Lent III, Year B

Main Text

Gospel Anthropological Reading
Gospel Historical/Cultural Questions
Gospel So What?

Epistle Anthropological Reading
Epistle Historical/Cultural Questions
Epistle So What?

Main Text

(Exodus 20:1-17)
Then God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work–you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

(1 Corinthians 1:18-25)
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

(John 2:13-22)
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!" His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me." The Jews then said to him, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Gospel Anthropological Reading

Whenever the issue of Jesus and violence is raised, inevitably the CT (Cleansing of the Temple) narrative is brought up. There is a long tradition of doing this and it is not limited to just Reimarus and Brandon. It can be found in Augustine and Calvin as well. All of these, and many others, however, were stuck inside the box of Peace through Strength. That is what they knew (Exegetes are either Constantinian or post-Constantinian).

Some examine a text like this and conclude that Jesus is justified in getting angry and flipping his lid. This functions as a warrant then, for subsequent justifications of our own hostility. However, Jesus action is not directed at people, it is directed to ‘the system’ and can be seen in the knocking over of the tables of the money changers and the liberation of animals from certain death.

When the CT is seen through the lens of the Johannine tradition, as coming at the opening of Jesus ministry, we would not be far off in suggesting that Jesus could be and would be associated with other figures who led crowds off into the desert. For the author of the Fourth Gospel, it is apparent that the one greater than Moses was here (1.17-18) and the desert figure to compare Jesus with was not Bannus or Phineas (figures of zeal) but Moses.

The travail that had begun with Abraham and the calling out of the Jewish people from among the nations was ending. The multiple Mosaic metaphors embedded in this text draw clear hermeneutical lines back through the Hebrew Scriptures. One need only think of Moses turning the Nile to blood, and Jesus water to wine. Jesus does not replace Moses anymore than Moses replaces God. But the time of the old had run out, the new had come. The old is only old in relation to the new.

The author of the Fourth Gospel wants us to see that right in the midst of the existence of those called and chosen by God and with whom He made a covenant, there is occurring a culmination of all that has been said and done in the history of this people. Jesus of Nazareth still remains a crucial watershed in the history of Judaism. And right from the beginning there is going to be a clear message, the old is passing away and behold the new has come. This does not mean that the Church or Christianity is to be equated with ‘the new.’ If, in fact, Christians espouse some kind of supercessionism or replacement theory, then they are rightly criticized for having utterly failed after 2,000 years to figure out how to live as children of God. Kind of like the pot calling the kettle black.

On the other hand, Girard’s proposal regarding the relationship of Christianity and Judaism has several benefits. The one is a culmination of a great tradition stretching back through the history of the other. From a Christian perspective, therefore, one cannot make any kind of decision to jettison either the Hebrew Scriptures or the Jewish context of Jesus’ faith experience. To do so is to fall into the trap of Marcion. The contemporary theory of the ‘divine inspiration of the Scriptures’ falls into a sacrificial reading as well when it does not read from the center, namely Jesus. In either case, the assumption behind both Marcion and fundamentalism is that God is violent, the former rejected the violent god, the latter embrace the violent god.

For Girard it is precisely the non-violence of God, the Creator, that empowers the mission and message of Jesus. That this is done within the faith context of Judaism is essential, for it is Judaism that most fully explores this separation of God from the ‘gods’ of religion. This is how Girard can refer to the Hebrew Scriptures as ‘texts in travail.’ There is a gradual separating of God from violence as the Hebrew literary tradition develops and can particularly be seen in the Prophets (and of course, for Girard, is not limited to the Hebrew Scriptures but can also be seen in the plays of Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes).

We have in our reading today a powerful text that at one and the same time, binds us closely to Moses and then separates us cleanly from Torah. If we are Gentiles, we ought to give thanks that we have found the mercy to be grafted into the covenant life of this people and their gift to the world in Jesus.

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Gospel Historical/Cultural Questions

The text for today presents us with many facets. We will focus on two of them, namely the historical question regarding the chronological placement of this narrative in the Life of Jesus and the relation of this narrative to that of the first sign at Cana.

