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On gifts and losses

George MacDonald on Doubt

Words from Hauerwas

Jesus Cleanses the Temple

Cleanse Your Temple: Sermon for Lent III, Year B 2015

Date: March 8, 2015
Place: St. Joseph of Arimathea Episcopal Church
Scripture: John 2:13-22

When I was in college I was president of a student organization that brought in various speakers to address topics of interest in the humanities. My senior year we had read an essay by the theologian that you may have heard me mention from time to time, Stanley Hauerwas. I still enjoy Hauerwas’ work, and appreciate the fact that he is an honorary canon theologian at Christchurch Cathedral. At the time I didn’t know that much about the theological landscape and so had no idea when I contacted him at his office at Duke University that his schedule was booked up for appearances and speaking engagements a year or two out.

But he agreed to come and speak at our university, a fact for which I’m grateful. His topic was Just War and Christian nonviolence the two dominant ethical traditions within the church related to how we respond to violence and evil. At the end of his lecture, I asked him the question that had occurred to me which related to this gospel passage. I asked him what a person who holds to Christian nonviolence has to say about Jesus’s cleansing of the temple. Hauerwas, who is known for one-liners responded: “if you find a temple that needs to be cleansed, cleanse it!”

As I’ve been reflecting upon this Gospel passage during the week, those words have continued to present themselves in my mind. “If you find a temple that needs to be cleansed, cleanse it!” Jesus having performed a miracle at the wedding and Cana of Galilee, and having gone through Capernaum, goes up to Jerusalem. While there, being a pious Jew, he goes to the temple to worship. And upon entering he sees something going on that so angers him – a cold calculating sort of anger – that he goes and makes a whip of cords, a scourge, and returns to the Temple and drives out those people selling livestock for sacrifices, those selling doves, and the money changers. He uses the web to drive the cattle, he overturns the table of the money lenders, and pours their coins out on the ground in the temple courtyard. Then, turning to those standing there, he says don’t make my father’s house a marketplace.

This event in the earthly ministry of Jesus, has been one that has evoked a great deal of comment. It’s one of the few places recorded in the Gospels were Jesus gets angry. There are a couple more he gets frustrated, or at least were his actions could be interpreted as frustration. But this event stands out starkly as the clearest example we have of Jesus’s anger. And it is an ambiguous event in some ways because people have wondered what was Jesus so angry about?

As has been pointed out by commentators both ancient and modern, the money changers and those who are selling livestock and those for sacrifices were not doing anything that in themselves was evil or sinful. I mean, it’s pretty natural. You have a need to offer a particular sort of sacrifice, and rather than hope that there is a lamb or calf without blemish or that fits the other requirements in your flock or heard that year, and rather than bring this animal with you all the way to Jerusalem, why not simply by an animal that fits the criteria at the point where you need it. These folks were providing a service. Likewise with the money changers, if you’re going to the Temple and you are going to offer a monetary gift, the last thing you’d want is to offer a Roman coin with a big graven image of the Emperor with the words “The God, Caesar Augustus” or some such. It would have been blasphemous. So the money changers offered the opportunity to exchange this blasphemous currency for something known as the Tyrian shekel, a coin that’s rather than an image of any person, had an image of wheat.

Some commentators have been wondering what it is that causes Jesus to become so angry at these people. Weren’t they simply providing a necessary service? Well, I think the phrasing used by Jesus in the synoptic Gospels is instructive. In John’s Gospel Jesus says “do not make my father’s house a marketplace.” In the synoptic Gospels he’s even more clear and to the point: “do not make my father’s house a den of thieves” (Cf. Luke 19:46, Matthew 21:13). Jesus’ concern does not seem to be that these things are occurring in the Temple in and of themselves. Rather Jesus’s concern seems to be what people’s focus was. The temple was to be the place for people came to worship God. The sellers of sacrificial animals and the money changers, however in turning the Temple from a place of worship into a marketplace had transitioned from enabling worshipers, to actually impeding worship. In other words, their focus was not to ensure that people were able to worship God, but rather, they were concerned with their profit. And there is an intimation that perhaps they weren’t only concerned with their welfare, but that they were perhaps taking advantage of others. Much as the tax collectors of the day made their living by collecting as much as they could over and above the amount they were required to send on to Rome. It seems that rather than making a fair wage, those engaged in selling in the Temple, were taking advantage of others.

