Commentary on Mark 13:1-8
As a young man I remember when this gospel lesson was the text used for certain Sunday sermons.
My church was a Latinx Pentecostal congregation with an attendance anywhere from 650-800 people. The music was always enthusiastic and inspiring. The expectation even before the first words were delivered were high and palpable. It seems to me that for some reason the congregation liked radical, drastic sounding, apocalyptic literature. My church was one among a growing number of churches with an appetite for apocalyptic biblical genre. In fact, at one-point apocalyptic talk became a multimillion-dollar industry in our country, with books such as that of Hal Lee Lindsey, “The Great Late Planet Earth,” selling millions of copies.
In my church this passage and others like it conjured fear, was used to call people to repentance, and even lead congregants to conversion. At the same time, this apocalyptic literature brought a sense of peace and security. Why would a passage that stirs such fear, also convey peace and security? I believe that the peace and security gleaned from this apocalyptic literature resulted from the assumption that there was something better in the future than the present hardship lived by so many in this working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York.
We must keep in mind that when Jesus was asked: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” and he answers, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” He had already said in the previous passages that this wondrous building had been built off the the sweat and exploitation of widows and the poor. It was for this reason that, although it looked magnificent and pure, it was truly putrescent inside. Therefore, the destruction of this magnificent edifice might be troubling for those who maintained their power and prestige in its survival, but not so for the common faithful widow. Interestingly, the disciples did not seem to internalize what Jesus had said about the widow and that temple as can be seen from their continued exaltation of it.
One of the challenges for us in the 21st century and living in one of the most affluent countries in the world, is that we cannot truly relate to what Jesus is saying. Jesus is suggesting that there is “sin” in our world and that a complete apocalyptic transformation is therefore required. The challenge for us is that “sin” has become a non-contextual spiritual construction with no relevance to our real lives. However, for Jesus “sin” is very contextual — it means oppression, exploitation, abuse of the widow, orphan, migrant, transgender people. Therefore, the system that has been built from evil must be destroyed and made anew.
This system might even include our churches and their institutions. Perhaps the fear that people experienced was not intended for all, as the destruction of buildings, cities and the society, would mostly affect the power brokers of the given society. This radical restructuring perhaps was meant to bring encouragement to the marginalized then and now and hope that the oppressive structures of society would be destroyed.
This might be the reason that many in my church went from feeling fearful to feeling hopeful and at peace. Let us remember that Jesus said things will be difficult: “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.” For the marginalized the chaos is experienced both on a micro and macro level, as they are also burden by the chaos evident in our larger world, in addition to their individual local sinfully oppressive realities.
In the midst of this apparent chaos and destruction, Jesus brings words of hope: “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” It is easy to forget that the narrative does not end with gloom and doom. Although too often this narrative has been used to portray a hopeless and catastrophic situation, in reality, Jesus seems to be speaking about a hopeful and salvific future. We all know, and some have experienced, the physical pain that women endure while giving birth. However, after the most powerful forces of pain take place, birth is the result, and the new life is then celebrated.
Therefore, it seems that the apocalyptic words of Jesus were meant to bring a message of hope especially to the subjugated of his society and ours. The description and verbiage used to explain what was to occur in the future is not even hyperbolic in nature. The changes will be radical and disruptive to the status quo. The structures that will collapse might not be physical ones, they might be the stones and walls that have kept and continue to keep female, gay, lesbian, transgender, and differently abled individuals as well as people of color from fully realizing their ministerial potentials.
In our current era and political context, in which some are trying to reverse the apocalyptic progress that has already been made, the words of Jesus should bring comfort to the church and especially to those who have been kept marginalized.