Monday, March 29, 2010

The Teaching Kind

As he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of robbers.’ (Mark 11.16)

Righteous Indignation

Last week, a very dear Jewish friend asked to attend Palm Sunday service with us. As we walked to church, she said, “Yesterday, there was this preacher in the subway saying the meanest things.” Being well acquainted with the type, I said, “Everybody’s going to Hell, right?” She answered, “Everybody. If you smoke cigarettes, you’re going to Hell. If you drink, you’re going to Hell. If you’re gay, you’re going to Hell. He had me on the first two.” Being so close to Walt and me, we laughed he also had her on the third by proxy. As we walked on, it occurred to me since she’d never visited the church, she might be a tad wary of a similar spew-fest. “This won’t be like that,” I promised.

To my delight, the sermon surpassed “not like that” by such a wide margin it poised at the doomsayer’s polar opposite. Even though neither Heaven nor Hell came up, the polarity emerged in its righteous indignation. The pastor began by confessing she’d been in “a Lenten bubble,” and not heard much on the bilious accusation “social justice” is leftist theological code for communism—until a blogger cited the church’s Website as an example. She used this recent outbreak of ideological slander as a contextual bridge to Holy Week. “I am painfully aware that poisonous public discourse… has its place in the unfolding drama of this week,” she said, adding Jesus wasn’t crucified because He healed and fed people, told nice stories and gathered children around Him. “Jesus was crucified… because he was in every fiber of his being advocating SOCIAL JUSTICE,” telling us she’d typed the phrase in all-caps. Her indignation intensified as she debunked this newly hatched myth that compassion and concern are politically minted ideas. They’ve always been Christianity’s definitive markers, she insisted, with plenty of historical documentation backing her up. Near the end, she asked, “What might it mean to live so loud that the impact is felt everywhere we step, not because we are stepping on things or people, not because we are shouting at people, but because the stride in our steps [is] beating down the path toward the poor, the hungry, the disenfranchised, the ones who need Jesus’ SOCIAL JUSTICE?” After the sermon—titled “Living Out Loud”—our friend said, “That was amazing!”

Political Suicide

I awoke yesterday with the story of Christ clearing the Temple in my head, as we’re told it’s the first thing He does on Monday. I wanted to write about it, yet outside its overt aspects, I couldn’t figure out what to make of it. It happens so abruptly, without a hint of what lit teachers used to call “an inciting incident,” it doesn’t make sense. After Jesus and the disciples retire to outlying Bethany on Sunday evening, they return to Jerusalem the next day and go to the Temple. Immediately on entering, Jesus “began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.” (Mark 11.15-16) We understand why He does it. The Temple has turned into a bazaar, where opportunistic tellers charge fees to make correct change for monetary offerings and wranglers sell sacrificial animals at pricey mark-up. This is common in pagan temples, which also sell meat presented to idols as convenient take-away. So commerce within its courts twice desecrated the Temple by gouging worshipers and mimicking idolatry. But none of this explains why Jesus clears the Temple now.

The commercialization of Temple property isn’t new. Jesus has seen it all His life and never (to our knowledge) reacted unfavorably before. Of all the times to vent His displeasure, none could be worse. The prior day’s coronation parade has ramped up alarm among Temple authorities. Opposing their policies in such a volatile way is political suicide. Not only does Jesus enrage them, He infuriates influential merchants and insiders by disrupting their businesses. Why doesn’t He meekly enter the Temple, don His rabbinical shawl, take a seat, and wait His turn to speak? For some time, He’s been clued into the formulating conspiracy against Him. And there’s our answer. Realizing Sunday’s public acclaim has increased the urgency to be rid of Him, Jesus takes His first chance to correct these intolerable practices because it may be His last chance to do it. Then, after Palm Sunday’s sermon, I have a better idea of the full scope of what He does.

