November 7, 2010
A new temple and a new life call the faithful to work.
(Alternate reading: Job 19:23-27a.) The prophetic reading is from one of the two prophets who helped rouse the people to begin the building of the Second Temple. This temple was completed (in 515 BCE, Ezra 6:15) around seventy years after the destruction of the first (Solomonic) temple (586 BCE, II Kings 25:8). This Second temple lasted, with many repairs and expansions, until the Romans destroyed it in 70 CE. The beginning of its rebuilding after the exile was a major challenge to the small restored Jewish community, and Haggai (with his colleague Zechariah) brought urgent messages from the Lord to get the work done.
The divine command to get to work is accompanied by an oracle about the new holy place. Haggai gathers the leaders and people at the building site, still in shambles, and appeals to anyone still living who had seen the old temple to compare it to this heap of nothing. (There could not be many folks around well past seventy years old.) In any case, this shabby rubble heap is about to have a world-class revival, declares God through the prophet. The wealth of the nations will begin to flow to this place of international renown, once it is going full tilt under new management. (This theme is emphasized even more in Epiphany season with texts from Isaiah 60-62.)
The modest little Jewish settlement is more than it seems. It is really the chosen people of the God who is truly God of all the nations – whatever those unenlightened peoples might think. This is the one (and only) God, to whom, of course, all the resources of the globe belong, if truth were known. Understood this way, it is not so fantastic for the prophet to hear God declare, “The silver is mine, and the gold is mine” (verse 8, NRSV). Once the old days of judgment are past, God can summon a new glory for God’s holy place in the earth. The new glory of the temple will be greater even than the glory of Solomon’s temple, and “in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts” (verse 9).
Long before Daniel Burnham, God told the folks who were rebuilding their city to “make no small plans!”
Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21
(Alternate Psalm: 17:1-9.) The Psalm reading is a response to God’s glorification within the world, in certainty that the prophecy of Haggai would be fulfilled. (The psalm is another acrostic—lines beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The letter N [nun] is missing from the Hebrew text but preserved in the Greek version; see the NRSV, translators’ note b.) The speaker breaks out in exultant praise of God, which will be repeated from generation to generation, declaring the majesty of God’s wondrous works (verses 1-5).
The last part of the psalm (verses 17-20) is a set of declarations about God. In what amounts to an elaborate call to worship, the speaker proclaims for all peoples the world-class benefits of this God—to be found at the newly-opened Temple in the hill town of Jerusalem. The language is intended to be very comprehensive and inclusive, as indicated by the frequently repeated word “all.” The Lord is just in all his ways, kind in all his doings, near to all who call, all who call on him in truth …fulfills the desire of all who fear him. The Lord watches over all who love him, and will punish all the wicked.
News about the one God who really has power over all peoples needs to be broadcast from the place of God’s unsearchable greatness (verse 3).
II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17.
The question of working—literally hard labor—for God’s establishment on earth, addressed in Haggai’s prophecy, appears in a different guise in the Epistle reading. The Thessalonian community has taken the message of Jesus’ imminent return very much to heart and many have decided to lean back and leave the driving to God. They think work is no longer necessary. Their attitude is directly denounced by Paul in 3:6-13 [not in the reading], where other believers are instructed “to do their work quietly and earn their own living” (3:12, NRSV).
The belief, or excuse, that work is no longer necessary seems to be the result of the belief that “the day of the Lord is already here” (verse 2). Paul insists that this is completely in error. To support his opposition to the idlers he goes into some detail about the end times of Jesus’ coming, specifically about some public events that must precede the consummation.
His brief statement of evil things yet to come before the glorious consummation has offered students of Bible prophecy intriguing and mysterious signs to decipher and reinterpret through the centuries.
Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion [apostasy] comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction [literally, the son of destruction, apôleia, almost a play on the son of man, anthrôpos, suggesting the role of a fake Messiah]. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. (Verses 3-4, NRSV.)
In the time of the apostle and the young churches of Greece and Asia Minor, a sign of the coming climax of the raging tribulations will be some evil figure setting up his throne in God’s own temple—the temple of Jerusalem. However the details of this apocalyptic drama are to be sorted out, the apostle is very clear—just as the prophet had been very clear—that work remained to be done and God’s chosen folks were elected to do it. The glory will come, perhaps after some considerable misery and chaos, but much hard work lies between here and there.
Thus the prophet, thus the apostle.
The Gospel reading also takes us to the temple in Jerusalem, reporting one of the controversies there in Jesus’ last days.
The controversy about the resurrection is initiated by the Sadducees, the only run-in Jesus has with them in our records. The Sadducees pose a scholastic how-many-angels-on-the-point-of-a-needle sort of question. A woman who never had any children but married seven brothers in succession, each husband dying after marrying her—whose wife will she be in the resurrection?
This is hardly a question just thought up to challenge Jesus. It’s obviously an old canard the Sadducees had been using on the Pharisees for 150 years. Sadducees believed only in the written law of Moses, in no resurrection because none is taught in the Torah of Moses, and they rejected the kind of angelology taught by the Pharisees and some late Persian and Greek Jewish writings (e.g., the book of Daniel). The Sadducees were very much the custodians of the Jerusalem temple and the aristocratic rulers of the land of Judah, no matter which empire currently held power over it. They and the Pharisees had been hard-nosed opponents since they slaughtered each other in civil wars during the reigns of the later Maccabean rulers (103-63 BCE). If Jesus actually had such a controversy with them, it would have been an old pro forma discussion pulled out because he sounded like a Pharisee.
Similarly, Jesus’ answers to the Sadducee challenge look like responses taught in Religious Rhetoric 101. Since the Pharisees had long believed in the after life, they had to have discussed these conundrums for such a doctrine raised by common sense. Certain things of “this age” do not apply to “that age” (verses 34-35). Marriage, procreation, and especially the Levirate brother-in-law-must-get-me-a-son institution, are all irrelevant to the blessed life of those who rest in the bosom of Abraham. After the resurrection the good folks become like angels (verse 36)—another reason the Sadducees weren’t having any of either the resurrection or the angels.
The last reason Jesus gives to support the resurrection from scripture (the Torah, to meet Sadducee requirements) is that God says to Moses that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Since God is God of the living and not of the dead, those sainted patriarchs are obviously alive in the resurrection. This argument is the product of heavy scribal labor, a great stretch to make a point. It reeks of midnight oil consumed (by Pharisees) in the counting of every jot and tittle.
So what is this episode about? It insists that Jesus took a stand, in the temple precincts, affirming that the faithful have waiting for them a fullness of life provided by God’s own self. That future life will transcend the cruder limitations of “this age,” and is reached through the coming of that reign of God that Jesus proclaimed from the beginning. The wealthy and self-satisfied aristocrats who were called Sadducees had their rewards in this age, and would perish along with the temple that embodied their best efforts and aspirations.
The silver and the gold belong to God, and the Sadducees have had their share. Greater things await the poor and humble who follow Jesus to a greater temple.