court of the Gentiles during the day, then exiting the city and staying on the Mount of Olives, just east of the city at night.
Put all of this together: Jesus entered Jerusalem in a kind of triumphal march. People shouted “Blessed is the king!” Jesus caused a riot in the Temple. He announced the destruction of both the Temple and Jerusalem itself. Some accused him of dissuading people from paying taxes to Caesar.
Bottom line: Jesus’ fate is sealed.
When we arrive at Luke 21, Jesus is still in the Temple, sitting across the treasury. A widow pays her two coins to the Temple. These “leptons” are worth about 1/100 of a denarius according to Jeffrey (“Luke”). A denarius is one day’s wage. In a spiritual economy where the value of your atonement is related to the expense of your sacrifice, Jesus points out that this poor widow has given more proportionally than all the affluent people making their lavish donations. As a Lutheran, I cannot help but think of the abuse of indulgences in the 16th century.
Finally, our text
Some people around Jesus are chatting about how beautiful and fabulous the Temple is. Jeffrey quotes Tacitus: The Temple was “immensely opulent.” It was huge. Much larger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. 60′ slabs of white marble. Doors of gold. Ornate bejeweled grapevine clusters, according to Josephus. For a country preacher from the mud huts of Nazareth, this was too much.
Glance at the model of the Temple, above. The open space to the left and to the right is the Court of the Gentiles. Along the perimeter, Reza Aslan tells us, are the pens and pens of thousands and thousands of animals, pigeons, and sheep for the sacrifices. They are the best of the best, without blemish. They are not cheap. The moneychangers will help you get your sacrifice. Don’t have enough money? No problem. They will loan you money at a hefty interest rate.
Once you have your sacrifice, you can enter through the golden doors to the Court of Women, but only if you are Jewish and free of any physical impairment. Wood and oil for the sacrifices are stored here. If you are male, you can proceed up the semicircular stairs then left into the Court of Israelites. To the right is the Court of Priests, where the sacrifice will be made. The priest’s assistant will keep the hide. It will fetch a good price in the market. The priest will keep the meat. Your sins have been forgiven, for a price. Jesus is irked, to say the least. How many years did his family make this trek and perform this sacrifice? All this will come to a screeching halt sooner than any of them think. Except for one.
Jesus offers another dour prediction. Or is it a threat? “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
One does not threaten the Temple. Aslan (“Zealot”) says,
The role of the temple in Jewish life cannot be overstated. The Temple serves as calendar and clock for the Jews; its rituals mark the cycle of the year and shape the day-to-day activities of every inhabitant of Jerusalem. It is the center of commerce for all of Judea, it’s chief financial institution and largest bank. The Temple is as much the dwelling place of Israel’s God as it is the seat of Israel’s nationalist aspirations…
Jesus threatens the Temple. He threatens nationalism, patriotism, religion, and more.
“When will this happen?” This is the disciples’ question. Jesus first warns them not to listen to everyone who predicts the end of the world. This would be helpful to Luke’s hearers, who are probably curious about why Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem was spot on, but “the end” has not yet come. To most observers, the kingdom had not arrived.
Jesus reminds them that the end will include earthquakes, global conflict, famines, and plagues. It will include astronomical events that everyone can see. Before all of this happens, there would be a persecution.
Luke’s Jesus offers his listeners some advice on handling persecution. Don’t worry about what you’re going to say. Expect to be betrayed by your closest allies, but “not a hair of your head will perish.”
That last sentence is curious. The next statement probably clears it up: “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” In other words, the hair of your head is symbolic of your soul. You’re likely to lose your body, but they can never take away your soul, your faith, your self. The Christian faith is a religion of the Spirit, not of the law. The powerful can demand this and that, but faith is a matter of what is inside you, as Jesus reminded them often.
This may be a week for the preacher to focus on faith in contrast to outward shows of religiosity. I often smile when people say they have a problem with “institutionalized religion.”
So did Jesus.
Nations and elections
Nations come and go, as do kings, queens, and presidents. The psalmist says, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” This is not to say that rulers can’t do great harm or great good. It is just to say that they come and go.
In condemning the Temple, Jesus is condemning the nation and its leaders. This he does out of compassion. Jesus wept over Jerusalem, “If only you knew the ways that lead to peace.”
We should pray for our president and governor every Sunday. We should pray for our presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, every Sunday. They are our leaders. But they are not our saviors. Do not put your ultimate trust in them. They are flawed, mortal leaders just like us. Likewise, beware of our seemingly invincible buildings and institutions. Today’s temples, the skyscrapers and the sports arenas, may impress, but they too are for a moment.
Instead, we are followers of the one who was crucified by the institutions of his day. He witnessed to a hope that goes beyond the institutions of his day, both political and religious. He witnessed to a hope that goes beyond death and the grave. And he lived on this hope.