Our daughter was visiting Nice and we went to see the Lego exhibition at the Musée Massena. There were some amazing exhibits made from Lego: portraits of the Emperor Napoleon and the Empress Josephine, a desk and a harp. But what most caught my attention was the excellent collection of views of Nice from over a century ago.
There were photographs of the Paillon before it was covered over; of the Pier and Crystal Casino; and of Rauba-Capeù before the Monument aux Morts was built. To the Nicois of that era these landmarks must have seemed changeless.
The recently built Temple in Jerusalem – which features in Sunday’s Gospel – must, in all its magnificence and solidity also have seemed like that. One of Jesus’ disciples exclaimed, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’
Construction of the building that impressed him had begun in 20 BC and it was still not quite finished fifty years later. It was sited on a mountain and was the equivalent of a modern fifteen story building, about 200 metres long by 45 metres wide. Some of the individual stones used in its construction weighed as much as 500 tons. Built of white marble, it was adorned with gold outside and inside with gold, silver and finely polished cedar. To the faithful, it was the place where God made his earthly home.
But Jesus tells his disciple, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
This was what later happened. The Romans built great fires at the base of the walls, and the intense heat caused the foundation stones to crumble (under intense heat, the calcium carbonate in marble dissociates to yield carbon dioxide and lime—a gas and a powder).
The walls collapsed under their own weight into great piles of stone. The Romans then spent many months levelling the stones. Thousands of the city’s inhabitants – perhaps hundreds of thousands – died. According to the historian Josephus, this was so that ‘future visitors to the place had no grounds for believing that it had ever been inhabited’.
Whether Jesus was simply remarking on the transience of everything, even the apparently most impressive and solid, we can’t be sure. It’s also possible that if the author of Mark were writing after the Temple’s destruction in 70 AD, he was simply working recent history into his account.
A problem with this and all our Sunday readings is that they detach a passage from its context.
The two chapters before this one and the one that follows take us from Jesus’ Palm Sunday Entry into Jerusalem through a series of conflicts to his betrayal, arrest, Peter’s denial, the crucifixion and the resurrection.
In chapters 11 and 12 Jesus is in open conflict with the religious authorities. He curses an unproductive fig tree, regarding it as a symbol of the unproductive aspects of Israel’s religious system.
He enters the Temple and throws out the money changers, accusing them of exploiting the faithful.
He teaches – through the Parable of the Wicked Tenants – that Israel’s special status will pass to others, as does the possession of the vineyard from the wicked tenants.
Jesus also says that the ostentatious gifts of the wealthy elite are as nothing to that of the widow who offers more than she can afford.
The response of the religious leaders is to question Jesus’ authority. They try to trap him into questions about paying taxes and the resurrection.
Sunday’s Gospel – chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel – foretells that the religious system which he has denounced will end with the destruction of the temple, the most potent symbol of its power.
But Jesus encourages his followers to be hopeful. The destruction of the Temple will be the ‘birth pangs’ of what is to come. It’s rather like the Parable of the Sower. Much of the seed sown goes to waste one way or other but that which falls on good soil grows out of all proportion. So, also, will those flourish who remain faithful.