THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, through your Son you have called us to live faithfully and act courageously. Keep us steadfast in your covenant of grace, and teach us the wisdom that comes only through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself.” — Elie Wiesel
Power is a fact of life even for those of us who don’t think we have much. It comes up in our most intimate family relationships, in our professional lives and in our churches. At the root of everything is a desire for control leading to abuse of power. Understand that I have no diabolical intent when I try to control people. I am only trying to help. I am only trying to get them to realize that I know what is best for them and that they would do well to listen to me. I think that some good leaders become dictators out of a desire to protect the gains they believe they have made for their people, gains that might be lost if law and order were to break down and things are allowed to spin out of control. I think that pastors frequently damage their congregations when they invoke their pastoral authority to move their people in the “right” direction. God knows there have been plenty of children ruined by controlling parents.
So what do I do with the power I have? How can I prevent it from becoming a destructive force in my life and the lives of everyone I love? I think Eli Wiesel hits the nail on the head. Redemptive power begins with the exercise of power over our own desire for dominance and control. Paul also has a lot to say about power generally and the power of God in particular. According to Paul, the power and wisdom of God is manifested in the cross. The cross is the way God exercises power. God becomes “weak” and vulnerable, opening God’s self up so that we may approach without fear. The vulnerability of God is costly, of course. The hands that reach out to heal can be received with nails. The Son sent to bring reconciliation and peace can be rejected and murdered. But God never ceases-never will cease-to raise him up and offer him to us again. God’s power is God’s undeterred commitment to love the world God made without dominating it, without controlling it and without manipulating it.
We don’t ordinarily think about power in that way. For us, power usually consists in the ability make others do what we want. But that is precisely the use of power we need to resist if we would be powerful in the cross. My problem is that I seldom recognize my abuses of power as they occur. It is only in retrospect that I come to understand how what I thought was a genuine desire to help was actually a disguised need on my part to feel important. It is only after the fact that I realize how my principled stand on a particular issue had more to do with arrogance, pride and a need to be right than with anything at all principled. I am a poor judge of my own motives and character. I am even worse when it comes to judging others (though that doesn’t stop me from trying!).
For that reason I find myself praying with the psalmist, “who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.” I am blind when it comes to diagnosing my own sin. I am powerless when it comes to restraining my urge to control. I need help in learning to embody the power of the cross. I need the preaching of God’s Word; the Body and Blood of Christ; the admonition, prayers and forgiveness of the church of Christ. I think that is what this season of Lent is all about.
It has been twenty years since I first read “The Place of the Decalogue in the Old Testament and its Law,” Miller, Patrick D. (published in Interpretation, Vol. 48, no. 3, July 1989) p. 229. I still find that article to be one of the most helpful in understanding the place of the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures. Dr. Miller points out three factors demonstrating the high importance of the Commandments within the Torah as a whole. First, the commandments are set forth twice in the Pentateuch in very different literary contexts. Whereas our lesson for Sunday has the Commandments delivered to Israel shortly after the Exodus from Mount Sinai on tablets still hot from the imprint of God’s finger, they are repeated verbatim at Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Here the people stand at the frontiers of the Promised Land having spent forty years as nomads in the wilderness. In both cases Israel is making a new beginning where she will encounter new opportunities, new challenges and new temptations.
Second, “the giving of the Commandments clearly presents their transmission as something that happened directly between God and the people.” Ibid. p. 230. The “Decalogue is thus perceived as direct revelation of God to the people, while the rest of the law is mediated through Moses.” Ibid. Though, to be sure, all of the law is deemed “God given,” the narratives emphasize that the Ten Commandments represent the starting point from which all subsequent law flows and in which all subsequent law is grounded.
Third, the language in which the Ten Commandments are given remains virtually identical in both Exodus and Deuteronomy. By contrast, there is significant variation between the collection of law given at Sinai by Moses in Exodus and Leviticus on the one hand and that given on the plains of Moab in Deuteronomy on the other. Miller goes on to analogize the Ten Commandments to the United States Constitution. Neither are “law” in the sense that they constitute statutes applying to specific circumstances. Like the Constitution, the Ten Commandments are fundamental principles from which specific legislation derives. “These foundations do not change. They continue in perpetuity to be the touchstone for all actions on the part of the people as they seek to live in community and order their lives.” Ibid. 231.
