As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Sooner or later, anyone who reads the Bible needs to contend with the critical question of just what kind of literature it is. In this pursuit, we who live in the modern world have a remarkably impoverished imagination. Confined by our experience as children in the library, we can often only imagine two alternatives: fiction or non-fiction. While these are useful categories when it comes to describing whether or not a particular work deals with verifiable facts, they are completely inadequate when it comes to the larger matter of truth.
Was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin true? It was certainly not factual in the sense that the characters she depicted were not actual people but rather sprang from her imagination. Yet the horrific portrayal of the life of slaves she penned was in so many dimensions absolutely true that it rallied the moral courage of an entire generation to oppose the evils of slavery. So significant and widespread was the impact of her true, though fictional, work, in fact, that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe he greeted her by saying “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!”
Similarly, when Mark (along with Matthew and Luke) record that Jesus cleansed the Temple during Holy Week while John places the incident two years earlier at the very outset of Jesus’ ministry, must we decide which one is “right,” as in factually accurate? Or can we confess that each is offering a true account that runs deeper than the facts?
Fiction and nonfiction are inadequate to the task before us because the Gospel writers themselves do not have these categories in mind. Each of them – writing forty to sixty years after the events in question – has certain facts, a number of memories, an assortment of traditions, as well as pressing problems that shape their faithful account of what God was accomplishing in and through Jesus.
I raise this issue because in this part of the Gospel Mark is venturing to explain the great and cataclysmic event of his generation: the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans. This tragedy leaves its indelible mark on both Judaism and the fledgling movement of Christianity. And so when we hear Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple we need to read it both in terms of its function in Mark’s larger story of Jesus’ confrontation with the religious powers of his day, and as a good faith attempt by Mark to make sense of a recent event that was for his first-century community not unlike the destruction of the World Trade Center for twenty-first century believers.
So Mark is preoccupied with questions of how and why and to what end and, perhaps most importantly, how does this fit in to God’s larger redemptive purpose and work in Jesus? These are understandable questions for Mark to ask, and we read him better by keeping them in mind as well.
Prayer: Dear God, grant us the confidence to rest in the truth of your word embedded in the faithful creativity of the evangelists so that we, like them, may live and die in you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.