- Isaiah 65:17-25 & Isaiah 12
- 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
- Luke 21:5-19
Good news for this side of death
The oracles in the final few chapters of Isaiah are commonly thought to come from an anonymous prophet dealing with the disappointment of life in Jerusalem after the return from exile in Babylon. The hopes and promises of the central chapters of the Isaiah Scroll were not fulfilled. Yet the promise of “a new thing” is reclaimed and recycled in the lacklustre realities of Jerusalem ca 500 BCE.
What catches my spiritual breath as I encounter these ancient texts again this year is not the hope for divine intervention. That is little more than whistling in the dark, but if it helps us to cope with the shadows and does not drive us to harm others, it serves a positive purpose. Rather, what engages my attention is the confidence that poverty and social disadvantage are entirely incompatible with the reign of God. Note these amazing words in verses 20-22 of this week’s OT reading:
No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. (Isaiah 65:20–22 NRSV)
Here is a bold vision of the good life, the blessed life. While ever social disadvantage exists among us we have not yet attained the final intention of God for humanity.
So much religious effort is directed to assuaging our fear of death, yet the prophets would have us work for justice on this side of death. Now that would be good news for our world, if only the religious communities would embrace this radical social agenda. Imagine what an impact we could have on our politicians and our neighbours if we practised a religion that was more concerned about enjoying God’s blessings on this side of death, rather than securing fire insurance for the other side of death.
Gospel: Jesus and the Temple
At the heart of this week’s Gospel lies an ancient oracle of Jesus about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.
The following photographs show excavations down to a first-century street adjacent to the temple in Jerusalem.
FIRST PHOTO (looking south): part of the Herodian structure on which the temple itself was located (to the left), the remains of some shops (to the right, about half way up) and broken blocks of limestone resulting from the conflagration when the temple was razed. The post-Crusader city walls are visible in the background.
SECOND PHOTO (looking north): the Herodian structure is now on the right, while the remains of ancient shops are more visible on the left, and the broken blocks of limestone are in the distance.
The temple and its related activities had a profound economic and social impact in 1C Jerusalem, and its destruction by the Romans was a major setback for the city and for the Jewish community in the Roman world. For extracts from Josephus concerning Herod and the significance of the Temple project, see Mahlon H. Smith: Into His Own.
The traditional material dealing with Jesus’ words about the temple’s fate is particularly complex. That, in itself, may be an indicator of the sensitivity of the core question for Jesus’ earliest followers and especially so after the Jewish War of 66/73CE ended with the temple in ruins. There seem to be four intertwined traditions that have an explicit reference to the fate of the temple:
- A saying of Jesus threatening to destroy the temple
- A saying where Jesus foretells the siege of the city and its destruction
- A saying of Jesus predicting total destruction of the imposing structures (not one stone upon another)
- An incident where Jesus threatened or symbolically enacted the destruction of the temple
Marcus Borg devotes chapter 7 of his Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus to a discussion of Jesus and the Temple, with an extended treatment of the texts found in this cluster.
He begins with a brief study of temple ideology in the Second Temple period, citing the interesting parallel from Paul in 1 Cor 3:16-17 which retains that traditional ideology even when reinterpreting “temple” as reference to the physical body of the Christian:
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?
If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person.
For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
Like Crossan (see below), Borg understands the “disruption in the Temple” as a prophetic or symbolic act (p. 182) that would never have been without some prophetic pronouncement to clarify its significance (p. 184).
Borg then directs his attention to the prophetic saying as attested by the complex set of sayings relating to the fate of Jerusalem and its temple that are placed on the lips of Jesus in our sources. He identifies 8 texts as example of “words against the Temple” and works his way through them carefully. Four of these sayings (Mark 14:58; 15:29-30; John 2:19; Acts 6:14) speak of Jesus as the agent of the temple’s destruction and promise its replacement. They are also typically attributed to the enemies of Jesus. Another set of 4 sayings (Mark 13:2; Luke 19:42-44; 21:20-24; 13:34-35) are more likely to have originated from the prophetic oracle of Jesus that must have accompanied his symbolic act in the temple. Borg also associates the enigmatic “desolating sacrilege” saying with this group.
… if Jesus did not prophesy about Jerusalem, then who was the insightful prophet in that generation [after him] who was responsible for both this concern and this use of the Hebrew Bible? Of course, the rhetorical question does not imply that the oracles contain the ipsissima verba Jesus, but it does imply that they reflect the ipsissima vox Jesus. Quite probably the Jesus movement and perhaps the evangelist reworked the language of the threats, but without an initial impulse from Jesus, it is difficult to account for their presence in the primitive tradition. (p. 203)
Then Borg draws upon the sayings of Jesus that speak of a threat of war coming on the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Luke 13:1-5; 23:27-31; 17:31 (= Mark 13:14b-16); Matt 26:52b.
