Third Sunday of Lent
God thought that we might, after some thought, come to the conclusion
that friends would not kill each other or seduce each other’s husbands
or wives or get them falsely convicted of crimes or kidnap or enslave
them or seek to defraud them of their possessions; yes, we might come
to work all that out, but all the same it would be a good idea to get all
this down in black and white… the Decalogue is part of God’s summons
to Israel to be his people… God is telling them that the first step to being
God’s people is to be human people, and that means living in friendship.
You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.
Flannery O’Connor (attributed)
The American writer Flannery O’Connor was a devout Catholic whose convictions tended toward the theologically conservative. Yet O’Connor’s theology was far from fundamentalist. She was whip-smart and well-read, and her orthodox beliefs were thoroughly tested and hard-won. In a 1955 letter to her skeptic friend, “A,” she defended her faith by saying, “For you it might be a matter of not being able to accept what you call a suspension of the laws of the flesh and the physical, but for my part I think that when I know what the laws of the flesh and the physical really are, then I will know what God is. For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws.”
O’Connor’s point hovers over the appointed texts for this week, reminding us that even though God’s reign of shalom entails the restoration of the Creation to its original integrity – which is to say God’s reign is in the fullest sense natural – its logic is far from perspicuous. The “common sense” that guides the world’s business as usual is not uncommonly at cross purposes with the politics of God’s reign, and will remain so until God completes the work of making Creation whole. Until then, as Paul tells the Christians in Corinth, the good news of God’s reign will likely sound like “foolishness” to the world.
In the meantime, God’s people are called, however partially and imperfectly, to embody God’s shalom in our common life and our lives in the world. And this is something we must be taught to do. Hence the Decalogue, which lays the foundation of our embodiment of God’s reign by teaching us to live as friends, of God and each other. Herbert McCabe, in the text excerpted above, says the Decalogue is “an outline of friendship,” setting boundaries beyond which we can say “this is no longer friendship.” Similarly, we can say that the Decalogue is an outline of the politics of God’s reign, in that it gives us a way of knowing and telling each other when our actions fall short of the wholeness God intends for us. In both cases, the Decalogue reminds us what it means to be humanly alive in the fullest and most genuine sense.
Just so, we may read Psalm 19 as a hymn of praise to God’s self-revelation, both in the book of Creation (“The heavens are telling the glory of God;/ and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”) and in the instruction (Torah) given in scripture and tradition. Although the content of the two is presumably the same, the latter is necessary because our brokenness has rendered us largely blind to the teaching of Creation concerning how properly to inhabit our place among the creatures (“There is no speech, nor are there words;/ their voice is not heard…”).
Our obliviousness is not merely a matter of the incapacities wrought by sin, but also of habit. We are so accustomed to the way things typically operate that we take it for granted that the world we experience is simply the “way things are.” Because most of us who enjoy privilege or power have never experienced injustice or been harmed by the system as it is, we are unable to imagine that much is amiss, which is one reason why Paul Wadell says that “injustice is a failure of the moral imagination.”
All this affords a way of seeing what’s going on in the gospel text, the Johannine version of Jesus’s “cleansing” the Temple. During holy seasons like Passover, the outer courtyard of the Temple was occupied by people selling animals for sacrifice and others exchanging currency; both were ostensibly valuable services offered to pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem from throughout the Mediterranean basin, women and men who needed animals and local currency to fulfill their obligations to the Temple cultus.
Most of us are accustomed to reading the story in a particular way, based largely on our familiarity with the synoptic accounts (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48): After enacting a messianic prophecy by riding into Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey, Jesus entered the Temple courtyard, where he found the booths of the animal sellers and the money changers. He became incensed, and began flipping over their tables and scattering their merchandise, presumably because they were exploiting poor pilgrims by charging grossly inflated prices or padding the exchange rate to their advantage. This interpretation is based largely on what Jesus screams at the sellers as he chases them away, accusing them of making his Father’s house “a den of robbers” (spēlaion lēstōn, literally, a “cave of bandits”).
But John’s version of the story complicates this reading. Here, Jesus says nothing that suggests the sellers are robbers; rather than accusing them of making the Temple a “den of robbers,” he declares they’ve turned it into an oikon emporiou, roughly a “place of selling (merchandise).” The difference is subtle, but important: John’s Jesus is not angered by how business is being conducted in the Temple courtyard, but that it is being conducted at all, because buying and selling, presumably at a profit, is at cross purposes with the kind of place the Temple is supposed to be. The animal sellers and moneychangers have transgressed not because they are cheaters, but because they assume that business is business, and it’s the way the world works, whether in the marketplace or the Temple courts.
This makes sense of the Temple leadership’s strong response to the event. It suggests that they decided to have Jesus killed, not because he had uncovered their exploitative dirty dealing, but because they recognized that everything about him challenged the entire logic of their way of life, which had become an efficient way of conducting the business of the Temple and maintaining a tenuous strategic peace with the Roman Imperium. As the herald and embodiment of God’s shalom, Jesus wanted revolution, and he was opposed not simply by those whose wealth and power a revolution would threaten, but by those who feared what would happen if his revolution failed.
We may return here to the strange encouragement Paul offers his friends – and opponents – in Corinth. Yes, he said, the message of the gospel and the logic of cross and resurrection are decidedly counterintuitive – he says they are foolishness – to those whose faith is in business as usual, those incapable of imagining things otherwise, and those who are unwilling to risk change. But to those willing, however haltingly and inconsistently, to risk faith in the possibility of God’s reign, these things are perfectly natural. They are life itself.
Thanks be to God.