Our willingness to read Scripture and to be read by Scripture is a sign of humility that we take our place as small players in a huge story, the general shape of which can’t be determined or ruined by us.
It is difficult to hear this week’s Gospel reading without the current catchphrase “drain the swamp” ringing in our ears. For me, that phrase has a face. Bob Murray is the CEO of Murray Energy Corporation. In a recent televised interview, he spat out his contempt for EPA employees while celebrating the appointment of Scott Pruett as head of EPA and rejoicing over his own newfound influence to roll back environmental regulations. “This is a wonderful victory,” he beamed. Narrowing his eyes at the interviewer, he continued, “I have fought this fight every day. And now I’m going to bury the sons of bitches.”
Though it’s most often dressed up in more presentable language, this urge to conquer prowls in all of us. We even bring it to church. How could it be otherwise, given the air we breathe in these angry days? So we are pleased as Jesus rolls into capital headquarters to drain the swamp, and, in Fred Craddock’s words, “to dance triumphantly over the grave of [someone else’s] collapsed system of religion.”
Another understanding of this passage speaks profoundly to our day and offers a way out of our gridlock of rage.
In the Synoptic Gospels, the Temple cleansing takes place at the end of Jesus’ ministry, the culminating act in a deadly confrontation, the final straw that leads to his death. John’s Gospel, however, places the Temple cleansing at the start of Jesus’ public ministry. John tells this as a Passover/on-the-third-day story; that is, from the very beginning, all things are proclaimed in light of the crucified and resurrected Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. “And from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace,” sings the Prologue. “When that day comes,” the prophet says, “mountains will drip new wine,” and Jesus’ first sign according to John’s Gospel is the sheer overflowing abundance of God’s presence and steadfast love. According to John, the cleansing of the Temple is not the specific act that leads to Jesus’ death. His death is not determined by any human action or response, but by “my hour.”
These are contentious and polarized times. Each day is weighted down with a dread, even a quiet sense of panic, that this could be the day when everything comes apart at the seams. It feels like everything is in our hands, causing us to be hyper reactive and overwhelmed.
John’s eagle-eye perspective is God’s Word to us and for us. What God does in Jesus Christ is contingent upon and determined by nothing other than the sheer self-giving of God. Grace and truth are far beyond our imagining.
Notice Sam Wells’ quote above. A sign of our humility is not only taking our place as small players in a huge story, but also acknowledging that we cannot determine nor ruin the general shape of that story. We are confronted with today’s Gospel passage during Lent in order to be brought to the humility and repentance that leads to healing.
Writing this makes me very uneasy, because what I’m saying can easily lead to an “it doesn’t matter” shrug of complacency. There is so much to be done! People’s actions can have such huge consequences. Bob Murray may well bury the enemies he holds in such contempt under what will surely be scorched earth. We dare not grow irresponsible or unfaithful in our discipleship. The Good News, however, is that Resurrection is not only a reality way down the road, but one that is already effusive among us.
This reality captured, freed, and fueled the Apostle Paul. John Howard Yoder is worth quoting here: Paul’s “alternative vision… is not merely to see that sometimes suffering love is powerful enough to effect social change…. Rather, in his very failure and death we confess that God was moving omnipotently to reverse the stream of history which since Cain had been under the sign of hostility…. If the cross is wisdom, we can learn to read history differently – from below…. If the cross is power, we can learn to participate in history differently – in hope.”
You and I are called to play our role in this alternative vision during this extraordinary season:
When Ash Wednesday coincided with Valentine’s Day, and will be
connected forever with the murders at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School;
When the heart wrenching iconic photograph from that day is of two
women–one of them with an ashen cross smudged on her forehead–weeping like inconsolable Rachels, or like two Marys at the cross;
When one of the villains is a public security officer, reviled and disgraced
like Simon Peter;
When a youthquake rises up, demanding a less brutal world;
When the person mentioned most often is the namesake of their high
school, an activist whose 1947 work The Everglades: River of Grass caused
one to say that she “redefined the popular conception of the Everglades
as a treasured river instead of a worthless swamp.”
God’s consuming zeal has never diminished. There are still tables to be turned, and turned over. In the alternative context of the Gospel, we can even say with Bob Murray, “This is a wonderful victory. I have fought this fight every day.”
But, thanks be to God, what a different last sentence we have been given!