You’ve probably heard these words from the Charles Wesley hymn – “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”
Those aren’t just words from a hymn. They form a concept that has penetrated deep into the Christian consciousness. They make us think almost immediately of those late Victorian paintings of a white-skinned blue-eyed Jesus in a lush green landscape surrounded by lambs and innocent looking babes who are marveling at his meekness and mildness.
We do know from the Gospels that Jesus did love children and that he did preach a message of radical peacemaking. So there‘s an element of truth in the picture evoked by “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” From a purely aesthetic point of view though, I think Jesus looked more like a middle-eastern, Jewish working-class artisan than an English or American forerunner of the hippies. But this week’s Gospel reminds us that there was much more to Jesus than that, and it’s therefore a very useful antidote to the meek and mild image.
Jesus makes a whip out of cords – I wish I hadn’t wondered about that. It took me a trip through seven dusty books to figure out that no special images are intended. Cords were simply long lines of twisted fiber, made from flax or date tree fiber or even strips of camel hide. It wasn’t a problem, I suspect, for Jesus, an artisan, raised in a rural area, to grab up a few cords and braid them into a whip. Ouch!
With that whip of cords he drives the merchants from the temple area. He doesn’t just stand there and threaten them -- “You get out or I’ll get you!” No, he wields that whip with one hand while he overturns tables with the other, while he shouts at them – hardly meekly, hardly mildly. Get all this (you may provide your own adjective here) out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market! Jesus is consumed with zeal to cleanse the temple, his father’s house. Zeal! Zeal isn’t necessarily defined as anger, but rather as passion, as eager, ardent interest in the pursuit of something. Sort of like a housewife attacking a messy house with her sleeves rolled up and a strong desire to make things right again.
I can imagine Jesus starting out zealously, then stepping up to furious, accelerating right on to seething righteous indignation as he drives the traders from the temple with his whip. How much farther from meek and mild can you get?
Although this is undoubtedly an act of violence, it is also a prophetic act. We know that prophecy can come in many forms. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the 3 synoptic gospels, it’s this incident in the temple, this troublemaking reforming violent, anti-establishment, revolutionary incident, that first provokes the chief priests to start looking for ways to arrest Jesus. It‘s this incident that really gets the attention – the negative attention --of the religious and social establishment.
Interestingly, John, who often brings a different perspective, puts this incident in the temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry rather than at the end. From a purely chronological perspective I suspect that the synoptics are correct, because it makes a huge amount of logical sense for it to come soon before his arrest rather than go unpunished as it seems to do in John. This doesn’t mean that John gets the chronology wrong. By placing this shocking clash at the beginning of the story, John makes an important theological point --- he is setting out the agenda of what is to come – he is saying that when God became human in the person of Jesus, we should expect to be shocked; the status quo has come to an end; tables will be overturned; the old order is corrupt and needs to be identified as such.
Let’s remind ourselves of what the Temple is like because that might help explain why Jesus has come in conflict with the temple authorities in the first place. It was constructed to reflect the Jews’ cultural pecking order. In the center was a small room – the Holy of Holies. God was in that space. Even the High Priest was only allowed to enter the Holy of Holies once a year.
Next came the courtyard of the priests.
Outside that was the courtyard for male adult Jews. Then outside that the courtyard for Jewish women.
Then finally the courtyard for the Gentiles. It was in this courtyard that the money-changers and animal traders were to be found.
The authorities who permitted the merchandising in the temple would probably have justified it as helping people worship properly in the temple. The money-changers changed money out of coins with the images of pagan gods into religiously neutral coinage. The cattle and sheep would have been unblemished, acceptable for sacrifice. The pigeon-sellers would have allowed poorer visitors an opportunity of participating in the sacrificial focus of worship. Don’t forget that Joseph and Mary offered a pair of pigeons at the temple when Jesus was presented there as an infant.
This is all very well and good but why in the temple itself? Why not outside? Well, it has been suggested that this merchandising in the temple was a recent innovation, operated by friends of the high priest to their financial advantage. And probably the high priest’s financial advantage. (shades of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker?) The corruption of Caiaphas the High Priest was notorious. The merchants who had previously operated outside the temple in the city marketplace were therefore marginalized by those able to offer their wares closer to the place of sacrifice, doubtless paying Caiaphas a cut for the privilege.
So Jesus may have been symbolically cleaning up what was widely perceived as a dirty, corrupt business practice and restoring a more equitable business culture. As Christians, we may well feel that the contemporary business and economic culture needs reform, so that the poor and vulnerable are properly cared for, and that financial integrity is given a high priority. The church has constantly called for justice and solidarity with the poor in both national and international economic relations.
Although those in power would often prefer a meek and mild church in the image of a meek and mild Jesus, today’s reading tells us pretty clearly that we are not called to remain quiet in the face of injustice or oppression. Sometimes we are called to speak and act prophetically in the face of injustice even in ways that may surprise or offend those in authority. A few years ago the House of Bishops of the Anglican Church in England published a document called “Who Is My Neighbour?” which is all about getting the church and Christians individually involved with what are often seen as political issues. Shudder. Preaching politics from the pulpit? Yeah. Politics is too important to be left entirely to the political class – our faith should inform and transform our whole being, including the way we act and interact with the world beyond that door – which includes our political involvement. I know of churches where politics are checked at the door—let’s have peace, not war, during coffee hour discussions. But discussions about current events, politics included, can certainly be peaceable. If we can’t peaceably converse at church, where can we?
Here’s a seemingly sudden change in topic. But your seat belts are fastened, I hope, so you’ll be OK.
This is the third Sunday of Lent. I’ve never thought of Lent as a season for frantic activity as much as it is a season for spiritual reflection. And there is an aspect to today’s Gospel reading that makes for an interesting spiritual exercise. Think about it. All worship for the Jewish community took place in the Jerusalem Temple. And Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
The Jews replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you’re going to raise it in three days?!?!?” But the temple Jesus had spoken of was his body.
St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians (6:19) “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own.”
So because each of us is home to God the Holy Spirit, we are each of us a temple of God. When we have one of those “waiting in a long, long check-out line” times – or in a traffic jam – we can have a Lenten “think” about this: if I am a temple of God, then to what extent am I a house of prayer and to what extent am I a market place or even a den of robbers?
Horrible thought, that last. However, even if we discover that we are more market place or robber den than temple most of the time, we have Jesus – we need Jesus – who is in this world as much now as he was then – not just to be meek and mild, although there is a time and a place for that, but specifically to identify where we have fallen short of our calling, to overturn money-changer tables, not only in the world but also in our souls, and to drive out that which diminishes us from what we were made to be, which is the people of God.