As is well known, in the Synoptic tradition, the CT (Cleansing of the Temple) narrative comes after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem just prior to Passover, just prior to Jesus’ death. In the Fourth Gospel, it happened not at the end but at the beginning of Jesus ministry.

While scholars recognize the chronological problem posed by John 18:28 and some prefer to date Jesus’ death prior to the Passover, the CT narrative in John is not given serious historical credence. Because of the transparency of the Johannine touch, it has been easy to say that it is for ‘theological reasons’ that the author messes with the historical. Perhaps. But what if his placement of this story is correct? It would explain the confusion of the witnesses sought for Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin and their inability to agree on much or remember much, since it had taken place years prior.

As suggested in Advent, we accept Theissen’s thesis that the Passion narrative was formed in Jerusalem during the Caligula crisis (The Gospels in Context). The question is ‘what is the beginning of the Passion?’ At a minimum it must have begun with the arrest of Jesus. At that point, it is questionable as to whether or not the Passover Meal and Gethsemane are part of the story. But there is no way that the Passion narrative had the CT story at this early point. The chronology presupposed in the Markan narrative is the Johannine one and the CT story must be fitted to the narrative prior to an entire week’s worth of spats and apocalyptic discourse. I would suggest that the impetus to place the CT story in the last week of Jesus’ life was motivated by the recent destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. With the ‘little apocalypse’ sandwiched between the CT and the Passion, Mark indicates that Jesus prophesied the Jewish temple and its destruction. As the destruction of Jerusalem is occurring, so is the death, and in some cases execution of the apostles. It would have felt like an apocalyptic scenario, wouldn’t it?

There is just as likely a theological explanation for the placement of the CT story in the Synoptic tradition as there is in the Johannine one.
If one posits the possibility, therefore, that the CT took place in the initial weeks of the ministry of Jesus, several things are explained:

1. The aroused ‘messianic’ expectations of the people
2. The animosity of the Temple authorities
3. The need for Jesus to be ‘secret’
4. The attraction of those also opposed to the religious establishment (e.g., Essenes, Samaritans, followers of John the Baptist)

The CT is therefore not a coup de grace, but an opening salvo. But opening up to what?

This brings us to the second part of our discussion, namely the relationship between the CT narrative and the first sign of turning water into wine.

The Johannine signs are seven in number much like the seven signs of Moses in the Wisdom of Solomon. Some have suggested that the author of the Fourth Gospel combined a signs source with his narrative and a discourse source, stirred it all together and out came the Fourth Gospel. It’s possible. Even if that were the case, and it is far from proven, the author of the Fourth Gospel has woven his threads together in a tapestry of intricate patterns.

For the author of the Fourth Gospel who also claims eyewitness authority, the simple act of turning water into wine expressed everything he would come to say about Jesus. At a celebration of great joy, Jesus displayed his glory for those with eyes to see. There is a two-fold aspect to this sign; first, are the implicit bride/bridegroom, wedding feast metaphors, second is the place where the sign takes place, in stone vessels used to hold water for purification. These jars, made from the earth, and the temple made from stones are going to see the New Man who is formed from the earth and is full of God’s Spirit, full of God’s glory, a new temple.

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Gospel So What?

As gently as possible we wish to say, “BEHOLD, THE NEW HAS COME!”

The identity of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is closely tied to his imitation of the Father. This identity is the unity of peace and love. It is light in the midst of our darkness, peace in our warfare, joy in our sorrow, life in our death, faith in our religion. Remove the category of violence from God and the Johannine message is clear, “God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all.” This is the God who announces Himself to us during our season of self-examination. And asks us, “Whom are we announcing from our pulpits on Sunday mornings?”

In short, rather than applying Jesus’ prophetic critique to Judaism, as was natural for both Jesus and the author of the Fourth Gospel, both of whom were Jewish, we rather ought to apply it to ourselves. Then constructively we may find that he still turns the water into wine. He transforms everything, “he makes all things new.” Even our preaching.

