Luke 21:5-19 CEBSome people were talking about the temple, how it was decorated with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God. Jesus said, “As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”
This is a story that starts years before the birth of a savior. Honestly, I can begin way back in the Old Testament, but for today let's go back to a different beginning, the birth of a brutal dictatorship. This is the story of King Herod.
Herod's family would be considered Jewish by name only. He was an Edomite. Edomites were a tribe that based their lineage on the person Esau. The same Esau who was tricked out of his birthright by Jacob. The same Esau who left to start his own tribe. (Eventually a tribe, that would be forcefully reinstated back into the Jewish fold.) Herod's family was the perfect leadership choice for the Romans: Jewish by name only.
Historical interest in Herod begins at the assassination of his father who was poisoned. Following his death, Rome naturally named Herod king of Judea. While historians call him a middle of the road kind of guy, keeping both Jews and Romans placated, he did so with a bloody fist and little concern for love and human life. If it maintained his place of power, he was interested at whatever cost.
Some of what he did during his tenure lets you know what kind of guy he really was. He had a mountain with a palace built on top named and in honor of himself. Just to make it clear he had the palace and the mountain built. It was purposefully built to be at a higher elevation than the Jewish temple. That says something about his ego. He built amphitheaters for the Romans. He built docks to increase trade in Jerusalem. However, the docks were named after Caesar, which made it unpopular among Jews. That says something about his focus. He had one of his wives killed. Interestingly enough he killed the one he supposedly liked the most. That says something about his morality, or lack of.
And let's not forget the story we Christians probably know him for the most: When the wise men came to see if Herod knew where the Messiah was he was so scared about the possibly of being ousted by 'the king of the Jews' he had every baby boy under the age of two in Bethlehem killed. This was near the conclusion of Herod's life. He was around 70 years old and was worried about a baby who wouldn't even be old enough to rule until Herod was able to die of old age. That says something about his lust for power.
But you know what? There was one good thing he kinda did. He remodeled the Jewish temple. Apparently after he was done it had a solid gold alter, the walls were lined with marble and expensive stones, and the ceiling was a heavenly blue. The Jewish people loved it! They would travel from all over the land just to see it. But you know what else? He also raised the temple tax really high and instead of giving the money back to the people he sent most of it to Rome. That says something about his greed.
So the years pass. A baby is hidden in Egypt and allowed to become a boy; spared from Herod's killing spree. When Herod finally dies it is safe for the boy and the family to go back home. Jesus grows up. He is baptized in the Jordan; tempted in the wilderness. He begins his ministry by calling a diverse group of people to drop everything and follow him.
As a teacher, Jesus finds himself in various locations helping the disciples see the big point: love the Lord, your God and love your neighbor as yourself. In the case of our scripture today the lesson happens in the form of one of Herod's crowning accomplishments: the renovated temple.
Just prior to coming upon the temple gates Jesus labels the Pharisees and the Saducess as a group that devour widow's houses. An extremely strong claim that is backed up when the disciples come upon the temple gates to see a widow put everything she had into the temple treasury. It was her duty to give to the temple, but it was also the temple's duty to take care of her. They were not doing their job. What the disciples were witnessing was a form of martyrdom. History has, with good reason, praised martyrs. It says something about dedication that a person is willing to give everything for their cause. In some cases, their lives.
But sometimes we get confused over who is putting these martyrs in these positions. God is not the cause. There are humans in this world who make terrible mistakes that cost other people greatly and there are humans in this world who might as well be monsters. For whatever reason, power, amusement, or neglect, they put people in positions where they must become what God never intended them to be: sacrifices for the cause. There was only one meant for that and he was more than a human.
So far, summing up: Herod was selfish, Jesus makes a statement of the priestly orders devouring widow's houses than physically shows the disciples how they are doing it. Appears clear enough? Good. All this was needed to set up the scripture for today. It will help what I am about to say make more sense.
Could you hear Jesus' heart break when the disciples respond to his teachings with a rebuttal? Seriously, our scriptures today starts with the disciples commenting on how well the temple is adorned in honor of God. I believe it was a direct counterargument to Jesus' claim that the priestly leadership was not taking care of widows. Ok, they weren't taking care of widows but they were praising God, right? Wrong! As we just learned, the gold and jewels were not put there by the priests but by Herod. And, they were not put there to praise God but to praise, once again, Herod. Herod the greedy, baby killing Jew by name only who had set up the temple tax to go to the Romans instead of the Jewish people, where it really belonged.
Here is where Jesus could have rebuked the disciples- yelling at them for not getting the point. Instead he takes the same analogy and turns it around. In the future the Saducees and Pharisees will be devouring the disciples for believing in a risen Lord. See, even Herod fixing the temple was a temporary gift. Anything built by human hands will eventually fail the test of time. (Even if you think you are worthy of God status, like Herod thought.) In 70 AD the temple did fall. It was destroyed by the very people Herod tried to please: the Romans. I bet he didn't see that coming. But Jesus did, and furthermore, Jesus saw something else: he saw how the human nature of humanity was going to treat the very people who clung to his words and followed his steps. Was God going to destroy the disciples? Did God need the disciples pushed to martyrdom to bring about the greatest gift in the world? No.
So Jesus gives something that Herod could never have given. It was something eternal and far more real than golden alters or marble walls. Jesus was giving himself and promised to be present even when future tyrants would torture and kill them for their beliefs. In this case, Jesus was not preparing a group of people for a Job moment where the waters of faith were going to be tested. He was preparing them for something far more disastrous:when human free will gets so far off track they hurt others.
I can't stand here today and say you will never be put in positions where others will hurt you. Heck, I was eight years old, being slowly starved, as I watched my drunken mother being beat by my drunken step-father nearly every night. Pain exists. It is foolish to pretend it does not. But, God exists too, and as much as I knew my mom and step-dad were off God's course, I knew God was with all of us. When I stayed up long enough each night to allow my sister to go sleep I knew God was staying up with me so I could go to sleep as well.
It was unbelievable to know that a symbol for God's presence, the temple, could come to mean corruption, but it did! And today, Jeremiah’s message comes back to us. God does not solely reside in some building. God will not fade and God cannot be destroyed. Even if the world crashes in around us God remains pure and true. God lives in our hearts. If we can live that it will not matter what else happens around us. For with God by our side, how can we fail?
* Information about Herod pulled from the devotional book: The good the bad and the ugly.