This seems to be why Jesus says in the Synoptics, “stop making my father’s house a den of thieves!” These folks were inserting themselves between worshipers and God. They were thinking of themselves and not others, and people believed that they had to go through them to get to God. And so, when we look at it from this perspective Jesus’s actions make perfect sense and are in keeping with the frustration he expresses at the Pharisees among others who presume to put themselves between people and God. Jesus is concerned, is that people be able to have a relationship with God.

When Jesus is asked by those who witnessed his actions, “give us a signed as to why you do this” Jesus responds by telling them destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it. Well of course, his questioners think this answer is absurd. The temple has been under construction for 46 years they point out. But as the disciples understood when looking back from the post-resurrection context, Jesus was talking about himself and not the building of the temple. In this statement Jesus is making a claim about where the presence of God is to be found. The presence of God is no longer to be found in the temple, but rather in Jesus himself. This is the radical claim that separates Jesus from other critics of the Temple at the time. None of them would have claimed that God was uniquely present in them. But this is precisely what Jesus is saying.

We must be careful here, because of the fraught history of Gentile Christian interpretation of this passage, filled as it is with examples of the denigration of Judaism, discussion of how the sacrificial system was backward and has been supplanted etc. So to be clear, what is being discussed here is the movement of the holiness of God, the presence of God, the Shekinah, from the Temple to another place. This is not something that is foreign to Judaism. It is instead discussed as something that has happened multiple times. When the Israelites wandered in the wilderness the presence of God was with them in the pillar of cloud and later in the tabernacle (the tent) which served as a precursor of the great temple in Jerusalem. Within Judaism itself there has been an ongoing concept of the idea that God’s glory, God’s holiness, the Shekinah can move. After the destruction of the first Temple, this was the understanding that explained the distraction. Jews came to see the destruction of their temple as evidence of the fact that God’s holiness had left the building so to speak. And it was the absence of God’s holiness that explained the destruction. There were rabbinic stories–the inheritors of the Pharisees–which explained the destruction of the second Temple in similar ways. One of the most moving stories told to me by the Rabbi that taught the history of Judaism course I took in college, was of the chief priest during the destruction of the Temple by the Romans who climbed to the pinnacle with the keys to the holy of holies and threw them up into the air and as a hand–a divine hand–appeared and grabbed the keys, pulling them up into the sky. All this is to say the notion that God’s holiness can move is not something unique to Christianity. Indeed to the degree that is present in Christianity it is part of the shared inheritance that Christians have with modern-day Jewish believers.

What is unique about the Christian claim is about where God’s holiness now resides. For Christians the claim is that God is uniquely present in Jesus Christ. And through Jesus Christ, that God is uniquely present in each believer and present in the world through the body of Christ, the people of God. Us in Christ, Christ in us.

So Jesus, in cleansing the temple, is not doing so out of a sense that this is the only place that people could possibly worship God. Indeed in John’s Gospel you’ll recall, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman and has an exchange with her in which he says the time is coming and now is when true worshipers will not worship on this mountain (Gerizim) nor in Jerusalem but will worship in spirit and in truth; for such the father seeks to worship him (paraphrase of John 4:21-23). So the problem was not that folks were defiling the Temple in some way, except insofar as they were inserting themselves between God and the people who came to the temple to connect with God. And so Jesus cleanses the Temple. We likewise are called to cleanse temples. We are called to rid ourselves and our communities of anything that prevents us or others from having relationship with God.

If we find a temple that needs cleansing, we ought to cleanse it!

But since we are now worshiping God in spirit and in truth, and there is not a particular place where we say we are in closer proximity to God than others per se, then we are called to look not only to our communities but within ourselves to determine what sort of cleansing needs to take place.

As the early biblical commentator Origen put it, “When are there not some money changers sitting who need the strokes of the scourge Jesus made of small cords, and dealers in small coin who require to have their money poured out and their tables overturned? When are there not those who are inclined to merchandise, but need to be held to the plow and the oxen, that having put their hand to it and not turning round to the things behind them, they may be fit for the kingdom of God?” (Origen, “Commentary on John,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, 393 to 394).

And looking to ourselves we can consider St. Augustine’s sermon on this passage. Augustine has this wonderful imagery he uses, of Christ having made the whip of cords out of the very sins of the merchants and moneychangers. In other words he envisions them being run out of the temple metaphorically, by their own sins. Taking up that imagery, and combining it with some imagery from Psalms and some of the Gospels, Augustine warns us that we can sin, and then sin in order to cover our sin, with the result being that we take a single sin, one cord, and bind together with others until we have a rope. A rope with which to bind ourselves. Much better he says that we be scourged now with the small sins and be preserved from being bound by long ropes of sin and cast into the outer darkness (Augustine, “Homilies of the Gospel of John,” Post-Nicene Fathers, 70-72 )

If you find a temple that needs cleansing, cleanse it!

