Not One Stone Left on Another: A Summons of Return to Our Original Social Covenant - Matthew 24:1-13

Feast of the Prophet Nahum and St Philaret the Merciful

Lincoln_Memorial_Square.jpegThe Temple and the Social Contract
If you were to visit me in Washington, DC, and it was your first visit, I would likely take you to two of my three favorite memorials. These two memorials tell our national story. They are fifteen miles from my home and within walking distance of each other on the Potomac Basin. Northwest of the Basin stands the Lincoln memorial. It showcases two of his great speeches, one being the Gettysburg Address: “Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” This most famous of 19th century civic sermons was itself dependent for its inspiration on Thomas Jefferson and his 18th century Declaration of Independence. Mr. Jefferson’s memorial, with the words of the Declaration of Independence, is on the southern end of the Basin. Lincoln alludes to Jefferson’s Declaration at midpoint in the Civil War in November 1863. Fourscore and seven takes us back to 1776 and the Declaration, which asserts that God created all men equal. The Constitution, which was ratified in 1789, permitted slavery. The Constitution was our social contract, but the Declaration of Independence was our social covenant. The Civil War was the travail of a new birth of freedom as the nation labored for its founding ideal. These two memorials not only encapsulate the dialectic of our country’s political history, but more importantly they identify the source of that dialectic in our nation’s founding—our social covenant—and its provisional embodiment—our social contract. Your wonderful Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks—maybe the wisest man on the planet—has recently reminded us that the social contract creates the State, but the social covenant creates the society.

This is the frame we need to make sense of our provocative Gospel reading in Matthew 24:1–13. The disciples seek to recruit Jesus into their admiration of the Temple, their nation’s great singular monument to their national story. Possibly they seek to mitigate Jesus’ earlier doomsday message about Jerusalem, as if to say, “but surely not the Temple.” But Jesus restates his judgment against Jerusalem and, to make his point crystal clear, he extends that judgment to the Temple: “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Matt. 24:2). Jesus’ words are not merely a judgment against a building but against a social contract—the Temple of Israel and the Jewish State for which it stands.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Temple to the Jewish state, even when it’s Herod’s puppet state. We have to go back to the book of 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Kings 5 to understand the role of the Temple. The Temple cannot be built until Israel’s State has been founded. And that requires secure borders and a dynastic Kingdom dependable enough to safeguard them. ONLY then can Israel live in peace, because the social contract that creates a secure State—a contract where the citizens give up certain privileges in order to enjoy certain protections—has been forged. Only AFTER Israel experiences peace and security may the Temple—the national symbol of peace—be built.

Now Jesus’ prophecy comes into focus: When Israel continually and without contrition violates its contract, the sign of that contract—the Temple—is no longer sacred or inviolable.

I do not know your British political system well enough to risk comment. But in America, much of our current political tension—some would say crisis—results from the dissonance, the discrepancy, the growing distance that exists between our social contract and our social covenant.


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The Family and the Social Covenant

The social covenant has primacy, just as it did for Israel. And social harmony is restored when the proper relation between covenant and contract is restored. So if the Temple is the sign and pillar of the state and the contract upon which it stands, then what was the sign and pillar of the social covenant? What is the sign of covenantal flourishing?

Let’s go back to Matthew 24, our Gospel reading. It is just past midpoint in a series of Judean discourses that begin in Matthew 19. As Jesus re-enters Judea for the last time, he is confronted by the Pharisees—those self-appointed guardians of the social covenant. The issue they raise, of course, is the sign and pillar of the social covenant: marriage and family. Surprisingly, they do not advocate for a more faithful adherence to this covenant for themselves, but rather they press for a more permissive regulation as well as more social influence for themselves. They always do. They press Jesus specifically, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” Jesus’ short answer is no, it’s not (Matt. 19:1-9). To make his point, he goes beyond Moses and even Abram’s covenants, back to the very beginning, to the beginning that never ends.

