Today we have a big reading- the entirety of chapter 23. Before we break it down, there’s a couple things to point out. We often get a picture of Jesus entering Jerusalem and then having 4-5 clean days until the upper room scene (depending on which Gospel you’re reading), but this is not necessarily the case. The Gospels vary greatly on the events that take place between the triumphal entry and the upper room, and are not clear on how long of a time span it was. Here in Luke, Jesus seems to cleanse the temple right away, which one would think would lead rapidly to his arrest, but we actually seem to be taming things a bit with more teaching in the chapters that follow the entry (chapters 20-21).
The Widows’s Offering: In verses 1-4, we get this great story that pastors like me love during stewardship campaigns. Back in those days they didn’t pass plates in their worship services. There was simply a box that you dropped your offering in as you walked in (actually sounds like a nice way to go, if you ask me). Jesus witnesses the contrast between the rich and a poor widow placing their offerings in the box, and, in line with the whole of Luke’s gospel, affirms the widow’s offering over that of those who are wealthy because she has given “out of her poverty”. Throughout the whole gospel, Jesus has been lifting up the poor and bringing down the wealthy, and here, in chapter 21, it’s as though we finally see that in action. The poor person gives more than the rich. It’s no longer just words, but we’re seeing it happen. We are seeing the upside-down kingdom of God happening right before our eyes and right along side a kingdom of the world.
Signs, Destruction, and the End: Then Jesus takes a hard turn that feels very disjointed. People would have been flocking to the temple for the Passover at this time, and evidently there was a lot of conversation about how beautiful it was. This is one of the few times a year that people came from far off to Jerusalem, so this is a holy pilgrimage, but it is also (in a sense) a bit of a sight seeing tour. The temple is but a few days a year experience for many, so they’re soaking it in.
So people are milling around the temple, marveling at its beauty and Jesus completely bursts their bubble. As they marvel at its structure and design, Jesus reiterates what he said as he wept over Jerusalem: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” (21:6). What a buzz kill.
But people recognize him as a teacher, and they ask about when this will be. This speaks to the credibility Jesus has with the people. They may or may not know exactly who he is, but here he is telling of the destruction of their temple, and they don’t dismiss him or fight him on it. They call him “teacher” and ask for more. From their Jesus launches into a somewhat lengthy discourse about all kinds of strange signs about the end of things.
He warns them of false messiahs, of wars, earthquakes, and plagues, and even their arrest and encourages them not be terrified. There’s a lot there to be terrified about, but Jesus is assuring them “not a hair of your head will perish”. I don’t think what Jesus is saying here is that they won’t be physically harmed. He is reaffirming the existence of another Kingdom, of another kind existence in this world. He’s saying, “don’t worry about the things of this world- steep your life in things of God and it won’t matter that temples crumble”.
A Broken World: But then he really puts the fear of God in us by saying things like, “Woe to those are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days!” (21:23). This seems to contrast greatly with all the stuff he just said about not being terrified. What could be more terrifying than warning pregnant and nursing mothers! I’m no apocalyptic expert, nor am I even knowledgeable at all about this stuff, but I do think that Jesus may actually be saying less here about the end times than he is about the current realities of a broken a world.
This kind of wrath toward the vulnerable does not line up with the rest of Luke’s gospel, so it seems out of place to me to think that suddenly God is going to destroy pregnant and nursing mothers. I think what Jesus is getting at here is just how broken the world and its systems are. And in this he is doing two things. 1, he is calling us to steep our lives in Kingdom of God reality, not kingdoms of this world reality. It’s as though he’s saying, remember who you really are, and to what you really belong. And, 2, he’s telling us not to be surprised when we see, feel, and experience the brokenness of the world.
And finally, what we need to keep before us in all this weird talk in Chapter 23 is what Jesus is about to experience. He has predicted the falling and rising of the “temple” earlier in the gospel, and we know then that he was referring to his own life and body. As Jesus is within a few days from crucifixion, it is not unreasonable to say that in chapter 23 he is also talking about what is about to happen to him. The extent of this broken world will be made manifest when he is betrayed by his own, arrested and beaten by the authorities, and crucified and buried into the earth. Death, destruction, brokenness and even a sense of hopelessness is not far away. It is indeed brewing in their very midst.