LENTEN MEDITATION for the Third Sunday (8 March 2015) by Professor Nancy Maxwell

In the Temple [Jesus] found people selling cattle, sheep and pigeons,

while moneychangers sat at their counters. Making a whip out of cords,

Jesus drove them all out of the Temple — even the cattle and sheep —

and overturned the tables of the moneychangers, scattering their coins.

Then he faced the pigeon sellers: ‘Take all this out of here!

Stop turning God’s house into a market!’

John 2:14-16

Now this is a Jesus with whom I can relate — I can identify with his unrestrained human emotions when he is faced with what institutionalized religion had done to “God’ house.” Jesus happens upon people selling animals, to be purchased for the purpose of sacrificing them to take away one’s sins. I wonder what is going through Jesus’ mind as he sat and made a whip out of cords. Was his mind racing with rage, were his hands shaking as he furiously wove and knotted the cords? Did he crack the cords on the ground, checking them for strength? Did Jesus, “The Prince of Peace,” actually use the whip to strike the peddlers and the animals?

Or did he calmly take some cords, relaxing in the shade of the high walls of the Temple, and knit the cords together in a whip, saying a silent prayer over each knot. Does he do so, knowing that in publicly challenging the Temple power structure, by clearing the Temple grounds, he will be sealing his fate? Surely in this calm reflective state, Jesus must realize he will be severely punished for the action he is about to take. As author Marcus Borg notes, “The centrality of Jesus’ conflict with the temple is pointed to by [the gospel of] Mark’s statement that it was the cause of Jesus’ arrest.” [1] [Mark 11:18]

As I ponder the possible scenarios of Jesus preparing for his less-than-gentle clearing of the Temple grounds, I am reminded of my own struggle with the notion that Jesus’ death was an act of atonement, a sacrifice necessary to cleanse away the original sin of Adam and Eve (or, according to other Biblical scholars, to atone for the sins of Israel). But in this scripture passage, Jesus is clearing the Temple grounds of animals that were being purchased and sacrificed (slaughtered on the altar) for the forgiveness of the purchaser’s sins. If it was this activity that led Jesus to use a whip, that led Jesus to destroy other’s possession, to scatter their money, to overturn their work stations, to confront them for turning God’s house into a market place — how does the idea that Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice, the perfect lamb, slaughtered for the forgiveness of others’ sins, make any sense? As theologian Cynthia Bourgeault points out, an interpretation that God required that his own son, Jesus, must die for the atonement of other’s sins “would turn God into a monster. How can Jesus, who is love, radiate a God who is primarily a monster? And how can Christians theoretically progressing on a path of love consent to live under such a reign of terror?” [2]

Rev. Dr. Bourgeault, however, provides insight that moved me past the image of a monster father killing his perfect son for the atonement of the sins of the clearly unworthy. She writes that Jesus didn’t die “for” human sins, but Jesus died “because of” human sins — the sins fueled by human ego. Jesus died “because of the sins” of the Temple authorities — their pride in their positions, their fear of losing power, their desire to maintain their personal wealth, their willingness to cooperate with a cruel regime in order to maintain their status and all that their privilege carried with it. It was these things that killed Jesus — the same things that account for some of the worst atrocities human beings have inflicted, and continue to inflict, upon each other.

It is in this very human Jesus, someone outraged at the serious moral corruption of the Temple authorities, with whom I can connect — not someone who is demanded to be a human sacrifice by his parent for the atonement of others’ sins. It is this very human Jesus, whose own unimaginable suffering and death can comfort us in our deepest despairs, as he gently whispers, “I know what you are suffering; I have suffered, too. I am with you in this crucifying situation.” [3]

 

It is these two images of Jesus — the Jesus appalled by the moral corruption of the power structure and the Jesus who is the gentle comforter — who calls us to “Be MCC,” speaking out against violations of human rights and providing comfort to the victims of these violations.


[1] Marcus Borg & N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus, 82 (1999).

[2] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus, 107 (2008).

[3] This idea of Jesus being with us in “this crucifying situation” comes from an interview with Fr. Richard Rohr, Editorial Reviews, Amazon.com Review,http://www.amazon.com/dp/0470907754/ref=pe_113430_21338360_pd_re_dt_lm1%23Next%23Next(reviewing Richard Rohr, Falling Upwards (2011).

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