Lent is the perfect time to discuss the cleansing of our temples. We’re all temples of the Holy Spirit; what in our lives is getting in the way of our faithfulness? Of our relationship with the father? Picking up on Augustine’s metaphor, could we not lay out for ourselves the cords of our sins, and making a weapon of them, cleanse our hearts, casting them out and reorienting ourselves toward God? If we want to talk about what this means, I think this could be seen as a metaphorical representation of the process of confession and absolution. When we confess – and even during this general confession that we have in our services, I hope that we’re all thinking about particular sins which are separating us from God and one another – we are laying out before us the cords that could be turned into rope. But the very act of remembering, of calling the sins to mind, helps to deprive them of their power and in turn gives us the opportunity to once again be faithful. Lent is a time of introspection and reflection. Perhaps we should put this active, if violent, imagery to work and understand that when we confess, when we pray, when we ask for forgiveness – these are the tools with which we can run off the things that separate us from God.

And if we want to temper the aggressiveness or violence of this imagery a bit, we can do so by considering the fact that this action is not taken in order to make us worthy of God, or of forgiveness. It is rather taken, out of gratitude for the forgiveness already received, for the reconciliation already achieved.

In seminary I had a T-shirt that had a slogan on it that amused some of my class mates, and I know that one Episcopalian theologian, Paul Zahl, also had this T-shirt. It said “I bring nothing to the table.” The reality of that slogan is that there is nothing that you or I can do to win God’s favor, or to earn our salvation. But out of gratitude for what God has done in my life, I can reflect upon the ways and I have fallen short of the great gift I have been given, and I can seek to live a holier and more faithful life, a life where I am more closely identified with Jesus. And so as we come to this table–this altar–today let us recognize that we bring nothing with us with which to purchase the grace of God. Instead we come to this table and receive the grace of God, and having been bought by it, enabled to cleanse ourselves and be more like Christ, not out of necessity but out of gratitude. Amen.

Satan sowing

My latest post at Covenant: The Devil (is no longer) in the Details

About a year ago I found a note someone had slid under my office door following a service: “Talk to us about the Devil,” it read. “Is he real? How do we tell if he’s messing with us?”

I freely admit that I’ve never been one to ascribe supernatural import to most events. I was raised in the sort of household where fatherly wisdom over concern about the possibility of ghosts consisted of the statement (filtered through combat experience in Vietnam): “I’ve been around the world, son, and I can tell you, there’s no reason to worry about dead people. It’s the living ones you have to worry about.” Or, to put it another way, quoting a Cumberland Presbyterian classmate of mine from seminary, we don’t want “to see a demon behind every tea cup.”

{Read it all}

The Flight into Egypt

Get Up.

An angel said: “Get up.”
He got up, and took wife and baby to Egypt.
The angel said “wait.”
He waited.
On foreign soil.
Soil his ancestors
trudged across
mud and desert to escape.
So that a prophet’s words might be reheard.
“Out of Egypt I have called my son…”
An angel said: “Get up.”
He got up, and took wife and child to Israel.
The angel said the ones with murder in their hearts:
“they’re dead.”
The little family
The Holy Family
Escaped.
Safe.
And the boy lived
To die
On a Good Friday.
And on that day, we live.
“For he will be called a Nazorean.”
An angel said “get up.”
And Joseph did.
Easter followed him.

 

Then there was the man we picked up from the drain, half eaten by worms and, after we had brought him to the home, he only said, “I have lived like an animal in the street, but I am going to die as an angel, loved and cared for.” Then, after we had removed all the worms from his body, all he said, with a big smile, was: “Sister, I am going home to God”—and he died. It was so wonderful to see the greatness of that man who could speak like that without blaming anybody, without comparing anything. Like an angel—this is the greatness of people who are spiritually rich even when they are materially poor.

