Monday, April 2, 2012

Faithful Acts of Hatred

He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill Him; for they were afraid of Him. (Mark 11.17-18)

The Things Jesus Hated

A couple weeks ago, our pastor came across a 1950 directory from our congregation and shared some of its contents with us. From a paragraph called “The Meaning of Church Membership” she read these words:

To be a worthy church member, one must have the temper and disposition of Jesus, taking His attitude toward God and man, looking at life from His standpoint, hating the things which He hated, loving the things which He loved, and doing in cooperation with others the kind of things which He did.

Hating the things which He hated? We’re not the kind of church that ascribes hatred of any kind to Jesus. God is love. Jesus is God. Ergo, Jesus is love. Yet in this context, paired with “loving the things which He loved,” I was struck with a new awareness that Jesus truly did hate many things about our world. Prejudice, false piety, selfishness, violence, callousness, political ambition, deceit, resentment—all of the things that destroy love for God and one another—He despised. He made no room for ambivalence about them. He hated them. What's more, He wasn’t reluctant to say so, regardless how difficult expressing His hatred made His own life.

In fact, as we retrace His steps through Holy Week, we’re initially stunned by what can only be described as conscious acts of hatred from Jesus. In the wake of the Triumphal Entry, we see Him return to Jerusalem on Monday morning, not to bask in the upsurge of adulation, but to express overt hostility toward the religious and political corruption of His day. His audacity and disregard for His popularity, which is at its peak, are breathtaking. And while three of the four Gospels report Monday’s main event—the clearing of the Temple merchants—Mark and Matthew couple it with a rather bizarre incident that shocks us, as it seems completely out of character for Jesus.

On Their Side

The Palm Sunday story ends with a cliffhanger. After the crowd’s enthusiastic hosannas die down, Jesus walks into the Temple, looks around for a moment, and leaves. All that’s missing from the scene is “I’ll be back.” Sure enough, come Monday morning, Jesus’s first order of business is returning to the Temple. He doesn’t even wait for breakfast. As soon as He can get the disciples together, He heads back into Jerusalem—having spent the night in an outlying village—and along the way, He gets hungry. He sees a tree and decides to make do with one of its figs. But the tree is barren because figs aren’t in season. Jesus knows that, which makes His response to not finding fruit curiously upsetting. He curses the tree! “May no one ever eat fruit from you again,” He hisses—so loudly that the disciples hear Him. (Mark 11.14) What’s the problem here? Is Jesus in a bad mood? Is He overtired and impatient? Perhaps. He’s coming off an exhausting day and anticipating an even tougher one, given what He plans to do in Jerusalem. Still, His reaction seems weirdly out of scale.

The Temple is humming by the time Jesus arrives. It’s Passover week and many provincials have turned up early to attend to various sacrifices and offerings before the feast. In the courtyard, moneychangers and livestock traders are open for business, which is booming. As Jesus enters the Temple, He’s keenly aware of stepping into a seller’s market. It’s the ancient equivalent of a modern theme park, where out-of-towners pay ridiculous prices for things that would cost a fraction of the money at home. Jesus hates what’s going on. He goes on a rampage, overturning the moneychanger’s tables and livestock traders’ chairs. Then, in a stunning display of authority, He shuts everything down. Verse 16 says, “He would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.” You bet everyone who doesn’t yet know Who He is wants to find out what He’s all about. Jesus begins to teach right there on the spot, knitting prophecies from Isaiah and Jeremiah together as He indicts the price-gougers: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” (v17) Mark says when the Temple establishment hears this, it stokes their determination to kill Jesus. They’re afraid of Jesus, we’re told, because His hatred of those who exploit the worshipers resonates with the crowd. Jesus is on their side and He’s unconcerned about what may happen to Him for standing with them. His deep hatred of evildoing gives Him power to confront it head-on.

New Wholeness and Holiness

So we understand Jesus’s actions in the Temple—and we understand how they seal His fate, which will play out in agonizing extremes on Friday morning. Now, what about the fig tree? On Tuesday morning, returning again to the city, Peter notices that it’s shriveled down to its roots. It’s not dead. But it will need to be revived before it can yield fruit. When Peter points out the tree, Jesus explains the situation by saying that faith’s power is double-edged. It can build things up and make things grow. It can likewise cause things to crumble and wither away. “Truly I tell you,” He says in verse 23, “if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.”

This mountain—the Mount of Olives, which they’re descending to reach Jerusalem—is a holy place. According to the prophets, it’s the site where the Messiah will first appear and His appearance will split the mountain wide open. (Zechariah 14.4) Jesus is saying that nothing is ever so sacred—or sacrosanct—that it’s immune to being dismantled and remade. A barren tree can be reduced to its roots to regrow and yield new fruit. A holy hill can be torn asunder and thrown into the sea to make way for a New Order. A Temple defiled by exploitation of captive believers can be cleansed and reestablished as the house of prayer that God ordained it to be. Jesus tells us when we couple hatred of what we know is unhealthy and displeasing to God with faith that it can be replaced with something better, what we say will come to pass. Faithful acts of hatred spring forth in new life and new growth—new wholeness and holiness.

As believers, we are called to hate the things that Jesus hated. But our calling doesn’t stop there. Jesus teaches us to speak to those things, to act against them—and to pay no regard for the consequences that may befall us. We are called to decry and oppose poverty, prejudice, exploitation, violence, hypocrisy, and every other ill that defiles God’s creation. Love that ignores harm or tolerates indifference is harmful and indifferent. It’s no love at all. The world’s evils justify our hatred and the actions we take to dismantle them. As we will learn next Sunday, destructive hatred will never defeat its righteous counterpart. Why? Because hating the things that Jesus hated is an act of love. And love always wins.

In cleansing the Temple, Jesus teaches us that evil merits our hatred—and nothing is so sacred or sacrosanct that it can’t be dismantled and replaced by new life, new growth, new wholeness and holiness.

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