I recently wrote an essay where I quoted Walter Wink. I would like to quote Walter here because it reflects my belief that something really new and wonderful is occurring throughout Christianity. It seems as if the winds of the Spirit are blowing. Change is coming big time, in fact it is already here for some. Here’s Walter:

“In the spiritual renaissance that I believe is coming to birth, it will not be the message of Paul that this time galvanizes hearts, as in the Reformation and the Wesleyan revival, but the human figure of Jesus. And in the teaching of Jesus, the sayings on nonviolence and love of enemies will hold a central place. Not because they are more true than any others, but because they are the only means known for overcoming domination without creating new dominations.”

The ultimate religious question today is no longer the Reformation’s question, “How can I find a gracious God” but rather, “How can we find God in our enemies?” What guilt was for Luther, the enemy has become for us: the goad that can drive us to God. What has often been a purely private affair – justification by faith through grace – has now, in our age, grown to embrace the world. As John Stoner comments, we can no more save ourselves from our enemies than we can save ourselves from sin, but God’s amazing grace offers to save us from both.”
I sense that if you look out across Christianity you will see small groups within congregations who are really seeking to follow Jesus all the way, no hesitation, no excuses. And within those small groups are often the clergy of these parishes, folks like you and me, folks who are not perfect, but don’t care to be. Folks who seek wholeness, shalom, peace. There’s lot’s of them praying on Sunday mornings for Jesus’ Spirit to be poured out on the church again. These folks are peacemakers, gracious in love, rich in hospitality, forgiving, nurturing, healing and reconciliatory. These folks are like Jesus, they have tasted the new wine, they have worshipped in the new Temple.

Jeff adds:

It seems that the cleansing of any temple will never sit well with some. The announcement of the new is a challenge, not only because we will not always be well received, but because we will be tempted to demonize those who resist the announcement. As we approach the advent of Bonhoeffer’s “religionless” Christianity, it is with the sure conviction that the Christianity of Constantine will not end, or relinquish its claim on Jesus.

We go forward desiring only to follow Jesus as he points to a relationship with God that does not rely on the blood of victims to sustain it. We go forward hoping to avoid making new victims of the authorities of the old temple. We lead the cattle and the sheep out of the temple, and stand and call from outside the walls, “Come! Come and join us! The new has come!”

Here’s my sermon for 3 Lent, 2006

Wednesday morning, as I pulled out of my driveway, there was a mother putting her handicapped child on a bus across the street from me. As I waited for the bus, I wondered what it must be like to anticipate dying and leaving a child so innocent and helpless behind. I wondered what it might be like if the church were really the compassionate Body of Christ that it could be.

Turning from Merrick Road onto Wantagh Avenue, I passed a homeless lady, still dressed in multiple winter layers, because it’s easier to wear the stuff than carry it, pushing a little collapsible cart. She was actually waiting at the corner for the light to change, so she could cross Wantagh Avenue. I thought about going back and offering her a ride, but I didn’t.

I felt sorry for her, and then I remembered the eighth station, where Jesus says, "Weep not for me, but for yourselves and for your children." I wept as I drove up the Wantagh Parkway, for me, and for my children, because I live in a world where parents have to worry about who’ll look after their handicapped children after they’re gone, a world where it isn’t a given that they’ll be cared for. I live in a world where we’re good at feeling sorry for the homeless, even tossing them a coin now and again, but not so good at admitting that it is the very structure of our society that creates homelessness.

And then I thought about today’s lesson, and Jesus’ "cleaning house." I kept wondering if he were about to come through and clean house in the church. I wondered if he is already.

The church is falling apart. It has ceased, as an institution, to meet the real needs of people. It has taught its people that allegiance to the institution is more important than hunger for relationship to Jesus. It has taught its people that the survival of the institution is more important that following Jesus. It needs to be replaced, and it is being replaced. Non-denominational churches that understand what it means to hunger for God are growing like weeds, even here on Long Island. Groups of people who know that the power to change our world begins in worship are thriving, and feeding people, and housing people, and clothing people, while groups like the Episcopal Church pass 20/20 resolutions, declaring that we’ll double our membership by 2020.