We are not social workers. We may be doing social work in the eyes of some people, but we must be contemplatives in the heart of the world. For we must bring that presence of God into your family, for the family that prays together, stays together. There is so much hatred, so much misery, and we with our prayer, with our sacrifice, are beginning at home. Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do, but how much love we put into what we do. . . I want you to find the poor here, right in your own home first. And begin love there. Be that good news to your own people first. And find out about your next-door neighbors. Do you know who they are?
Bl. Mother Theresa

Thoughts on Ferguson

Now that things are (hopefully) calming down in Ferguson, with the help of appropriately attired Highway patrol officers, I think it’s time to come up with a better term for the use of military grade equipment far beyond what is necessary by local police forces. “Militarization” implies that they have been given the sort of training one would need to use these tools responsibly. Given the *spirit* of the Posse Comitatus Act (which a number of friends assure me is dead, but anyway…) which technically applies only to federal troops, but really sought to avoid the deployment of military style forces against the American populace, it seems counter productive to have people in such gear attempting to police an area. This is a concern that cuts across political lines. But we need another name… Instead of “Militarization” how about “Evidence of government subsidies for weapons manufacturers via local police agencies” or something?

Continue reading Thoughts on Ferguson

Detail of Paul from mosaic of Peter and Paul meeting in Jerusalem

The Same Lord is Lord of All

Sermon notes for Proper 14 A, 2014
Scripture: Romans 10:5-15

Last week we considered Romans 9:1-5, where Paul opens his consideration of the fact that the bulk of the Jewish people did not accept Jesus as Messiah. In part, I took the occasion to unpack some of the themes introduced in that section, that flow throughout chapters 9-11 of the letter to the Romans. If I were to summarize this whole section briefly, I would do so by quoting Robert Jenson’s statement that  “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having before raised Israel from Egypt,” and I would add that, having raised Jesus from the dead, God will not now allow Israel to perish, for Jesus is the seal of the promises and covenant, and not their abrogation.1

The question then, is how the good news of Christ is to be proclaimed to those who have nor heard, or who have heard previously and rejected it. This is a concern that committed Christians must deal with in regard to all those who are not believers in Jesus Christ, but with whom we would like to share the gospel. Strangely enough, I believe that Paul encourages us to see humility as our watchword in these endeavors. More on what that looks like later.

To call Jesus the end of the Law, is not to say that Christ makes the Law null, but rather, it is to say that every word of the Law points toward Christ, the Messiah, God with God’s people, as the Telos, the end or purpose of the Law.2

There is no sugar coating the disagreement between Christians and Jewish people on the person of Christ. This was the source of Paul’s great anguish. But religious folks who are honestly seeking to follow God, and be faithful, owe one another honesty and fidelity to their own traditions. It is only from such a place of honesty and fidelity that true dialogue and unity of purpose can emerge. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist of the 20th century, the difference between traditions is more like a pie than a continuum. Those who move deeply into their own traditions–that is, those who move more deeply to the center of the pie–will find, somewhat paradoxically, that they are closer to ardent believers from another tradition, than they are to the semi-committed members of their own, who are at the fringes. Lewis, of course, was thinking about this in terms of various Christian traditions, but there is, I believe, a sense in which is also true between the great monotheistic traditions. It doesn’t completely map, but it conveys a truth: those who seek to be faithful and love the Lord God with all their heart, soul, and mind, and their neighbor as themselves, will find that they are inhabiting a place where a fruitful exchange of ideas is possible, and where Paul’s vision of outdoing one another in righteousness, and holiness can really come into play. 3

Continue reading The Same Lord is Lord of All


  1. Jenson, Robert Systematic Theology v. I: The Triune God, p. 63″ []
  2. As Bryan notes in A Preface to Romans: “Greek telos (like Latin finis and English “end”) commonly bears a range of meaning all the way from “fulfillment, completion, consumation” to simple “finish, termination” (as in telos echein, “to be finished”) (LS τέλος, BAGD τέλος). The older Greek interpreters were generally clear that Paul intended the former of these senses at Romans 10.4–notably Origen (who in Rufinus’s Latin paraphrase says of 10.4, Finis enim legis Christus: hoc est perfectio legis [Migne, Patrologiae 14.1160]); John Chrysostom, who compares the phrase ‘Christ is the telos of the Law” with the notion that “health is the telos of medicine” (Homilies on Romans 17.2); and Theodoret of Cyrrhus, who notes that “the Law led us to our master, Christ [ton Despoten,] of the Law” (Migne, Patrologiae, 82.164). No doubt this unanimity of interpretation was in part a result of the influence of Matt. 5.17 (so Eusibius, Demonstratio Evangelica 8.2.33), but it remains impressive.” p. 171 []
  3. Matthew 22:37-40, as cited in the Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 324). []