Here we need to exercise caution. While the Commandments may be said to embody moral priorities that are eternally valid for the community of Israel, they come to us “in earthen vessels” to borrow a Pauline phrase. II Corinthians 4:7. Like every other passage in the Scriptures, the Ten Commandments are historically and culturally conditioned. Nowhere is that more evident than in the Tenth (or Ninth and Tenth, depending on how you number them) Commandment prohibiting a man from coveting his neighbor’s wife…house, field, servants “or anything that is your neighbor’s.” Vs. 17. Obviously, a man’s wife is here classified as property. Some more contemporary renderings of the commandments change the wording to prohibit coveting of “one’s spouse.” As laudable as the intention may be, I find such efforts to modernize the Commandments dishonest and potentially damaging to the very cause these efforts promote. Not until we recognize the suffocating effect of patriarchy in the biblical world can we begin to appreciate the depth of heroism, ingenuity and creativity demonstrated in the lives of women in the biblical narratives who acted faithfully to further the redemptive purposes of Israel’s God. The stories of Sarah, Rebecca, Debra, Mariam, Esther and so many others bring into sharp focus the central truth of the Biblical story as a whole: the way things are is not the way things have to be-nor the way they always will be.
It is for this reason that Miller points out that we must discern “a kind of trajectory for each commandment as it is carried forward, a trajectory that holds to the intention of the particular commandment but also creates a dynamic of new or broader meanings that are seen to grow out if its basic intent.” Ibid. 234. If we are going to follow this trajectory faithfully, I believe that it is essential for us to keep a couple of things in mind. The prologue to the Commandments is critical because it tells us where they come from. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Vs. 2. The Commandments are not moral, philosophical concepts formed in the world of ideas. The Commandments are given to a people newly liberated from slavery by the God who liberated them and wants to ensure that they do not slide back into slavery again.
It follows, therefore, that the Commandments are unintelligible apart from the covenant between the liberated people of Israel and the God who liberated them. The Commandments were not given for general public consumption. They will not function properly in just any old society. It is for this reason that the Commandments are out of place in front of municipal buildings, courts of law and public schools. The covenant is with Israel, not the United States of America. The Ten Commandments do not function meaningfully outside of that covenant. It cannot be overemphasized that the Torah was given to protect, enhance and strengthen the life of a free people bound to its God and to one another. The laws of the United States are designed to govern the civil life of a people of diverse loyalties, priorities and beliefs that may or may not include faith in Israel’s God. Losing sight of that distinction serves neither the Commandments nor the republic well.
Furthermore, any interpretation of the Commandments that enslaves us is dead wrong. Martin Luther rightly recognized that our use of the Commandments to win the love that God would give us freely and unconditionally enslaves us. So, too, when the Commandments are employed to stigmatize, exclude, dominate and marginalize people they are being misused. The polestar for interpreting the commandments is love: Love for God and love for the neighbor. As Jesus points out, the Commandments are gifts given to people for the benefit of people; people were not made for the purpose of following commands. That is why I keep telling my friends who seem fixated on “biblical views” of sexuality, marriage and God only knows what else that they can scream Bible verses at me until they turn purple and it won’t change my mind. If your interpretation of the law results in placing a stumbling block before someone God is calling into the Body of Christ, it’s wrong. That’s the end of the discussion.
