Two questions kept coming up when I was praying about this gospel. First: why did Jesus tell his disciples to act as witnesses rather than defendants at their own trial? Second: why did this advice follow his prophecy about the destruction of the Temple? How were these two things related? Here's my attempt at getting to the bottom of this.
There seem to be two complementary ways of approaching today’s gospel. One way concerns the certainty that we are not in control. The second way concerns the certainty that God is in control. And there is that constant temptation to conflate the two. The constant temptation to think that my plans and God’s plans are the same, that my ways just are God’s ways, that God should adjust to fit my schedule. What do I mean by this?
Well, it is something that we have looked at before; namely, the overarching pattern of the story of creation and redemption. God creates the universe to become his body. The whole point of creation is to become a dwelling place for God. Creation fulfils its very purpose when God moves in. As we have mentioned before, the Sabbath is when God rests, but that rest is the rest that follows moving into a house, making it a home. It is the King taking up his throne. The rest is the rest of order that allows everything to function as it should. Everything in its right place. The table set for the dinner. The house cleaned for the get together. Everything ready for the party.
And for the Jewish people, this cosmic pattern was represented by the Temple. The Temple represented the whole of creation as it should be. It had various parts to show the various stages of communion with God, to show the hierarchy of roles assigned to the different peoples of the world. It also showed the communion between heaven and earth. We might remember that when Jesus is crucified the veil of the Temple was torn. This veil represented the heavens. Behind the veil was the heaven of heaven, were God dwelt, and it showed that God had taken up his throne in relation to God’s people.
But what is also clear from the Bible is that the work of creation is first and foremost God’s work. God alone can create, God alone can supply what is necessary for the Incarnation to take place. This is the lesson from the sacrifice of Isaac. This is the lesson from David’s desire to build the first Temple. This is the teaching behind the Immaculate Conception of our Lady. It is God’s work. Our job is to cooperate.
When we forget this, when we think that our work is not susceptible to God’s judgment, when we think that our work is the finished product, rather than simply an offering which we make echoing Christ’s words “But not my will but yours”, when we forget this, then we run the risk of idolatry. We run the risk of substituting our plans for God’s. And when I say run the risk, we all do this at some stage and in some way.
This is what I think Jesus is cautioning against when he takes notice of people praising the beauty of the Temple. He is reminding them that it is not the work of human hands that is central. It is what God does through them. And what Jesus says is startling. It is startling to his disciples, but perhaps they don’t even realise quite how startling it is.
Jesus says about the temple, Not a single stone will be left standing on another. Since the temple is the pattern of creation, since it is the very presence of God with his people, Jesus is telling them, their sense of the world, their sense of up and down, their very sense of order is going to be destroyed.
Now this is a prophecy that works on many fronts. Jesus was right that the temple would destroyed. It was completely destroyed by the Romans. Only the Wailing Wall is left these days. More than that, Jesus, the true temple of God, was killed. Likewise, at the end of time, we know that all of creation will be changed, changed into a new heavens and a new earth. But also because God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, this prophecy applies to our own lives.
We have all had this experience. What we know is turned upside down. Our sense of order, our source of stability disappears. I remember when one of my grandfathers died, one of my aunts, one of his daughters, told me that for a year, she felt like she didn’t have a backbone. It can be through a loved one dying. Through a serious trauma or illness. It can be through a lost relationship or a betrayal. All of us probably know, if only in some small way, what it feels like to have our life in pieces, no stone left standing on another.
But this is always a reminder that our source of stability must be God alone. And that when we have God as our sense of stability, when we commune with God in the Eucharist, when we learn the life of God through the pattern and structure of the liturgy, we know that death is really just another way to offer our faith to God. That all these moments of darkness are transfigured into moments for God’s light to shine. The instability becomes radical stability. Death becomes life.
And perhaps this is why Jesus also says both that we will be persecuted and that we are to prepare no defense. Perhaps Jesus says that his followers will be persecuted because this is always the fate of God’s real temple: people will prefer their idols to the real thing, and so will hate being reminded of this falsehood precisely by the existence of the real Temple.
Likewise, we are not to prepare a defense because God does not need defending. God is God. God will form us into witnesses, not defendants. We do not have to dress up our lives by thinking up our defenses in advance. Doing this is like the disciples focusing on the outside of the temple, rather than the sacrifice at its heart, rather than the presence of God which is the very life of the place, the life of the people.
God does not need us to provide a defense. God wants us to give him his body. Christ tells us, the scriptures tell us that the true temple of God is a contrite and humble heart. If we are repentant, if we humbly listen to God, then we will allow God’s Word to form us. In being obedient to the teachings of the Church, God will make up part of his Church. God will make his temple. God will make us part of the body of Christ.
And then we will be like Christ before Pontius Pilate. Christ does not put on a defense. He has no need to. He is not really being judged. He is the judge. Likewise, and this sounds arrogant if it is not totally grounded in and flowing from profound humility, we do not answer to the world. The world must answer to God speaking through his church, through his witnesses, through his martyrs. And that is why it is absolutely crucial to be like our Lady and be handmaids of God, otherwise we are in real danger of being fundamentalists.
As I said, this is a startling gospel. It speaks about the end of time. Which is every single moment. Because every moment exists only because Gods seeks a body. Seeks us. Seeks us for the sake of our brothers and sisters that they too might know their home is with God who seeks to make his home in them.