Third Sunday in Lent, Year B
"I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do."
When St. Paul wrote this in Romans 7, it wasn't about a lack of willpower, and it wasn't saying that obeying the Law's commandments was impossible. After all, we're talking about the guy who said in Philippians 3:6 that he was "as to the Law, blameless."
St. Paul believes that he did obey the Law's commandments; he also believes that while he was doing that, he accomplished "not ... the good I want, but the evil I do not want," as he says in Romans. Paul's problem, as he came to understand it, was that while obeying the commandments -- from the "big ten" to the last ordinance -- he became "as to zeal, a persecutor of the church" (Philippians 3:6). Acts 8:1 reports that when the blood of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was spilled, Paul was there, looking with approval.
Paul's very zeal to do God's will led him to participate, by a consistent pattern of "things done and left undone," in the death of people like Stephen. That bloodshed haunted him throughout his life. Those deaths placed Paul in a "body of death" (Romans 7:24) from which no amount of zeal could rescue him -- until he met the risen Jesus, who rescued him from a body of death and made him a member of the Body of Christ. At least two things happened at once in Paul (and by the way, his name didn't change when he encountered Jesus. If you read Acts carefully, you'll see that continues to carry the name Saul after his Damascus road experience; most likely, as Roman citizens had three names, his first two names were "Saulus Paulus," and then his third name would be the family name by which citizenship came to his family) in that encounter:
He realized that Jesus was in fact God's anointed, raised by the God of Israel from the dead. It followed from that was that Paul had been horribly, tragically wrong in persecuting Jesus' followers.
He realized also as he was received by Ananias and the very church he had been rushing to persecute just how profound was the height and depth and breadth of the love of Christ -- and by extension, Christ's Body on earth. The Christians Paul met after he was blinded on the road didn't demand Paul's blood in retaliation for the blood Paul shed; they received him (however hard they had to gulp while doing so) as a brother.
Why would they do something like that? Why not just pick up a rock to hurl at Paul with regret only that Paul had just one life they could take in payment for the lives Paul had taken?
Because they understood that Jesus' death -- indeed, Jesus' whole life -- was putting an end to bloodshed. I preached about that last week (shout-out to the good folks of Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland -- what a wonderful congregation, and what great hosts!),
but this Sunday's gospel is another good entry point to that message.
This week, we hear the story of Jesus' actions in the Temple, actions often referred to as Jesus' "cleansing the Temple." I wish they weren't. "Cleansing the Temple" makes it sound like Jesus was just trying to straighten it up, purify it by removing things that shouldn't be there. The idea that Jesus' actions in this Sunday's gospel are "cleansing the Temple" is predicated on the assumption that moneychangers and dovesellers didn't belong in those courtyards, when there's no way that the Temple could function without them.
God's law, after all -- "God's will revealed in scripture," to use a phrase popular with a lot of preachers today -- demanded sacrifice. The sacrifices had to be unblemished: the Law required it, and so did common sense. Hey, you wouldn't give a chipped coffee mug to your kid's teacher -- why would you think it's cool to bring "factory seconds" to Yahweh? And it's not like no provision was made for the poor. The Law allowed the poor to offer a dove rather than a lamb in sacrifice. It just had to be an unblemished dove, and how much of a bummer would it be if you schlepped all the way to Jerusalem from your village in Galilee hauling a dove, only to find out once you got there that it wasn't going to make the grade? Selling animals suitable for sacrifice was a service.
And surely you remember the commandment not to make any graven image, right? It's one of the "big ten," after all -- the first one, to be precise (depending on how you number them, and Jews, Roman Catholics, and Protestants number them differently -- which is one more reason that we can't post a list of the Ten Commandments anywhere without it being a sectarian act). It's bad enough to have to deal at all with money bearing Caesar's image; it's beyond the pale to bear that image into the areas of the Temple where sacrifice is offered to the God who said (right up front in the "big ten") not to have any lord besides the Creator. Incidentally, this is another way in which Jesus is extraordinarily clever in Mark 12:13-17 and parallels, when Jesus is asked whether it's lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. When Jesus says, "hey, who's got a denarius with them" and one of his oh-so-scrupulous about the Law questioners produces one to show him, you can almost hear the "D'OH!" from them all when they realize that there they are in the Temple, and they've just been shown up for everyone to see as not having changed their money over in the courtyard to coinage that didn't bear Caesar's image. You bear Caesar's image into the Temple's inner courts, and you're making clear where your true loyalties are -- Caesar, not God. Money-changers in the outer courts are providing a service that, like the dove-sellers, is necessary for the Temple system to continue.
And Jesus will have none of it.
Jesus drives out the dove-sellers and the money-changers, without which people -- poor people, even (the dove-sellers are mentioned specifically) -- won't be able to offer their sacrifices. He's not "cleansing" the Temple -- he's ending it. That's why all four gospels report in connection with their report of Jesus' messing with the money-changers and sacrifice-sellers that Jesus prophesied the Temple's destruction.
Now why would Jesus do something like that? After all, isn't scripture clear that God wanted the Temple built and maintained, along with everything that was supposed to take place inside it?
