The idolatry of grandeur is a perennial problem for us. We might even say it is a constant crisis of the human condition. We can’t seem to bypass that which pulls us toward what is not ours, what seems out of reach, what appears to be so much better than what we have, even who we are. And, therefore, we should ask why.
What is the attraction of “what large stones”? What do these large stones represent? Power and wealth? Achievement and ease of life? Accomplishment and attention? The question of this lone disciple — and we should note that it’s one of the disciples whose gaze is drawn toward splendor and not those we would like to believe are more misled than we are — captures our true leanings. How quickly and easily we find ourselves mesmerized by greatness beyond our grasp and prosperity beyond our perceivable capability.
And while we’d like to think that those of us theology-types are skilled in escaping such draws, even a brief review of past and present perceptions of ecclesial success settles in on numbers, money, grants, new and shiny programs, and membership. “The Largest…” ends up being a mission statement. “The Biggest…” ends up being a vision statement.
Maybe this is the week that you name the truth of the underside of the church — that even the church is susceptible to the measures of might and the gauges of greatness set by society. And maybe this is the week that you name the truth to yourself — how much you evaluate your own ministry, even your own personhood, by standards that barely resemble Gospel kinds of criteria, if at all.
These are worthy and worthwhile exercises these days, discernment that draws on dependable and demonstrated deeds of the Kingdom, reflection that reacts to the realities exemplified in cross and resurrection ways, especially when the majority and the mainstream maintains that meaning can be made outside of the mandates of the Gospel.
If the church and its preachers do not rise up and speak up about power known only in large stones, about greatness seen only in observable glory, then indeed the idolatry of grandeur has taken over the greatness we are to lift up that is known in weakness.
The irony, of course, is that the observation of the opulence of the temple falls immediately on the heels of the widow’s loyalty. This is, in part, what gets overlooked and dismissed with the idolatry of grandeur — the acts of might that don’t measure up to the world’s standards but that are every bit as lavish. And in doing so, we are in danger of passing over and passing by the cross itself.
That is what is at stake here and now for the disciples, for Jesus, for us. The disciples, which includes us, might want to see the restoration of God’s Kingdom as matching the majesty and might of the kingdom in power, but that is not how God works. And those denominations, those preachers, and those institutions of theology that seem to want to make the church great again have bought into the idolatry of grandeur — hook, line, and sinker.
Our capacity to wiggle out of such an indictment, however, is equally troubling. While we might eschew obvious majesty to that which the world is so quickly attracted, we are less capable of recognizing idolatrous practices that make God someone or something that God is not.
For example, “Systematic theology is oxymoronic idolatry,” insists Luke Timothy Johnson. Indeed, it is, for a host of reasons, but one is that it aggrandizes God in such a way that makes God predictable, even perceptible by our own standards; impressive by our own means of assessment. While we might congratulate ourselves for walking past the large stones that represent the grandness of church buildings, that symbolize stateliness outside of God’s realm, that denote a kind of authority foreign to the incarnation, we rarely stop to wonder about our urge to stop in our tracks and stare, to say, either to ourselves our out loud, “what large stones.”
What do we think we are missing? For what do we long that seems beyond our reach? Perhaps at the end of the day we wish we ourselves were those large stones, that which people admire, take notice, and stop so as to comment. Perhaps we wish for the admiration, if maybe only briefly, that the world seems so readily to have for others.
Or maybe we are afraid, afraid that our work, that our ministry will be merely whelming, barely worth a nod. Afraid that the opposite of grandeur is mediocrity, that largeness, whatever that means, is the ultimate litmus test for influence and impact. Afraid that our call can never measure up to the magnificence meted out by cultures that are rarely inclined toward imperceptible excellence.
And maybe all of these truths are okay. And why? Because deep down, we know all too well the human condition. It’s what we preach about each week and to which the Gospel always speaks.