There is much more that can and should be said about the Commandments. For those of you who might be interested in pre-canonical issues regarding the oral history, transmission and literary/historical source material for the Ten Commandments, I refer you to the excellent commentary of Dr. Brevard Childs. Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1974 by Brevard S. Childs, pub. by The Westminster Press) pp. 385-393. You might also consider giving the section on the Ten Commandments in Martin Luther’s Large Catechism a read. There is some wonderful material there on the First Commandment. If I were going to choose a specific Commandment to preach on this Sunday (I am not), I would go for the Eighth Commandment (under the Lutheran numbering) against bearing false witness. I believe it is probably the most frequently and flagrantly violated commandment of this Century. But don’t get me started on that…
This wisdom psalm is a favorite of mine. Many commentators suggest that it is actually two psalms, verses 1-6 being a hymn praising God’s glory revealed in nature and verses 7-14 being a prayer which, like the lengthy psalm 119, praises God’s law. I am not convinced that we are dealing with two psalms here. Both sections praise God’s glory, the first as it is revealed in the created universe and the second as it is revealed to the human heart in God’s laws. Quite possibly, the psalmist did make use of two different poetic fragments to construct this poem. Nevertheless, I believe, along with other commentators, that a single author skillfully brought these two strands together weaving them into a single theme of praise for God’s glory. See, e.g., Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 86.
The term “glory” as used in the Psalms refers to God’s self-revelation in all its splendor. Such revelation naturally inspires awe. The “vault of heaven” or “firmament” held back the waters thought to weigh over the earth. Genesis 1:6-8. Only the merciful and creative Word of God keeps these waters and those beneath the earth from rising up and breaking through the barriers within which God keeps them and enveloping the earth such as almost occurred in the Great Flood. Genesis 7:11-16. The stars inhabiting the firmament, though not gods, nevertheless give praise to God in their silent adherence to their courses and faithful discharge of light. Vss. 2-4. During the day this firmament forms a “tent” for the sun, poetically compared first to a bridegroom emerging from his tent and then to an athlete taking the field. Vs.4b-6. Just as the articulate silence of the stars speaks volumes about God’s creative handiwork, so the regular journey of the sun across the sky testifies to God’s constancy. Though none of these wonders are divine, they are far from inanimate objects. All of them derive their being from their Creator and so cannot help but magnify God’s glory.
Beginning at verse 7 the focus turns from God’s glory reflected in the natural world to God’s perfection made known through the Torah. Vs. 7. We need to exercise care here in our understanding of the words translated from Hebrew as “law” and “precept.” Law or “Torah” is more than a collection of rules and regulations. For Israel, Torah is the shape Israel’s life is intended to take under covenant with the Lord her God. Attention to Torah “makes wise the simple” (Vs. 7), it rejoices the heart and enlightens the eyes. Vs. 8. The wise and understanding crave Torah as one would crave honey and desire it as a lesser mind might yearn for wealth. Vs. 10. Yet Torah is not an end in itself, but the invitation to learning and practices that train the heart to perceive God’s voice. Vs. 11. Mechanical obedience, however, is not enough to “keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins.” Vs. 13. The psalmist must pray for God to “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight.” Vs. 14.
This beautiful prayer paints a portrait of faithfulness acquired through a lifetime of attentiveness to the miracle of the universe and the witness of the Scriptures. Both the Word and the world it has called into existence bear witness to the glory of God. Neither witness is complete without the other.
This is perhaps the most profound piece that Paul ever wrote. Why is the cross “folly” to those who are perishing? How is it “power” to those of us who are being saved? The cross is the power of God to refrain from retaliating against us, to forgive us and to continue loving us in spite of our rejection and murder of God’s Son. It is, as I said last week, the power of the glue holding the Trinity in unity over our own sin and the devil’s wiles that would pull it apart. To all who view power in terms of coercive force, the power to forgive and the refusal to retaliate appears as weakness. That is why there really is no substantial difference between militarists who view violence as the primary means of dealing with opposition and so-called Christian realists who accept it only as a tragic last resort. It is only a matter of degree. Both maintain that when it comes to dealing with Hitler, ISIS or any other like tyrant, raw coercive power is the only sure bet. To think otherwise is naïve and unrealistic.