High Melodrama

Most of us have heard this episode preached and seen it dramatized more times than we can count. And it’s a safe bet that it’s always been presented as high melodrama. Jesus storms into the Temple, knocks over a lot of furniture, and once He’s got everyone’s attention, bellows a scathing indictment that lashes Isaiah 56.7 to Jeremiah 7.11: “Is it not written: ’My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of robbers.’” (Mark 11.17) His words tremble with fury and the people quake with fear. This doesn’t square with Mark’s report, though. After Jesus overturns the merchants’ stations and halts the flow of merchandise, there’s a cooling off period. Mark prefaces Jesus’s statement with, “As he taught them, he said…” He taught them. That’s the difference between undignified condemnation and righteous indignation, poisonous discourse and constructive criticism, a preacher’s rants and a pastor’s restraint—the difference between harsh judgment and gentle justice.

Jesus was the teaching kind. Discipline and care governed His every word and action. What we witness in the Temple is a Teacher willing to risk His personal safety—His very life—to demonstrate a forgotten principle. What we don’t see is an angry God, frustrated Rabbi, or crazed Provocateur. And we understand Jesus uses this scenario not merely to right an overlooked wrong, but also to teach us how to teach. It’s His last chance, and He does it in the most memorable, atypical manner imaginable. When we trim back the fatty melodrama and cut into the meat, it’s not that hard. If necessary, we must sacrifice personal comfort and safety to demonstrate our point. But we prove it by teaching. Mark ends saying the Temple authorities “feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.” (v18) When we’re the teaching kind, the consternation of adversaries and amazement of listeners separate us from every other kind.

All this melodrama layered on the cleansing of the Temple misses the teaching that follows.

Postscript: I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus

Being taught isn’t something we sing about very much. Yet we can’t be the teaching kind without learning from the Master. This popular Latter-Day Saints’ children’s song touches me deeply with its message—so simple on the surface, yet so complex and richly nuanced through and through.


I'm trying to be like Jesus

I'm following in His ways

I'm trying to love as He did

In all that I do and say

At times I am tempted to make a wrong choice

But I try to listen as the still, small voice


"Love one another as Jesus loves you

"Try to show kindness in all that you do

"Be gentle and loving in deed and in thought

For these are the things Jesus taught."

I'm trying to love my neighbors

I'm learning to serve my friends

I watch for the day of gladness

When Jesus will come again

I try to remember the lessons He taught

Then the Holy Spirit enters my thoughts,


"Love one another..."


grant said...

Tim, you make an excellent observation in all this. Another observant friend once pointed out that contrary to many interpretations of the "Cleansing of the Temple" event, the scripture does not indicate Jesus exercised any physical violence towards people. He makes a chord or whip in one account to drive "them" out, but it makes more sense to think that he is herding the animals, not attacking people. As you sum it up: "Discipline and care governed His every word and action - What we don’t see is an angry God, frustrated Rabbi, or crazed Provocateur."

The best explanation I've read about this event is that Jesus was (finally) acting against the worst social injustice of all - religious authorities who were profiting by making it hard for the people to draw near to God by demanding sacrifices made in the "proper" coinage, with "certified" unblemished animals, etc... RELIGION vs. relationship again. An old story.

I presume that Jesus acts so overtly at this time, because he knows it's time to let the end-game begin. And a few days later when he publically calls out the Scribes and Pharisees in the "woe to you" speech, he seals his fate. Jesus controls the timing of events as he sets the wheels of his own fate in motion.

Your added insights today are precious and helpful as I begin to meditate more deeply on this amazing God.

Thanks friend,

Sherry M Peyton said...

Oh Tim, time and time again, I find such wisdom here. You explain this so well. I often feel a certain guilt at my writing which tends to the satirical, often biting and mean in its language to make a point. This is not how Jesus would do things no doubt. I'm conflicted a lot. lol... I am not so good at the patient, teaching of truth, so much as I am at in your face truth. But then Jesus, did rather get a bit ruffled. But it was so odd for him to do so, people listened. Do people listen to me for the fun or for the message? I'm not at all sure. You always make me go think some more! lol..Blessings friend.

claire said...

As I look at my Catholic Church, I can see that the lesson Jesus taught in the Temple went straight over our heads and continues to do so.


Great post, Tim. As usual :-)

Tim said...