When Jesus looked into the temple, he saw a dying institution, and a host of victims waiting to be sacrificed. He made a whip of cords, and drove them all, cattle and sheep together, out the door, to save them.

If he looked into our congregation today, I wonder who he’d be pushing out the door? Who here is victim of a dying institution? Who believes that keeping the institution alive is more important than the demands of compassion? You’re a victim. He’d be pushing you out the door because I hadn’t taught you better, for your own sake.

Who here believes that coming to church is something you do to make God happy? You’re a victim. Jesus might have to make a whip of cords to scare you out the door, but he’d be trying to save you, too.

Who here believes that Christianity is something you "believe," and not a way of life? Who believes that you can be a meaningful Christian and not know the Scriptures? Who believes that you can live successfullly as a Christian and not pray every day. Not prayers over meals, not bedtime prayers, but heartfelt cries of thanksgiving, heartrending cries of desire? Who thinks you can do without that? You’re a victim of the institution. You may not be shedding blood in the temple, but you’re leaving behind your money, right? We’re bleeding you a little bit at a time so you can keep coming back, bringing more. Jesus would be kicking you in the backside to get you out the door.

Now, Jesus knew that the institution he’d set foot in when he entered Jerusalem was a dying thing. He knew that God intended to bring a new thing into being. I believe that G
od intends to do the same thing with the Church. The institution is rapidly becoming a museum, a collection of pretty buildings where people can come and watch worship they way they did it 50 years ago. In some places, like ours, the music is a little updated, but it’s still more like going to look at Mash memorabilia at the Smithsonian than watching the show itself.

The Church doesn’t have to suffer complete destruction, but it does have to die to the old way of being, to let something new come to be. If it doesn’t, God will surely replace it just as God replaced the Temple. This isn’t your fault. This is the result of the success of the principalities and powers that rule this world. They are always most effective when they work through institutions. And this institution has made victims of us all, to one degree or another.

We don’t have to go out the door, though. All we have to do is change what’s going on in here, stop making more victims. We need to awaken to the hunger that we have, the one we’ve been taught to fear. We need to abandon the supposed safety of our institutional way of being and let a new wind blow through this place.

Hear me. God is going to clean house. Maybe not today. Maybe not for 30 years. It took 30 years for the destruction of the Temple to complete God’s work of ending an institution that made victims in order to perpetuate itself. No matter how long it takes, though, God is going to clean house. We can join the work, and stop being victims. We can look around for other victims, and drive them out of the institutional church and into the arms of God. We can be a part of the wind that God wants to blow through this place.

Or, we can set our tables back up, collect our coins that are scattered all over the floor, and go outside to collect our cattle and sheep.

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Epistle Anthropological Reading

After hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, what have we become as a species?  Think of all the technological and scientific advancements we have made, from the earliest humans who learned how to use tools in the Stone Age to the great early civilizations in Sumer, India and China to the founding civilizations of western culture, Greece and Rome.  Think of all the advancements in medicine, politics, and economics.  Consider all of the great discoverers we honor from Euclid, Copernicus and Galileo to Newton, Faraday, Einstein and Bohr.  We have put humans on the moon, broken the code of human life (DNA), split atoms and are capable of creating machines on the molecular level (nanotechnology).  No other species on earth has done what we wise humans (homo sapiens) have accomplished. 

And just how wise are we?  We have created weapons that can destroy all life on the planet, we engage in genocide, we starve the poor.  We live with racism, discrimination, economic disparity, injustice, and deprecation of those different from us.  Our belief in God is naught but a history of religious wars. Just how wise have we become?

