There’s a hymn by Charles Wesley that includes the words “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”
“Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” are more than just words from a hymn. They form a concept that has penetrated deeply into Christian consciousness.
For one thing, they make us think 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. Of course we know from the Gospels that Jesus did love children and he did preach a message of radical peacemaking. So there’s 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 darker-skinned Middle-Eastern Jewish working-class artisan than a forerunner of the flower children of the ‘60’s, straight out of Haight Ashbury.
This week’s Gospel reminds us that there is much more to Jesus than that; it’s a very useful complement [that’s complement with an “e,” not an “I”] to the meek and mild image.
Jesus makes a whip out of cords, and I wish I hadn’t wondered about that. It took me on a trip through seven dusty (and I mean that literally; I need to dust my bookshelves more often) seven dusty books to figure out that no special images are intended.
While it’s hard for me to feature Jesus wearing a holster on his hip with a coiled whip of cords attached, a “whip out of cords” is not a metaphor.
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, raised as a rural artisan, to grab up a few cords and braid them into a whip.
With the whip of cords he drives the merchants from the temple area. I don’t think he just stands there, waves the whip of cords around, and threatens, “Go on – get out of here or else you’ll be sorry.” No, he wields that whip with one hand while he dumps over their tables with the other.
At the same time he hollers at them, hardly meekly and mildly, “Get all this” – you may provide your own word or phrase here, keeping the Third Commandment in mind) “Get all this ******* 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 is not defined as anger, but rather as passion, as eager, ardent interest in the pursuit of something. Sort of like a housewife attacking a really messy kitchen, with her sleeves rolled up and a strong desire to make things right again.
I can imagine Jesus starting out zealously – with zeal -- then ramping up to furious, accelerating right on to seething, righteous indignation as he drives the traders from the temple with his whip. How much further from meek and mild can you get?
Although this is undoubtedly an act of violence, it is also an act of prophecy. We know that prophecy can come in more than one form – not just in speeches, but also in literal table dumping.
In the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it’s this incident in the temple, this troublemaking, violent, anti-establishment, revolutionary incident that first provokes the chief priests to start looking for ways to arrest Jesus. This is an incident that really gets the negative attention of the religious and social establishment. The end is near.
Interestingly, John, who often approaches things from a different perspective, places 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.
It makes a huge amount of sense for it to come soon before his arrest rather than for it to 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’s 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. The Temple was constructed to reflect the Jews’ social and religious hierarchy.
In the very center was a small room – the Holy of Holies. God was in that space. Only the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, and then only 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 a way of helping people worship properly. The money changers changed money out of coins with the images of pagan gods into religiously neutral coinage. The cattle and sheep for sale would have been unblemished, acceptable for sacrifice. The pigeon sellers would have allowed poorer visitors an opportunity to sacrifice as well. We remember 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 does the whip-flailing, table-dumping incident occur 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 (to the high priest’s friends’) financial advantage. And probably to the high priest’s financial advantage as well.
The corruption of Caiaphas, the High Priest, was notorious. The poor merchants who had previously operated outside the temple in the city marketplace were thus 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 corrupt business practice and restoring a more equitable business culture.
As Christians, we may feel that our contemporary business and economic culture needs reform, so that the poor and vulnerable will be properly cared for, and that financial integrity will be given a high priority. Doesn’t the church call for justice and solidarity with the poor in both national and international economic relations?
Although those in power might 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 meekly 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 about getting the church as a whole and Christians as individuals 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. That involves our political involvement.
I know of churches where politics are checked at the door. The idea is to have peace, not war, during coffee hour discussions. (Remember when we could have coffee hour discussions?) But discussions about current events, politics included, can certainly be peaceable. If we can’t calmly and peaceably converse at church, where can we?
Here’s a seemingly sudden change of topic. But your seat belts are fastened, I hope, so you’ll be OK.
This is the third Sunday of Lent. I’ve always thought of Lent as a season for self-discipline, for sacrificing some self-indulgence (like chocolate). But I know that it’s also a season for spiritual reflection. There is an aspect in today’s Gospel reading that makes for an interesting spiritual reflection, for a spiritual exercise.
Think about this: 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???” Of course the temple Jesus spoke 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 we’re stuck 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, that last.
However, suppose we realize that we are more marketplace or robbers’ den than temple most of the time. Thanks be to God we have Jesus who is in this world with us 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-changers’ tables, not only in the world but in our souls, and to drive out that which diminishes us from what we were made to be, which is the people of God.