The trouble with Christian realists is that they focus on the wrong reality. Jesus’ resurrection redefines reality. The resurrection, as I have said before, represents a divine turning of the other cheek. It is the paradigm for a disciple’s response to violence. It is tempting to invoke here the success of non-violent movements such as those led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi to bolster the case. It is a temptation, however, that I think must be resisted. At best, these movements suggest that non-violent resistance can be successful. They do not, however, negate the converse. In some circumstances, non-violence may not “work.” The movement might be crushed. For every Selma there is a Tiananmen Square. Does that not bring us back again to the very “realism” we have rejected? Yes, of course we should begin with non-violence and exhaust all avenues of non-violent resistance. Then what? Pull out of our hip pockets the revolver we have been keeping at the ready all the time just in case the police start using real bullets instead of tear gas and fire hoses? Again, the difference between such conditional commitments to non-violence and frank acceptance of violence as a permissible means to a just end is simply one of degree.
As I read Paul and as I read the gospels, the measure of our commitment to Jesus’ way can never be based on some estimate of its potential effectiveness. The cross, by any reasonable measure, is hardly an effective means to any just end. If ever there were a time when violence might have been justified, it would have been in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of Jesus’ arrest. If Peter was forbidden to strike with the sword in order to save God’s only begotten Son from torture and death, when in God’s name (literally!) is it ever acceptable to strike with the sword? To follow Jesus in this way under the shadow of the Third Reich seems like “folly” from the perspective of geopolitical realism. But if Paul is speaking the truth, then this very folly is the power and wisdom of God.
I believe that Paul’s message here is more urgent than ever before. Ours is a world on the brink of violent collapse. I am not referring here to the obvious, i.e., terrorism; school shootings; police brutality; hate crimes and the like. I am speaking of the subtler forms of violence that inhabit our civil (uncivil!) discourse; predatory commercial practices; exploitation of workers with the double edged sword of longer hours and decreased compensation/benefits; coercive and authoritarian management techniques whether at Wall Street firms or church council meetings. Wherever power is understood as the ability to force others to do what we want (or think in our heart of hearts is what they ought to do), the seeds of violence are already sown. Whenever we delude ourselves into thinking that the ends will justify the means, we set ourselves up for the unpleasant discovery that violent means contaminate the ends we seek.
Unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke who place Jesus’ cleansing of the temple near the end of his ministry, John places it at the very beginning. This visit to the temple in Jerusalem takes place near the feast of Passover. It is one of three Passovers mentioned in the gospel, the others being John 6:4 and John 11:55. We are told that Jesus “went up” to Jerusalem. That is confusing to us moderns of the northern hemisphere because Jesus was actually traveling south from Galilee to Jerusalem in Judea. We would therefore say he was going “down” to Jerusalem. Throughout both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, however, one always goes “up” to Jerusalem from whatever direction s/he is proceeding.
This drama took place in the outer court of the temple. The oxen, sheep and doves were being sold to worshipers coming to offer sacrifice. Because imperial coins used in ordinary commerce had images of Caesar on them, they were in violation of the Second Commandment forbidding the making of images. Accordingly, these coins were unfit for payment of the temple tax referred to in Matthew 17:24-27. The much maligned “money changers” therefore provided a necessary service in exchanging this currency for money acceptable for commerce in the temple. Of course, there was an exchange fee involved!
The whip of cords fashioned by Jesus in verse 15 was probably made out of rushes used by the animals for bedding. As such, it was not suitable nor intended as a weapon and does not appear to have been used in this way. The objective appears to have been to clear the temple of the animals and their handlers which would have been accomplished by driving the animals out with the switch. This, at least, has been the understanding of the church from its earliest days as evidenced by the following story recounted by Cosmas Indicopheustes about Theodore of Mopsuestia who lived in the 5th Century C.E.
“Rabbula previously showed much friendship toward the famous interpreter (Theodore) and studied his works. Yet when, having gone to Constantinople to attend the Council of the Fathers (381) he was accused of striking priests, and he responded that Our Lord had also struck when he entered the temple, the Interpreter arose and reprimanded him saying, ‘Our Lord did not do that; he only spoke to the men, saying “take that away,” and turned over the tables. But he drove out the bullocks and the sheep with the blows of his whip.’” Wenda, Wolska, La Topographie de Cosmas Indicopleustes (c. 1962 by Presses Universitaires Francaises) p. 91 cited in The Politics of Jesus, Yoder, John Howard (c. 1972 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 51.
