Whilst in India, we travelled to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. From the distance, when I saw the scale of the building, I could tell this was going to be a magnificent sight – a proper “wonder of the world” type place. Our guide explained how it was built so a man could express his eternal love for his wife who died in childbirth. How only the best artisans and architects were used, who used new techniques that ensured the building would survive for many, many years, even should earthquakes strike. The building floats on water. The towers look symmetrical, but lean slightly outwards in case they should fall. The Taj is an engineering masterpiece, with artistic beauty like no other building I have seen.
Yet, I hated it. (Sorry, “didn’t enjoy it”?) I tried to like it. I really did. I could see how much my colleagues wanted to see it. How excited my friends were back home that I was going to see it. Princess Diana had been there and famously had a portrait taken on a bench. People from India were clearly very proud of this building, and yes, they should be. It is an amazing building.
But I didn’t feel love oozing from the white marble. I had no sense of one man’s love for one woman. I have sat with a grieving widow. Yes, grief does many things to people, and people respond in different ways. Sometimes building “mini shrines” keeping a drawer of photos, mementos, a wallet or a necklace – something that belonged to the deceased, something familiar. The Taj Mahal did not say remember her. With every intricate design of precious stones, it said remember me.
Remember the man who ordered it to be built. Remember the man who trafficked many people from different parts of his known world, the best of the best, with one purpose – build his monument. Remember him as long as this building lasts and – it will last – because he ensured it would. And it would definitely be the only one of its kind, because most of the people who worked on it would be killed or at least have their hands chopped off. Yes – that would ensure his legacy would be remembered.
I ask you – is that about love? Or power?
All I could think as I looked at this impressive building was what Jesus said to His disciples about another impressive building that was built out of love and built to last – the Temple.
“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” Mark 13:2 NIV
Jesus mentioned this just after their trip with the “Palm Sunday” entry into Jerusalem. The crowds had cheered Jesus into town, inviting him to ride a donkey over their coats. Jesus and his disciples then went to Bethany, where Jesus cursed a fig tree. He was hungry, you see, and it had no fruit on it. Then they all traveled back to Jerusalem, this time seeing the sights in the Temple.
At the Temple, Jesus turned the tables. First by turning over the tables of the money changers, then by preaching to all who would listen that God’s house was for prayer “for all nations” and not for robbing people. That was when the religious authorities vowed to kill Jesus – when he openly challenged their authority and the way they were doing stuff.
Jesus then explained to his disciples why the fig tree is dead. He told them “Have faith in God…whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:22-24 NIV). This was clearly not about asking God for a private jet or a million pounds in the bank. This was about God’s house, God’s enjoyment of fruit, God’s kingdom, “God’s will being done on earth” stuff.
The Temple leaders questioned Jesus’ authority, so he told them a story about a farm owner and tenants. The tenants who harm the farm owner’s friends and kill his son, all just to keep the vegetables for themselves. Then he reminded them about the stone “that the builders rejected” – sommat the Temple leaders would have understood – a reference from a psalm sung every Passover that in that context they would not have liked.
So many questions, but are they the important questions? The Temple leaders question Jesus about taxes, about life after death, about the most important commandment. Jesus taught his disciples to watch out for the religious folk who like to walk around looking the part, but not noticing the poor widow who puts her last bit of money into the collection box. He pointed her out to them. Jesus was adamant that people who follow him would notice people like her.
As they left the Temple, the disciples remarked how impressive the building was. At this moment, Jesus said, “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2 NIV)
The message was clear. Fruit trees are judged by their ability to bear fruit. So are any religious institutions claiming to do God’s work. And – amazingly – Jesus’ disciples are given authority to tip the balance, to turn the tables, to change things that aren’t working for God’s purposes into things that do, or even to ask God to remove the obstacles all together.
How people are treated matters to God. His Torah contains many commands to look after people, to care for the vulnerable. Jesus continues that teaching, as do his disciples, like Paul, James, and John (check out their letters in the Bible).
And the Taj?
I put on the white shoe coverings and walked all around the monument, and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I especially enjoyed watching the families enjoying a day out together and celebrating this national iconic landmark. I had a great conversation with a grandfather waiting for his wife and grandchildren. He had been here before and opted to wait outside on a bench. But he told me that the inside was just as beautiful, and he was right. Inside, we were shown the beautiful hand-carved lattice-work around the “coffins”. Each panel took one person nine years to make. Other panels had artwork made of precious stones. The skill was breathtaking. But who were these artists?
God said to me, “So many unknown, unnamed, skilled artists worked hard, just so this building could be built. But my building – what I am building – my building of love is different. Thousands of years of unnamed, unknown people, faithful followers have gone before you. You don’t know their names, but I know them all.”
Displays of love without God are powerless.
Displays of power without love are godless.
God is love, and all power is God’s!