When the Apostle asks “where is the wise man, where is the scholar, where is the philosopher of this age?” he is not asking a disingenuous question, it is a real question.  Had not Paul heard of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle or Galen? How about Hillel, Shammai or Gamaliel? Sure he had, but the worldviews of these various wise figures, while worthy from the perspective of developing humanity still did not see the core reality afflicting the human species.  The Apostle brings that element to the fore and calls it the wisdom of God.  That wisdom of God, though, is not some supra-mundane enlightenment, nor a vision of angels, nor a pie in the sky by and by optimism.  It is not the wishful thinking or the baseless hope of a liberal social philosophy.  It is not the promulgation of a greater Law, more law.  It is the setting forth of a murder.


Like Nietzsche (The Gay Science, 125), it is the murder of God that is front and center.  God points us to his wisdom by pointing out our violence, our scapegoating tendencies, especially when we think we are doing God a favor by getting rid of the troublemaker in our midst.  Why is the wisdom of God foolish?  Because the gods cannot suffer, the gods cannot die.

Paul challenges all of our metaphysical assumptions about the nature of divinity we have inherited from both our Greek and our Jewish forebears.  That God is immutable, that God is immortal, that God is a-pathetic.  One only needs read the post Reformation confessions on the doctrine of God to see the dozens of adjectives that define God to see just how we have boxed God into intellectual categories that are little more than our deepest aspirations and fears.  By setting forth Jesus Christ crucified, the apostle says that all that we think about God dies at the cross, all of our dreaming, hopes and wishes of divinity hangs suffocating and bleeding at our hand.  We create God in our own image and because we hate ourselves we kill this very same God.

This is the wisdom of God.  In the death of Jesus all our God concepts die, and we are left with the stark reality that God is dead “and we have killed him!!!” (so Nietzsche).  The cross is thus the end of all our religious speculation and the beginning of the recognition that if we are going to know God at all, it can only be because God reveals God’s self in the Crucified.  This weakness of God, this theology of the cross (Luther) is our only hope.

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Epistle Historical/Cultural Questions

The commentaries have some useful information on wisdom but rare is the commentator who is able to pick up the thread of the death of Jesus and tie it to murder.  Robert Hamerton-Kelly (Sacred Violence) is an exception.  A good overview of wisdom in both Jewish and Greek traditions can be found in Ben Witherington III’s  Jesus the Sage as well as the article (Sophia) in Kittel (TDNT).

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Epistle So What?

I am constantly amazed at how much people think they know about God.  They are certain that their beliefs are real and true, that their experiences confirm for them the reality of their linguistic abilities to describe the ways and workings of God.  I recently attended a class (which I thoroughly enjoy) of folks who come together to learn about healing.  I have known many of these folks for many years.  They come from all sorts of religious backgrounds and they all believe in a Creator or the Great Mystery.  In our time together, it was remarkable how many were certain that God told them many things about life, the after-life and the character of divinity that were at odds with the person of Jesus.  In fact Jesus is not recognized by many as the revelation of God, he was a good person, or a prophet or even a great shaman, but when it comes down to it, they argue that because Christianity is a failed religion, Jesus cannot be God.  What do you suppose is the issue?

Violence.  They hear the Creator telling them it is OK to use violence as a last resort.  God can command death if God so chooses.  I could not help think of this passage in I Corinthians as I sat listening to so many of these conversations for they failed to see that it is precisely in the renunciation of violence that God is revealed!  The physics of our killing of Jesus brings to an end all of our metaphysics and it is only our encounter with the Risen Vindicated Christ that we can begin to move into the trans-physics of revelation.  This is what James Alison refers to as “the intelligence of the victim.”  There is a new logic, a new way of thinking, a way of thinking not grounded in a priori categories of what God or nature or life must be like, but really of Who God is!

Preaching this text does not confirm anything we think we know about God, it undermines it, subverts it, shakes it to the core.  Both preacher and congregation walk away having undergone a ruthless surgery of mind, heart, soul and spirit.  And having so been shaken and sifted, standing before God the Victim, we have a chance, for the first time, to see clearly that what appears to us as folly is in fact supreme wisdom.

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