Sunday, March 15, 2009

Third Sunday in Lent

John 2
13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. 15Making 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. 16He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ 17His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ 18The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ 19Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ 20The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After 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.

You savor that first mouthful of food and the phone rings.
You secretly imagine you are James Bond in an Aston Martin with a full array of weapons to eliminate bad drivers.
You’ve written the email but worry that ALL CAPS may not be strong enough.
You curse the first kid who ever said “but I’m not tired.”
You are prompted by the voice on the phone to say “English” and instead you say “angry.”

Meanwhile, in your head, various sensory organs are already on the phone to the amygdala, ready to send orders. The neurons fly as the limbic forebrain gets ready, with particular attention to the chemists in the Hypothalamus department. They are busy cooking up a potpourri of hormones to raise your heart rate, blood pressure and overall sense of readiness. They’ll keep this up until the coffee truck comes, and then its break time and everyone will calm down.

Meanwhile, back in childhood, you were likely conditioned to forestall the entire process. There is no reward in the daycare for expressing anger, where the catch phrases are “use your words” and “use your inside voice.” Both assume that the workshop in your brain can retooled or downsized, resulting in reasoned toddlers fully engaged in alternate dispute resolution on their way to a pre-school Nobel Prize.

If you follow the evolution of humanity through the most reliable source I know, namely Star Trek: The Next Generation, you will discover that the future will be populated with Starfleet philosophers and well-meaning empaths. Anger and frustration can be cured with a trip to the holodeck or through a stiff dealcoholized drink and a conversation with Whoppi Goldberg.

So we eliminated anger in our collective fictional future, what about the past? How have we applied the lessons of the daycare yard to the Ancient Near-East, and in particular the ministry of Jesus? So I have to ask, did Jesus get angry?

If I recall properly, anger is in the top seven with a bullet (the others are greed, lust, gluttony, pride, envy, sloth). And early theologians, who seemed to spend entirely too much time thinking about the big seven, were beside themselves knowing that someone might misinterpret cleansing the temple with anger. Jesus’ perfection is on the list of reconsidered doctrines, but in the past it was critical to theological reasoning. The early answer, then, was that Jesus was not mad, he was “righteously indignant.”

Now, before I say more, I have to say I am a big fan of righteous indignation. Some idiot drove to the airport in Burlington, VT and didn’t realize that his poodle was in the back seat. The dog was locked in the car for nineteen days, often in sub-zero temperatures, and somehow managed to survive. So I hear the story and I’m on an emotional roller coaster: brave little Fluffy, proving that poodles are superior beings, and red-hot anger at the stupidity of said owner, an example, I suppose, of righteous indignation.

The problem with righteous indignation is that like the tough little poodle, it’s domesticated. Anger has been transformed into something presentable, laudable, almost expected in our tradition, when it is really no longer anger at all. When we deny Jesus the ability to get angry (and make him righteously indignant instead) we deny much of his essential humanity and we undermine the gravity of the situation itself. Off to the temple.

There was all manner of livestock for sale. There were currency traders, there were middleman, speculators and those guys who say “apply today for a low introductory rate and a free gift.” The place was crowded with buying and selling, negotiating, bartering, chirping, bleating, mooing and that other thing animals do if they hang around long enough. It was a mess. And into this mess arrived Jesus armed only with a keen respect for God’s house and a mitt full of commandments. Ten, in fact, and fully half of them spoke to the situation in the temple:

Greed is a god, and the command was ‘have no other gods.’
Coins are idols, when Augustus is hailed as God’s son on every other coin in the place.
God’s name is misused, when God is the excuse for the whole sorry mess.
And they made be keeping the Sabbath, but they sure aren’t keeping it holy. (Ex 20. 3-8)

And just for good measure let’s throw in “Thou shalt not steal,” because everyone knows that the only way to describe currency conversion is theft.

So Jesus is in a mad-non-mad state and gets noticed. He has thrown the entire enterprise into an uproar, he has disrupted the free-flow of commerce and the vaulted place of the market. He has interrupted the spot price for sheep belly futures and hurt triangle arbitrage between drachmas, denarius and shekels. In other words, he has become the enemy of big business. And that never ends well.

And it still wouldn’t end well, and it’s still a bad idea to mess with the free-flow of commence, except when commerce is somehow humbled and the tables turn. It took a comedian (Jon Stewart) to finally get angry about the incestuous relationship between business and business journalism this past week and finally ask the angry and appropriate questions. It took a comedian to finally demand some accountability from a businessperson giving advice as a journalist while simultaneously profiting from the very advice they were shouting on the air. Maddening.

The truth is we have been lured away from anger, when in case after case anger remains the best response. We are like a nation on lithium, cut off from emotional highs and lows and existing in an emotional limbo where no one gets very excited and no one gets particularly angry either. And then when we do get angry, it’s more likely to be directed at the person from “customer service” than someone who is actually doing something worthy of anger. A parent slaps their kid in the supermarket: we head for the next aisle. A “person of colour” is being mistreated in line, we look away. Someone tells us “religion is stupid” and we change to topic. Time and time again we reject anger—not for the sake of rejecting anger—but because sometimes, we just don’t care.

The truth is, only God can save us. Only God can help us lift up the commandments and liberally apply them to the hurt in our world. Only God can sweep through the temple and turn tables. Only God can help us discern what deserves anger, or understanding, or forgiveness, or grace, and prompt us through the Spirit to use the right response. Only God can save us, and lead us, and set us free.


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