Grant, I personally am not too comfortable with Jesus flailing a whip in any fashion, which is why I'm apt to imagine that's an embroidery on Mark's original text, where he tosses over a few tables and no more. I suppose one could argue a sort of poetic justice in Him handling a whip, as no one is harmed--everyone is helped--as an ironic foreshadow of His being scourged within one lash of His life. Still, putting a whip in HIs hand seems a hefty price for poetics.

The endgame is on and Christ is asserting His authority this week as Messiah, per the people's proclamation. Both here and in the "woes" He's aggressively indicting the leaders and their cohorts for abusing the people's trust with unjust actions. Unlike the previous scrambles with the priests and lawyers, He's setting the agenda and raising the issues--not outwitting deceit and legal gamesmanship. Fred Anderson posted a terrific sermon about this on Palm Sunday, emphasizing that from the Triumphal Entry onward--even in Death--Jesus is most assuredly in control. Here's the link:

Sherry, the beauty of Christ's example to us in all things is that He doesn't show us what we aren't, but what we can be. The truth He teaches after His demonstration is decidedly blunt and no-nonsense. (He calls the merchants thieves, for goodness sakes!) But He balances that with the ideal, a house of prayer for all. I find bright similarities in your style--a straightforward calling of spades, if you will, but always in sharp relief with the ideal. And, yes, you're fun to read, but that's a rare gift in these quarters, for which we're all grateful. In the end, the lesson is conveyed.

As we've spoken about, it's a struggle to keep the poison out of the posts, as well as deftly providing an antidote for any poison that bubbles up in discourse that follows. And given how much and frequently we both write, it's a Herculean task that's bound to yield uneven results. Perhaps you're being a wee bit hard on yourself!

Thank you both, my dear friends, for chiming in here. This one was tough to get down on the page, and your kind words are a great reassurance!


Tim said...

Claire, you know how tenaciously I guard against introducing "hot" topics that might be misread as negative or inflammatory. So, other than one or two elliptical mentions (if I recall correctly), I've not addressed the RCC's present dilemma(s). But here in this semi-secluded space, I will say my heart breaks for the dissonance this must sound through the congregation--as well as its leadership. I pray daily for all of you, asking God's Spirit to comfort you and guide your leaders into all truth.

This will require a collecting of lost and forgotten lessons, I'm afraid--the teaching that's flown overhead, as you say--which will require humility that presently appears to be on low reserve among some, yet overly abundant in so many.

Regardless, however, as I pray for the RCC, I'm forever reminded She is the Mother Church. Disparities between succeeding (no less imperfect) communions and Rome are very much like those between parents and children and grandchildren. Youth makes the heirs more limber and open-minded, while age weighs the Matriarch with trepidation and uncertainty. While this doesn't pardon Her intransigence and forgetfulness, we must forgive and love Her for all She's done to beget this great catholic family and perpetuate the Gospel of Christ.

How I wish She would loosen Her grip on obsolete traditions and, almost like a belovedly irrepressible Aunt, upset everyone's apple cart by blazing the social justice trail. Yet despite Her magnificence, She is fragile and reluctant. Unfortunately, this hinders the children remaining in Her household--prodigiously talented women (like you, Fran, Missy, Phil, et al.), neglected gay children, those who've fallen out of sorts with Her political allies, and those who've distanced themselves from Her even while abiding in Her portals.

But inside Her gates or not, it's essential we all respect and cherish Her, because no wrong She can do will ever outweigh what She has given. So we pray out loud, speak out loud, live out loud, and take every opportunity to teach--if not Her, then those under Her care. We do this for them, and for Her, because in the vibrant days of Her youth, that's what She trained us to do.

It's so easy for all of us to join the chorus of exasperation--"She's refusing to deal with this!" "She'll never change!" Etc. And this may be true, but even so, are we being true to Her? I'm not sure the majority of us are. What consistently inspires me about my myriad, earnest Catholic sisters and brothers is their commitment in spite of it all. It epitomizes Christ's teaching to me, and gives me hope for them and Her.

Blessings, my great sister in Christ,