Wednesday, March 4, 2009

First Sunday in Lent -- March 1, 2009

Turning the Tables
Mark 11:12-19; 27-33

Again they entered Jerusalem. As Jesus was walking through the Temple area, the leading priests, the teachers of religious law, and the elders came up to him. They demanded, “By what authority are you doing all these things? Who gave you the right to do them?” “I’ll tell you by what authority I do these things if you answer one question,” Jesus replied. “Did John’s authority to baptize come from heaven, or was it merely human? Answer me!” They talked it over among themselves. “If we say it was from heaven, he will ask why we didn’t believe John. But do we dare say it was merely human?” For they were afraid of what the people would do, because everyone believed that John was a prophet. So they finally replied, “We don’t know.” And Jesus responded, “Then I won’t tell you by what authority I do these things.”

Jesus was mad. Furious. Each of the gospels tells this story – sometimes called “the cleansing of the temple.” In each gospel, it has a central significance in the plot. It was a pivotal event for Jesus and for those who would follow him, as well as for those who would oppose him. This was the moment of conflict.

Is any one here mad this morning? It’s OK to be honest. We get angry all the time. Angry about our jobs. Angry about something someone said to you. Angry about changes happening that are outside your control. Angry about a medical diagnosis. Angry about a war and a situation seemingly spinning out of control. There is a lot to be angry about. It would not take much probing to find out most every one of us gets mad about something in our lives at some point. I think the reason viewers get into reality shows or watch Jerry Springer or Judge Judy is because they feel better than those crazy guests who become extremely angry with little provocation. It can help us avoid some self-examination.

Every once in a while, we meet someone who is REALLY angry. I remember cutting someone off in traffic when I lived in Boston. If you’ve ever driven in Boston, you know that cutting people off and being cut off is a matter of survival. But this was a close call, even by Boston standards. The driver not only laid on his horn in anger, he followed me to my destination. When we parked, he ran out of his car while it was still rolling, came over to my humble maroon Ford Taurus station wagon, and began pounding on the roof of the car, swearing and shouting. He was out of control. There was no way I was getting out of my car.

Imagine this scene with me. It’s Christmas in New York City. Mid town is packed tightly with tourists who want to see the tree at Rockefeller Center, maybe wait in line for three days to skate on the tiny ice rink. People of all races, colors, languages and ages shuffle along with the crowds, gazing at the sites. Imagine that same day, people decide to launch massive protests and counter-protests over every conceivable issue from a newly enacted smoking ban to the ban on trans-saturated fats; from gay marriage to immigration proposals. It is all happening at the same time. Tourists, protesters, residents, workers, chaos.

That is what it was like in Jerusalem at Passover. But add imperial troops, revolutionary resistance, and a local puppet government that represents the distant Empire. Attendance at the temple is mandatory. So the staff had been working extra hard that week: recruiting volunteers, preparing bulletins, training rookies ushers, updating the sign and the webpage, polishing the brass. It was a big event. Everyone wanted a meaningful spiritual holy week with great music and preaching and worshipers in their finest dress.

The temple was not just a big sanctuary with quiet organ prelude music. It is a frenzied place, especially on high holy days. At the Temple, worshipers go to exchange table to turn their Roman money into Jewish money. Merchants supply offerings, incense, cloth, and vessels and basins for cooking and sacrifice. Worshipers need the right quantity of unblemished sacrificial offerings. It’s much easier to buy the offerings of grain, small animals like doves, and larger animals like sheep and cattle near the temple. Buying on site avoids the risk of having the animals damaged in route. Highly trained butchers turn the animals into sacrifices. The temple is smelly and loud with different dialects mingling together and people trying to be heard.

Then Jesus enters the temple. And he is mad. He throws tables upside down. He pours out pots of coins. And makes a whip from some cords, and herds people, and sheep, and doves, and cattle right out of the temple. “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Jesus screams over the bedlam.

