Lent 5B, 2012
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Today I am stepping away from the set Lectionary gospel reading
and including another story by Mark instead, often misnamed
‘the cleansing of the temple’, and sometimes
“cutely dismissed as ‘Jesus’s temple tantrum’” (Borg & Crossan 2006:34).
When this story is told, it is usually told using one of three other variants
from either Matthew, Luke or John.
But Mark’s story is a bit different.
And Mark puts the story into a different time frame in
Jesus’ teaching schedule, than does, for instance, John.
So what have we got in this story?
Well, what I can say is, we certainly have lots of opinions and debate.
So we could be in for an interesting time
with this important Lenten cum Holy Week, story.
Storyteller Mark begins the Monday of Jesus’ last week
when he and his followers arrive in Jerusalem, enter the temple
and turn over tables in the outer courtyard.
At the outset I need to say colleagues in the Jesus Seminar reckon
Jesus did perform some anti-temple act. But the majority
of this story is the invention of the storyteller.
Likewise they also concluded some ideas contained in it are probably
close to ideas offered by the so-called historical Jesus.
I also need to say there are some common misconceptions of what
the storyteller has Jesus doing. Taking the thought of Borg and Crossan
in their book The Last Week, a colleague spells out
some of those misconceptions (Borg & Crossan 2006).
• Jesus objects to ‘doing business’ in the temple
This is a common interpretation but it doesn’t make sense.
People would travel for miles.
It would be impractical to bring sacrificial animals with them.
The term ‘doggie bag’ was not invented back then!
The temple is where they could purchase animals and make currency exchanges.
There is no reason to think that Jesus objects to this.
Neither is there any reason to think the moneychangers
are ripping people off. That’s anti-Jew.
Indeed, the footnotes in one biblical translation states
this story is about a public demonstration
“against the materialism that had become part of Temple worship services. Jesus’s indignation was not toward those engaged in worship, but those detracting from it” (New Oxford Annotated Bible, quoted in Levine 2006:152).
• Jesus is making a statement against Judaism and against the temple sacrificial system
Again, this makes little sense.
Jesus lived as a Jew and died as a Jew.
Temple sacrifices were a central part of Jewish worship.
The idea that Jesus came to replace Judaism is obviously very late,
after the destruction of the Temple in the mid 70s, and
after various forms of the Jesus Movement began
to separate from their Jewish roots (JShuck.’Shuck & Jive’ blog site).
• The emotions of Jesus got the better of him
Mmm. Seems I’ve heard a similar reason before somewhere!
Well, there are a couple of other ways of hearing this story.
So let me share them. And I invite your careful listening.
Borg and Crossan suggest we need to focus on Jesus’ teachings.
And in the tradition of some of the prophets before him, Jesus taught:
not justice and worship, but justice before worship.
That’s a very different world view!
So Mark the storyteller sees the people’s everyday injustices, picks up
a traditional teaching, often expressed as:
Amend your ways and your doings
Act justly one with another
Do not oppress the orphan or the widow…
And then blends in some words of the prophet Jeremiah:
‘has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord’ (Jer. 7:11), with some words from Isaiah, and puts them all into Jesus’ mouth:
“Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mk 11:17).
That’s Mark’s story.
Now, a den of robbers is not where the robbers do their robbing.
A den of robbers is the safe place the robbers hideout
after they have done their robbing!
“And they think the temple is their safe house, den, hideaway, or place of security” (Borg & Crossan 2006:44).
So Borg and Crossan go on to suggest:
“There is nothing wrong with prayer and sacrifice – they are commanded in Torah. That is not the problem. But God is a God of justice and righteousness and when worship substitutes for justice, God rejects God’s temple – or, for us today, God’s church” (Borg & Crossan 2006:49).
But this is such a regular pulpit or preacher call, I feel when we hear it,
it just skims over our heads. We’ve heard it all before!
Another way of hearing this story is very different:
to hear it as a call to end ‘brokered religion’ (Funk 2002: 125-131).
What do I mean?
Brokered religion is where it is necessary to have a ‘link’,
a ‘middle person’ or ‘institution’ between you and God.
Temple (and church) religion is or can be,
a ‘brokered religion’ in some conservative hands.
But interestingly enough, in the synoptic gospels Jesus teaches
that individuals have direct access to God.
“God’s domain has no brokers. Jesus eliminates all brokers” suggests biblical scholar Robert Funk. Indeed he goes further:
“maybe this is the reason [Jesus] provoked the incident in the temple” (Funk 2002:129).
In all Jesus’ teaching he never sees himself as the broker.
When others – widows, lepers, the sick, the rich - come to him for healing,
his reply more often than not is:
‘your trust (faith) has cured you.’
Again Funk points out:
“… Jesus never tells those he has cured, ‘I have cured you.’ He never even says, ‘God has cured you.’ Access to divine healing requires no brokers. Individuals are invited to function as their own brokers in relation to God” (Funk 2002:130).
On the other hand, a brokered religion produces:
• a cyclical understanding of the faithful life: sin, guilt, forgiveness;
• a passive relation to a religious life, and
• is oriented to the afterlife rather than to this life (Funk 2002:131).
Jesus was a Jew. Indeed on occasions he seemed to be
quiet a conservative Jew, demanding more than the traditional.
Yet at other times he also appears to have had a
“permissive attitude towards traditional customs and codes” (Funk 2002:131)
which radically challenged aspects of life in his day.
Which of course is what happened at St Mary’s Catholic Church (now St Mary's in Exile)
in Brisbane South, under the leadership of Fr Peter Kennedy.
Challenging the way ‘life’ called Roman Catholicism is being
lived in Australia under George Pell and Benedict xvi.
And to a similar extend, what also seems to happen to Dr Francis Macnab
in our own Uniting Church – in Melbourne,
whenever he pushes the boundaries in public.
Church, including the Uniting Church, is not always a safe place
to be pushing theological boundaries, and to think otherwise is,
unfortunately, both naive and dangerous!
With the person of Jesus we begin to sense a fundamental shift
in the way the idea of God is to be experienced.
God’s domain has no brokers. Jesus eliminates all brokers.
Robert Funk for one, certainly sees heaps of challenges
in the actions of Mark’s Jesus in the temple.
For they are challenges which move beyond the traditional cyclical understanding of a faithful life, of sin, guilt, forgiveness.
Likewise, as the author of a new book, which has recently arrived on my desk,
Michael Benedikt’s God is the Good We Do, says:
“God is ignited by life.
God is lit in the living… (Benedikt 2006:8)
“God is not invisible. But God’s shape – God’s ‘face’ – is visible as events unfold in a certain way next to us and around us… We see God through the way the world works and as we work, not in the world as an entity among others. We see only God’s ever- vanishing back. And feel the breeze” (Benedikt 2007:255-56).
I hope that might be worth exploring some more!
Benedikt, M. 2006. God is the Good We Do. Theology of Theopraxy. New York. Bottino Books.
Borg, M. J. & J. D. Crossan. 2006. The Last Week. A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Funk, R. W. 2002. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Levine, A-J. 2006. The Misunderstood Jew. The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. New York. HarperOne.