However one understands the text, it is surely a slim reed on which to build a case for violence based on Jesus’ ministry. As Yoder points out, Jesus was fully in control of events following the temple’s cleansing. It would have been an easy thing for him to exploit the confusion in the temple and the crowd’s enthusiasm for an assault on the likely unsuspecting Roman fortress next door. Jesus did no such thing. Clearly, Jesus could hardly have been perceived as potentially violent given that his opponents felt free to engage him in conversation and question his authority. Rather than threatening violence, Jesus made himself vulnerable to the violence of his adversaries who he knows will “destroy” him. Vs. 19. See Yoder, supra at 51-52.
There is a play on words here between “house of prayer” which the temple was designed to be and “house of market” or “house of trade” which it had become under the current religious establishment. Vs. 16. It is important to keep in mind that the temple in Jesus’ day was constructed by Herod the Great, the non-Jew appointed “King of the Jews” by the Romans. The Romans took a generous share of the considerable profits generated though temple operations, financing for which fell heavily on the backs of the poor. Thus, so far from being a house of prayer, the temple had become an instrument of commercial exploitation.
“Zeal for thy house will consume me.” Vs. 17. This is a citation to Psalm 69:9, a personal prayer for deliverance from enemies. There is some indication that this prayer may have been edited to fit circumstances during the period when the temple was in ruins following the Babylonian conquest in 587 B.C.E. The psalmist laments the state of affairs. Perhaps s/he is one who, like the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, was eager to see the temple rebuilt, but faced opposition from his/her own people who had other priorities, from Samaritans opposed to the rebuilding project or both. Just as the psalmist’s zeal for rebuilding the temple has earned him or her opposition, so too, Jesus’ determination to cleanse the temple is now bringing him into conflict with the religious authorities in Jerusalem.
“What sign have you to show us for doing this?” vs. 18. Jesus’ warrant of authority has already been given by Jesus in his referring to the temple as his Father’s house. Vs. 16. But the “Jews” now seek from him a “sign.” It is critical to recognize that the term “Jews” refers collectively to the religious leadership governing the temple. It specifically does not refer to the Jewish people as a whole. The temple authorities quite understandably feel that Jesus’ radical action requires a convincing show of authorization. This they will receive in due time. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Vs. 19. In near Clintonesque fashion, everything turns on what “this” means. Jesus’ opponents assume that “this temple” means the structure in which they are standing. Vs. 20. Jesus, we are told, is speaking of his body which will replace the temple as the locus of worship. Vs. 21. More will be said about this in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4. John 4:19-26. As with so much else in John’s gospel, the full significance of this event in the life of Jesus will become clear only after he has been raised from death. Vs. 22.
Prophetic attacks upon the temple cult in Jerusalem were not new at the time of Jesus. Jeremiah famously predicted (accurately as it turned out) that the temple would be destroyed as it had become “a den of robbers.” Jeremiah 7:8-15. Indeed, the prophet Micah had given the same prophetic warning a century before. Jeremiah 26:18; Micah 3:12. The temple was thus an ambiguous symbol throughout Israel’s history. At its best, the temple was a reminder of God’s abiding presence with and for Israel, a sacred space for worship, praise, lament, forgiveness and thanksgiving. At its worst, it promoted a magical view of God as subject to Israel’s control and manipulation through sacrificial rites and liturgies. As noted earlier, the temple became an instrument of Roman exploitation in the time of Jesus.
It might be worth considering the extent to which our sanctuaries, programs and institutions throughout the church function in destructive and self-serving ways rather than in ways that are life giving. A leader in my own Lutheran Church remarked recently that when a congregation is strapped for cash, the first to go is the organist/music director; then the pastor; and, last of all, the building. Once the church can no longer support the building, it folds. These priorities are, as any sensible middle schooler would put it, “Bass Ackwards.”