What is going on here? This is not just a bad day. Don’t dismiss this as a temper tantrum on Jesus’ part. Jesus is not making a statement against Judaism or the temple. This is not an animal rights protest, either. It goes much deeper than that.

Remember that Jesus was a Jew. And as a Jew, he had a passionate concern for what loyalty to the God of Judaism required. Remember that Jerusalem was an occupied city. About ninety years before Jesus died, Rome invaded and overthrew the Jewish monarchy. Initially Rome ruled through the high priest, the temple, and a local wealthy aristocracy. As long as they were loyal to Rome, sent in the hefty tax money, and maintained order, Rome was happy. But then power struggles consumed the local aristocracy. Rome appointed a strong man to rule – Herod the Great. After Herod died, his sons ruled ineffectively. In response, Rome appointed governors based in Jerusalem. Rome decided that the temple in Jerusalem would serve as their new center of rule. The temple authorities had the responsibility for collecting and paying the annual tribute due to Rome in addition to collecting tithes. And get this, records of debt were stored in the temple. So, the high priest and temple authorities were in a tough spot. They had to make sure Rome was paid and happy. They also had to maintain domestic peace and order. Meanwhile the policies of Rome kept demanding more and more money. The people went deeper and deeper into debt, and the temple was where all these tensions centered.

Jesus walks into the temple and he is mad. His conflict is not just with the priests. He’s not mad about animal sacrifice and money changers. Priests, animals and moneychangers were all supposed to be there. His protest was against a political system that used the temple and the name of God to dominate the people. His protest was against a dominion that was radically different from the kingdom of God.

Quoting prophets and mad as can be, Jesus created a scene right there in the temple -- overthrowing the money tables, driving them all out with his whip and his righteous anger. How dare the temple be used not as a sacred place but a place of oppression and domination! How dare the temple be used for something other than worship! How dare the people he loved be treated as pawns in an Empire based on the fear and power games! Jesus represents God’s kingdom in which members are given dignity. They take part in God’s love and justice and truth.

One day, Jesus walks into the temple and he is mad. The Empire would strike back, of course. The Roman rulers and the local collaborators could not allow someone like Jesus to just walk in and turn everything upside down. The plot to kill him started before the last coin hit the ground. I think Jesus knew that, even as he walked through the temple doors. There would be a cost to his actions. There would be a cost to his holy anger.

Lent is a season to recommit ourselves as disciples of Jesus, the One who came proclaiming that the kingdom of God had drawn near. Lent is a time to remember the full range of his teachings and actions. His compassion for those who needed healing. His teachings that inspire and amaze us. His meals that brought together tax collectors and sinners of all kinds. His anger one day in the temple. This is the One we follow and this is the One who points us to the love and passion of God.

The season of Lent is a time to pray that when the going gets tough, we will follow Jesus. This season of Lent is a time to promise again, with boldness and open eyes about where he may lead, that we do want Jesus to walk with us.

“Anybody can become angry — that is easy,” said Aristotle, “But to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.” A famous minister named Dale Turner reminds us of this one certainty in life: “Were anger and moral indignation to die out of the world, society would swiftly rot to extinction. It is possible to be good — and at the same time — be angry. God both wills and encourages it.” There are still things that still make God angry in this world. There are still things in this world that make God weep. Injustice, aching poverty, discrimination and systematic oppression. God is still angry, and we should be too. We can commit to doing things about them. The important thing is that we be angry about the right things, and express it in appropriate ways. Be angry, but let our anger be the anger of Jesus, under the control of the Holy Spirit. May our anger be directed to constructive ends so that God’s kingdom may grow, and all people may know the God of love, justice and peace.

· Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week. Harper: SanFrancisco, 2006.
· E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice & Belief 63 BCE – 66 CE. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International.
· “Mad Jesus” Sermon Preached by David D. Colby, Central Presbyterian Church (April 2, 2006).

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