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Politics of Scripture

Shaking the Foundations—Mark 13:1-8

We have been led astray by those who invoke religion to undergird their own social, political, and economic power. When we find ourselves enthralled to their apparent grandeur, we, too, will find the world beginning to crumble around us.

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
3When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

This week’s New Testament lectionary is the beginning of a longer passage known as the Olivet Discourse or the Little Apocalypse, which extends through the entirety of Mark 13 (with parallels in Matthew 24-25 and Luke 21). As a whole, the Olivet Discourse describes the coming upheaval of the world that culminates in the arrival of the Son of Man and the destruction of the present world order (Mark 13:31-37).

Yet our passage begins innocently enough, with one of Jesus’s disciples observing the size and grandeur of the Jerusalem Temple. “Look, Teacher,” he says, “What large stones and what large buildings!” (Mark 13:1). This unnamed disciple seems genuinely impressed by the magnificence of the Temple, thinking it a reflection of the glory of God. Surely the God of the universe deserves such a glorious house!

Yet Jesus responds harshly—as he often does where established religion is involved. “Do you see these great buildings?” he says. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2). While the unnamed disciple admires the Temple, Jesus announces its impending destruction.

The harshness of Jesus toward the Temple may be explained by considering the context of first-century Judea in which the Temple was a reflection not so much of the glory of God but of the glory of the Empire, undergirded by establishment religion. When Herod the Great had become ruler of Judea in 37 bce he had urgently undertaken the task of expanding the Temple, initiating a massive building project that began in 20 bce and continued under his successors into the time of Jesus.

For Herod and his heirs, the renovation of the Temple was not a pious act of worship honoring God. Rather, it was a political act aimed to bring prestige and acclaim to Jerusalem and its elites. Throughout the Roman Empire, all of the great cities had great temples—and Herod wanted Jerusalem to be counted among the great cities of the Empire.

Herod’s goal, of course, was to gain economic and political clout in the Empire, both for himself and for the ruling elite—including the Sadducees, who were heavily invested in the economics of the Temple and, by extension, in maintaining the status quo of the Roman imperial system. In the context of Herod, the grandeur of the Temple functioned not as a testament to the transformative power of the God of the oppressed, but rather as a monument to the power of the imperial government and the religious elites who sustained it.

So when Jesus’s hapless disciple comments on the grandeur of the Temple, he directly repeats Herodian political propaganda that has coopted the establishment religion to support the imperial ambitions of the elites over and against the oppressed masses that Jesus has come to set free.

And Jesus is having none of it.

By contrast, Jesus pronounces the destruction of the Temple. When he declares that none of the Temple’s massive stones will remain standing, he is proclaiming the power of a God who will not be put in service of the imperial ambitions of the elites. What took the Herods 50 years to construct, God can disassemble in an instant. For Jesus, the Temple serves not as confirmation of imperial power but as a witness to the frailty of elitist pretensions.

In the verses that follow, Peter, James, and John pull Jesus aside to ask about things to come. Jesus tells them to “beware that no one leads you astray” (Mark 13:5). The Greek planao, translated as “lead astray,” occurs only 4 times in Mark, including the two usages here in 13:5-6. The other two uses of the verb occur in the previous chapter (Mark 12:24, 27) as Jesus discusses the question of resurrection with a group of Sadducees (Mark 12:18-27).

As Mark notes, the Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection (Mark 12:18). As religious elites heavily invested in the Temple-state, they did not look forward to a coming reversal of the social order heralded by the resurrection of the dead. The current social order already worked quite well for them, thank you very much.

It is in that context that Jesus critiques the Sadducees, telling them that they have been “led astray (planao), that you know neither the scripture nor the power of God” (Mark 12:24). In Mark 12:27, Jesus again tells the Sadducees that they have been “led astray” (planao) because of their beliefs about the Temple.

So in our text, when Jesus warns the disciples that others will try to “lead you astray” (planao), he seems to be warning them about the dangers of following establishment religion. Religion that uses the appearance of godliness to preserve the status quo—to reinforce its own power and privilege in the unjust imperial order—cannot be trusted. Establishment religion may dazzle you with its massive buildings and apparent cultural significance, but in the end it is false religion. Those who stand enthralled by the massive stones of the Temple will be crushed by them when they fall.

As Jesus has said repeatedly throughout the Gospel of Mark, establishment religion is not the religion of the God made manifest in Jesus Christ. Rather, that God stands in opposition to imperial pretensions of power, threatening to shake them down to their foundations. That God stands with the poor and the oppressed, wrecking Pharaoh’s army to set them free. That God stands with the hungry and the thirsty, the naked and the imprisoned, the sick and downtrodden. On the day of the Lord’s coming, the oppressed will be lifted up and the mighty pulled down from their thrones. On the day of the Lord’ coming, the massive stones of the Temple—and the imperial structures they represent—will crumble.

In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus declares that the social, political, and economic order of our own day—undergirded as it is by establishment religion—likewise cannot stand. When God’s justice enters into the world, the established order will be shaken to its foundations.

Those of us who, like Jesus’s unnamed disciple, marvel at the size of the stones upholding the religious establishment, would do well to take heed of Jesus’s warning. We have been led astray by those who invoke religion to undergird their own social, political, and economic power. When we find ourselves enthralled to their apparent grandeur, we, too, will find the world beginning to crumble around us.

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