This is what I’m hearing these days when I read this passage:
Nothing lasts, no matter how impressive. Jesus’ followers are impressed by the Temple in Jerusalem. They’ve probably never seen any other building as massive or as solidly built. Jesus says it won’t last: “all will be thrown down.” And indeed the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, though not completely (the Western Wall still stands as a holy site). Did Jesus actually predict this, or did Mark embellish Jesus’ teaching after the fact (as most scholars now think)? I’m not sure that matters. You don’t have to have a supernatural ability to predict the future to realize that none of our constructions last forever. Nothing stays the same. All that remains are … remains.
Beware of people who claim a too-special status. Just because somebody alluringly uses your favorite spiritual terms—or wears collar like me—that doesn’t mean they comprehend the mystery of God’s all-enlivening presence any more then the rest of us do. Maybe if, like Jesus, they keep reminding us that they’re not the magical problem solvers we were looking for, we should pay attention to them. But we should listen to one another together, not to them alone. Jesus is warning us never to follow anyone blindly—not even him. (“If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me”—John 10:37.) He didn’t say, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!,” but he would’ve gotten the point of that Buddhist koan.
Expect more destruction and conflict—they’re inescapable. And so it seems, right down to today. Just check any news source. Is Mark embellishing Jesus’ teaching again? Maybe, but to repeat, I’m not sure it matters. From the very beginning Christians were celebrating the divinely empowering, living presence of an executed criminal, as we still do in every Eucharist. It’s no use pretending that conflict isn’t all around us.
But conflict and destruction are not the end. “The end is still to come.” People in every generation, including Jesus’ generation, can be so overwhelmed by the conflict and destruction they see that they begin to wonder if they are not witnessing the end of everything hopeful. It’s not the end, says Jesus. Don’t close your eyes to the “negativity” of the world. But don’t let it overwhelm you.
“This is but the beginning of birth pangs.” No matter how bad things get, something new and even hopeful is always coming to birth through them. It may be something we don’t even know how to describe in the terms available to us now. It’s hardly ever what we were expecting. It may not have been quite what Jesus was expecting. God’s universal realm of peace and justice did not arrive in the lifetimes of Jesus’ first followers. But with the worldview-shattering experience of Jesus’ resurrection a new kind of community arose. It had all the failings of any human community, and it still does. Its birthpangs keep birthing more birthpangs. But it’s still haphazardly embodying God’s self-giving love that Jesus lived among us.