Unlike Crossan, Borg observes that Jesus’ prediction of the temple’s destruction was not because Jesus opposed the temple:
… the destruction was not threatened because of an in-principled objection to Temple worship … Indeed, about the role of the Temple in Jewish worship (including sacrifice), Jesus did not say much. There is only the vague notion of “another Temple” coming from the mouths of accusers and mockers. Though the early Christian movement rapidly spiritualized the understanding of the Temple … there is little evidence for this in the synoptics. They never report that Jesus opposed the Temple on the grounds that it was obsolete, or that he objected to sacrifice in principle. Indeed, about the Temple as cult there is silence. (p. 211)
John Dominic Crossan [Historical Jesus, 354-60] begins by noting the work of Jonathan Z. Smith (“The Temple and the Magician,” 1977) who established that a deep tension between traditional sacred places and the emerging role of the sacred person was typical of hellenistic societies in the last two centuries before the Common Era. Crossan goes on to outline the structural conflict between Jesus and the temple as follows:
Not only John the Baptist but, even more, Jesus, fit within that wider and profounder antinomy. John offered an alternative to the Temple but from another fixed location, from desert and Jordan rather than from Zion and Jerusalem. Jesus was, as we have seen, atopic, moving from place to place, he coming to the people rather than they to him. This is an even more radical challenge to the localized univocity of Jerusalem’s Temple, and its itinerancy mirrored and symbolized the egalitarian challenge of its protagonist. No matter, therefore, what Jesus thought, said, or did about the Temple, he was its functional opponent, alternative, and substitute; his relationship with it does not depend, at its deepest level, on this or that saying, this or that action. (p. 355)
In seeking to unravel the complexities represented in this cluster of sayings, Crossan notes the “intensive damage control” to be observed in Mark 13, 14 and 15. Mark is at pains to argue that Jesus did not threaten to destroy the temple himself; only his enemies make that assertion in Mark’s Gospel while Jesus (in ch 13) pointedly schedules the destruction of Jerusalem some time prior to the parousia of the Son of Adam. Still, as Crossan observes, that Markan spin only seeks to underline the fact that in certain Christian circles prior to and contemporary with Mark, there had been a belief that Jesus had said or done something to threaten destruction of the temple and also that the destruction of the temple was understood to be associated with the parousia.
Behind the confused set of sayings about the fate of the temple there lies the incident in which Jesus is described as taking some action to disrupt the functioning of the temple. We seem to have two independent versions of this tradition: Mark (with Matt and Luke parallels) and John (where it occurs near the start of Jesus’ ministry). Mark’s version makes it clear that this event was a prophetic condemnation of the temple, as the events in the temple are bracketed by the story of Jesus cursing a useless fig tree and then returning to find it withered and dead.
Crossan proposes that there was some historical action by Jesus that symbolically destroyed the temple (at least to the extent of some disruption to its functioning), and that this action was accompanied by a prophetic saying by Jesus in which he foretold the complete and utter destruction of the site.
Subsequently, according to Crossan, the story of the action in the temple developed with various biblical texts being drawn into service to explain and justify Jesus’ actions. Meanwhile the saying came to be reinterpreted as either a reference to the resurrection or to the parousia.
- 049 Temple and Jesus – (1) Thom 71; (2a) Mark 13:1-2 = Matt 24:1-2 = Luke 21:5-6; (2b) Luke 19:41-44 (2c) Mark 14:55-59 = Matt 26:59-61; (2d) Mark 15:29-32a = Matt 27:39-43= (!)Luke 23:35-37; (2e) Acts 6:11-14; (2f) Mark 11:15-17 = Matt 21:12-13 = Luke 19:45-46; (2g) Luke 13:34-35; (2h) Mark 13:14a = Matt 24.15a = Luke 21:20*; (3a) John 2:13-17; (3b) John 2:18-22
[NOTE: Items marked with an asterix are not in Crossan’s inventory of early Jesus traditions, but they are included in his Sayings Parallels: 191 Jerusalem Indicted; 449 Temples Symbolic Destruction; 456 Temples Actual Destruction; 457 Jerusalem Destroyed; 466 Temple and Jesus. Please also note that the item numbers in that collection do not match with numbers used in his later inventory that forms the basis of this database.]
- 062 Spirit under Trial – (1) 1Q: Luke 12:11-12 = Matt 10:19-20; (2) Mark 13:11 = Matt 10: 19-20 = Luke 21:14-15; (3) John 14:26
- 064 The Last Days – (1) Did. 16:3-5; (2) Matt 24:10-12; (3a) Mark 13:3-10,12-20 = Matt 24:3-22 = Luke 21:7-13,16-24; (3b) Matt 10:17-18; (3c) Luke 17:31-32.
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
- Joyful, joyful we adore you – TiS 152
- Seek ye first – TiS 745
- Feed us now, bread of life – TiS 538
- Community of Christ – TiS 473
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.