This is an excellent case in point for how difficult it is to teach "what the bible says" about nearly anything: scripture is not by any means unanimous that Israel should have a temple (or, for that matter, a king). Writers from the priestly upper classes -- people who owed their livelihood to kings who claimed descent from Solomon and kings like Herod the Great, who wanted to be seen as ruling with Solomon's mantle, rather unsurprisingly are quite clear that God wanted the Temple built and commanded that sacrifices happen there. Prophetic writers like Isaiah never bought that agenda, though. Prophets like Isaiah say things like this:
Thus says the LORD:
Heaven is my throne
and the earth is my footstool;
wheat is the house that you would build for me,
and what is my resting place?
All these things my hand has made,
and so all these things are mine,
says the LORD.
Isaiah wasn't keen on animal or grain sacrifices either. He goes on to say:
Whoever slaughters an ox is like one who kills a human being;
whoever sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog's neck;
whoever presents a grain offering, like one who offers swine's blood;
whever makes a memorial offering of frankincense,
like one who blesses an idol.
These have chosen their own ways,
and in their abominations they take delight.
Prophets like Isaiah clearly were NOT charter members of the Society for the Preservation of the Temple. Nor did they think what God really wanted was more personal piety -- more fasts, more "devotional time," more bible study. Not that there's anything wrong with those things as such. But here's what they thought of as the kind of worship God really wants:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not hide yourself from your own kin?
Ever notice how often Jesus quotes Isaiah, especially relative to other biblical writers? It isn't hard to tell where Jesus falls on this question about what kind of worship God wants -- and just how little interest God has in a building. Actually, that's an understatement. Jesus didn't just think that God had little interest in the Temple; he thought that God was opposed to the Temple -- hence Jesus' running around the courtyards screaming things, and waving a whip, which was definitely not is usual style.
Solomon had built his temple on the backs of the poor, as kings tend to do. When kings launch some major project, they rarely pay for it themselves; it's the poor, the blind, the lame -- those who have the least to offer a monarch, and therefore get the least attention from the world's rulers -- who pay most dearly. They paid dearly under Solomon's reign. When Herod decided to demonstrate just how much he deserved the title of king and the nickname "the Great," he remodeled and vastly expanded the Temple, and -- as with all his building projects -- the poor under his rule paid most dearly. Herod got his massive and impressive building so God got a bigger and better place for bloodshed.
But God doesn't want blood.
God wants justice.
God wants the hungry fed, the sick cured, the prisoners set free. There will always be someone claiming that God wants another crusade, another war, another dose (or river) of blood to set things right, even the score. And when that happens, when the rulers and "men of vision" of this world launch their grand crusades, it's still the case that the poor pay most dearly. That's certainly the case in the country of my birth. We're embroiled in a war financed by cuts to programs serving those most in need -- well, that and an unprecedented level of debt that will impede our ability to feed the hungry for years to come, if not generations.
Could Jesus have been any clearer? I don't think that God ever wanted blood; I think Micah was right, and what God wanted from us from the start was for us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. God sent prophet after prophet to tell us that, and we contracted the world's most profound and persistent case of spiritual ear wax. So God in the unfathomable height and depth and breadth of God's mercy sent Jesus the Christ, and if we believe that his blood shed on the Cross was a perfect, full, and sufficient sacrifice, then the time has come for us to hear God's word and do it:
No more blood. No more death. Not another soul needs to die for anyone's sins. We've got far too much to do to devote a single penny or a single calorie to vengeance or war.
It's true that we've built up an astonishingly elaborate global system that widens the already vast gap between rich and poor, that plunders the earth's resources in ways that lower quality of life for all of us and (no surprise here) most of all for the poor, that pulls us harder and harder apart from one another and from God, and we can't by our own power extricate ourselves to participate in God's mission of healing and reconciliation.
But when we're ready to cry, "who will deliever me from this body of death?" we have have an answer: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" No, I don't think that good progressive intentions coupled with sheer willpower are sufficient to save the world. Indeed, we saw in the early 20th century that those things can have a dark side -- it was good American progressives in what we call the Progressive Era who looked at the science of heredity and decided that forced sterilizations (or worse) of the "feeble-minded" and deviant (not coincidentally, that would mostly be poor people, and no eugenic scientist ever thought s/he was anything but the best of breeding stock) were a crucial part of a strategy to eliminate poverty. Zeal is not enough -- it's what got St. Paul in the pit he was in before he met Jesus. But zeal isn't all we've got:
We've got Jesus. We've got the Body of Christ, this astonishingly diverse worldwide family of sisters and brothers upon whom God has breathed God's Spirit. Listening deeply to one another -- and especially to the poorest and most marginalized among us -- is the best way to cure and prevent recurrence of spiritual ear wax. I'm not saying it's easy, and I'm not saying it isn't painful. It's hard and it hurts sometimes -- that's why Jesus said his followers had to take up the Cross. But we have to trust Jesus, who put his own life on the line, that this is the way to abundant life. And we need to stay in touch with the living, breathing, growing Body of Christ.
We can't free ourselves by sheer willpower, but Christ has freed us and set us in communities of fellow travelers to heal, to serve, and to love with all the power of the Spirit.
Thanks be to God!
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