Lent 3B, 2006
A Liturgy is also available
WHEN CRITICISM IS JUST NOT GOOD NEWS
The so-called ‘temple incident’ by the storyteller we call John, comes near the beginning of Jesus' public ministry.
It also marks the beginning of the so-called ‘opposition’ by several Jewish leaders.
I mention this some-what bland statement
because when we compare John’s story with the other gospel stories,
they have placed this or a similar story
at different stages of Jesus’ encounter
with the people and/or leaders.
Matthew, following the storyteller Mark, has a similar story,
but occurring after what we normally call ‘Palm Sunday’.
That is, just before Jesus’ final encounter with some of the leaders.
Mark has Jesus doing a very unusual thing: quoting scripture.
While the storyteller we call Luke has only a very short comment,
but goes on to include Jesus remaining and teaching in the temple
while the temple leaders apparently plan to silence him.
In all cases of this story, the scholars of the Jesus Seminar
concluded these stories reflect the purposes of the teller,
rather than recording the words of Jesus.
“While the Fellows agreed that Jesus did speak some word against the temple or temple practices, they were sceptical that the evangelists preserved his words” (Funk & Hoover 1993: 98).
Likewise, where Matthew, Mark, and Luke say Jesus’ reason
for driving out the merchants is because they are making the temple ‘a den of robbers’
- implying the main problem is a moral one concerning unfair business practices...
John says the merchants are making
‘...God’s house into a market’ - implying the main problem is a spiritual one concerning the profaning of holy space (Nancarrow/P&F web site).
So what was John’s purpose in telling this story
and placing it at the beginning of Jesus’ activities?
Let me offer a comment or two on this complicated story,
which I have picked up along the way.
I think a simple answer is:
John uses this story to flag the suggestion that
Jesus’ criticism is going to get him into serious trouble.
And the rest of his story or stories is just about why and how.
Because Jesus has tackled the authorities head on.
And he has challenged them
in their seat of power and authority: the temple (Herzog 2000:234).
So, John seems to be saying, as you listen to this story,
remember this clue I have given you.
Jesus life and teaching is about challenging
and reinterpreting authority and living.
And the violence done to one of those living, who dared to criticise.
Then this more complicated theological answer.
The temple will be ‘cleansed’, ultimately,
not by being cleared of merchants,
but by being re-imagined as a sign of the promise of ‘new life’.
I think there can be little doubt that according to the storyteller
we call John, Jesus was a protester.
His ‘protest’ was against a religious and social system
that discriminated against and excluded the
majority of ordinary people.
And his particular ‘protest’ this time was that ordinary people were being cheated
at the point or place in their life
where they were most vulnerable
and where they should have been nurtured.
So there is nothing ‘sweet’ or ‘sentimental’ in John’s story.
No Charles Wesley sentimental 18th century ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ here.
Nor is there any way to talk around Jesus' behaviour
that modifies or explains away that one emotion
many continue to have such difficulty with: protested anger.
Yet not to get angry at times is to be Pollyanna, and die the heresy of sweetness!
When asked what church Jesus would attend if living in today's world,
John Dominic Crossan's response was that he was not sure.
But he then added that, which ever church Jesus attended,
he was bound to get into trouble with the leadership!
On another occasion Crossan was the featured speaker at a weekend seminar.
He had given the opening lecture on the Friday evening
and was about to give another on the Saturday, when
a student from the local conservative theological college said to him,
‘I told my professor that I was coming to hear you [today].’ And my professor said to me, ‘You’re going to hear Crossan!?!? Why, why he’s to the left of Borg!’
So Crossan said to the student,
‘Please give my best regards to your professor. And tell him that the real problem is that both Borg and Crossan are to the right of Jesus. And rumour has it that Jesus is to the right of God’ (Borg TCPC web site).
If we can work our way through all the layers of myth
John the storyteller has attached to his Jesus, then I am prepared
to speculate that what we have left is, some temple leaders
did not see Jesus’ community renewal suggestions,
or hear his criticism, as good news!
He was bound to get into trouble with the leadership.
And living all his life in Galilee, Jesus probably underestimated the power
of the temple leaders, hand-in-hand with the Emperor’s representative.
As a result, the outcome of Jesus’ decision
to mount a defiant symbolic demonstration in Jerusalem,
would be unexpectedly tragic and violent.
Jesus was in “their space and their challenge reflects their privileged status” (Herzog 2000:235).
And so, as we now know from last week’s gospel story,
the cross became the symbol both of Roman violence
and much later, of the faith of those
who dared to resist its inevitability.
So what, for us living in (NN) in the 21st century.
And trying to remember this is Lent and what that might mean for us, personally,
at this moment in time?
Maybe this. I am indebted to Paul Nancarrow of
‘Process & Faith’ for these comments.
• In what ways do we deaden ourselves to God’s presence
by focusing only on immediate demands and desires?
• In what ways do we refuse God’s aims for greater goods in our lives
by looking only to our own interests?
• If Jesus were to cleanse the temples of our lives,
what would that be like for us? (PNancarrow, P&F web site, 2006).
Perhaps we all could ponder those questions some more during the coming week!
Funk, R. W.& R. W. Hoover (ed). 1993. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. Macmillan Press.
Herzog ii, W. R. 2000. Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God. A Ministry of Liberation. Louisville. Westminster/John Knox Press.
Patterson, S. J. 2002. “Dirt, shame, and sin in the expendable company of Jesus” in R. W. Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Shea, J. 1975. The Challenge of Jesus. Chicago. Thomas More Association.