Sunday, November 18, 2012

18 November 2012 - Proper 28 / Pentecost 25

PROPER 28 /  PENTECOST 25 — 18 November 2012
St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am

[Track Two]  Daniel 12:1-3  |  Psalm 16  |  Hebrews 10:11-25  |  Mark 13:1-8

"Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." 

   In the Collect for the Day for this Sunday, we prayed:  “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:  Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.”  This is a familiar prayer to us, I think; it was composed for the first English Prayer Book in 1549 as a Sunday collect, and it is also sometimes used as an opening prayer at Bible study groups.

   The prayer reminds us that we need not only hear and read the Scriptures, but also mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.  One of the ways we do this is by reading them over and over and over again.  

   I’m not suggesting that you need to read the whole Bible over and over, going back to Genesis 1 when you finish Revelation 22.  (Some people do that, and I won’t gainsay them, but although all of the Bible is worth reading, some parts of it are worth reading more than others, so it’s okay to be a little selective.  God can and does speak to us in Second Chronicles, but I think God usually says a lot more to us in the Gospels!  Remember that this Church is committed to the belief that all things necessary to salvation are contained in Holy Scripture, but that does not mean that all things contained in Holy Scripture are necessary to salvation, and in fact some of them are simply wrong.  And it’s by reading them over and over again that we are given the grace to discern which is which!)

   Anyway, I was reading the Bible again, and specifically St. Mark’s Gospel, since that’s what we have been reading on Sundays this year.  And I discovered, again, that sometimes on the umpty-umpth reading, a perfectly familiar passage suddenly speaks a Word that I have never heard before.  I expect some of you have had the same experience.  I am now speaking of the Gospel readings for last Sunday and this Sunday.  

   So I think we need to start by going back to last Sunday’s Gospel reading, because it’s really continuous with today’s.  (Remember that the chapter divisions weren’t added to the Bible until the Middle Ages, and the verse divisions not until the Renaissance/Reformation.)  Last week we heard, as I trust you recall!:

Teaching in the temple, Jesus said, "Beware of the scribes…They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."  [Mark 12:38,40]
   And then there follows the episode of the poor widow who put her last two copper coins into the Temple treasury.  We typically read the story of the widow’s mite as an “Awww…” story that fills us with admiration for her devotion and encourages us to greater generosity, especially along about Church stewardship season!  But I have a suspicion that we may have missed the point that St. Mark is trying to make.  Remember that in ancient Jewish society – and most other ancient societies, for that matter – widows were really at the bottom of the economic ladder, at least if they didn’t have a son or a brother who could take care of them.  (Thus the repeated emphasis in both the Old and New Testaments on the need to care for the widows and orphans, who were utterly powerless in a patriarchal society.)  And maybe what Jesus wants us to see in looking at the poor widow putting her last two cents into the collection is not how devoted she is (though she obviously is that), but how the religious establishment – the scribes and the priests and all that gang – lay a piety trip on everyone, including poor widows whom they exploit rather than support.  In other words, Jesus points to the poor widow as an example of the moral corruption of the religious system that “devours widows’ houses.”  He cares about her, and respects the tragedy of her devotion, but that’s not his point.

   And so now we come to today’s Gospel.  The disciples are staring with their mouths hanging open, like a bunch of Galilean hicks in the big city.  And we should not underestimate how impressive the Jerusalem Temple was, even by the standards of the Roman Empire.  Here’s what the Jewish historian Josephus, who was by no means a Galilean hick, says:  “Now the outward face of the temple … was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, and made those who faced themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun’s own rays.  But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow; for, as to those parts of it that were not gilt, they were exceeding white.”  [Jewish Wars 5.5.6]  

   So what we have heard is Jesus first of all (and once again!) sitting in the Temple and harshly condemning the hypocrisy of the religious establishment that exploits and oppresses the people, and then we hear Jesus stepping out, looking back, and predicting the utter destruction of one of the greatest, perhaps even the very greatest, religious edifices in the ancient world.  It would be like proclaiming a solemn curse against the National Cathedral, or St. Peter’s Basilica, or the Kaaba in Mecca.  I’m not sure we fully realize how very subversive Jesus of Nazareth was.  And is.

   And of course that’s how it played out.  A few years after St. Mark composed his Gospel (I think it was after, though that’s not completely certain) the Temple was burned to the ground by the Roman Legions under the general Titus, who was the son of the Emperor Vespasian, and who himself became Emperor nine years later. 

   Well, we started out with today’s Collect:  “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:  Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.”  I suspect that as we continue to read and study the Bible over and over – and never allow ourselves to say “Oh, yes, well, I’ve already read that!  I understand that!  I already know what that means!” – we will find that God uses the Word to open our minds and hearts to new, enriching, and often startling and challenging new insights into the meaning and demands of God’s Kingdom.