We will miss the heart of this covenant whose origins transcend history, until we understand that the family was the main carrier of the covenant. We must begin by asking, why would a 70-year-old man leave the greatest urban center of his day to live in a tent in the desert? What was he trying to escape? Or what was God attempting to begin? What was the nature of the blessing God was preparing Abram and Sarah to give to the earth? It is the family! It is in the pedagogy of the family—what De Tocqueville famously called our “apprenticeships in freedom”—and not the Temple, where the covenant is principally taught, modeled, and transmitted. Only as Abraham learned to love one woman was he able to love one God. Not just the Sabbath and the Passover Seder, but monogamy itself was the divine pedagogy of monotheism. The later pilgrimages, sacrifices, and festivals were vital but secondary means of teaching the covenant and regenerating social tissue.

We know Jesus’ prophecy was fulfilled in AD 70. The Temple was destroyed as Jesus foretold, and the State of Israel ceased to exist for nearly 2,000 years. But Jewish society, though dispersed across the globe, survived and even thrived in its diffused exile. This was largely due to the Jews’ social covenant and the family bonds that both sustained it and were sustained by it.

An example closer to home and close to my heart is the beautiful people of Poland. With the support of my good friends Shannon Johnston, the Bishop of Virginia, and Adam and Maya Zagajewski, I take young people—usually Episcopalians and Anglicans—on pilgrimage to introduce them to a people who lost their State for nearly two centuries but managed to prevail as a culture and society, as a people. We focus especially on the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz and the spiritual writings of St. John Paul II. Poland’s preeminent sources of cultural and social renewal reside in her poets and saints. What they have taught us at Truro Anglican Church is what Israel teaches us: a healthy viable state depends not only on its social contract—the borders, the laws, and institutions that protect the people. It ultimately relies upon a healthy social covenant, the webs of relationships—the families, churches, synagogues, and voluntary associations—that create and sustain a society. And this social covenant is created by culture and faith, at the heart of which is family and friends. This was Poland’s experience for 200 years. So, late in life, when Pope John Paul II wrote, “The future of the world passes through the family,” he was not pontificating, he was rejoicing!

Conclusion: Church as Regenerator of Social Tissue
What Jesus is doing in Matthew 24 and Matthew 19 is very Lincoln-esque. Or more accurately, Lincoln is very Christ-like. Because of our hardness of heart, we cannot keep the social covenant very well. So Jesus reaches back to the beginning of the story of humanity, to our universal social covenant, and writes it upon our hearts. This family is not dependent on the state of Israel—or any other state for that matter—for it’s ordered to the Kingdom of God. Jesus is putting into motion a new kind of humanity that transcends the claims of every state and nation, regenerating the social tissue upon which every state and community depends. As David Bentley Hart so memorably writes of the early church:

“[It] was quite unambiguously, a cosmic sedition. It may have been partially subdued by the empire in being officially embraced, but even so its ultimate triumph... was in the invention of an entirely new universe of human possibilities...” (Atheist Delusions, p. 124).

Jesus simultaneously proclaims the end of one Temple made of stones while he builds another one of flesh—or, as we have been saying, the end of a failed social contract through the return to our social covenant. This doesn’t get us off the hook of being good citizens of our countries, and certainly not off the hook of becoming better spouses and siblings in our families. It rather puts the focus where it needs to be. Only when the Church forms “apprenticeships of freedom” and “signs of love” do we ultimately serve any society or state well. In the meantime, our Lord’s warning of “not one stone left upon another” should not lead to a resignation, to fear, or even worse to triumph. It’s rather a summons to join Him in the building of an “entirely new universe of human possibilities.”

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 


Tory Baucum is the Rector of Truro Church in Fairfax VA and a Six Preacher at Canterbury Cathedral. He is a native Kansan and enthusiast of 20th century Polish history, culture and literature.

*Sermon originally delivered at Canterbury Cathedral on Nov 5, 2017.

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