Greetings, SBT Readers!
Writing after a week of back-to-back commitments, I finally have a moment to breathe and reflect. It has been a good week, but overly-full, and I am conscious of needing to tend to my own soul! One of the problems with pandemic life is that there is no demarcation between public life and private life. Students and clients assume I am permanently at my computer (which is not far wrong); this means that emails pop up at all hours of the day and night, seven days a week. Today, Saturday, for example, an athletics coach from one of the universities where I teach, has requested an update on one of his players; I also received a "gentle reminder" from HR that I have yet to take a mandated cyber-security course; by the end of the day, I know there will be at least half a dozen student requests for extensions on assignments. Happily, I had the foresight to excuse myself from a last-minute academic meeting, as my weekend will include editing, paper grading, and videotaping a lecture.
Anyone who is working from home right now can probably identify with my experience of being permanently "on call." There are tasks to accomplish whether it is Saturday or Sunday, and the virtual world cannot distinguish between day and night, workweek and weekend. That being said, a good Lenten practice is to "unplug" at regular intervals, so as to avoid "Zoom fatigue" and soul-atrophy. We can only worship "in Spirit and truth" if we build in contemplative moments into our day -- time to gaze at a flower in bloom, to take a walk, to turn off our phones, to be unavailable to everyone except God...
And now for my walk by the river...
Since the Passover of the Jews was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers seated there. He made a whip out of cords
and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money changers
and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”
While the synoptic gospels place the Cleansing of the Temple in the final days before Jesus' arrest, in John's Gospel there is a different sequence of events: first comes John the Baptist's testimony about Jesus, then the call of the first disciples, and, after that, the Wedding Feast at Cana. Instead of serving as a catalyst for the crucifixion, the Cleansing of the Temple, according to John, marks the inauguration of God's reign. Having journeyed to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, Jesus goes to the temple area and there finds the buyers and sellers, the money changers and sacrificial animals. There is nothing unusual about this sight; Jesus, in fact, must have witnessed it many times, perhaps accompanying his parents to purchase sacrificial animals to celebrate the holy days. Perhaps such transactions may have disturbed him in the past but now, following his new, post-Baptismal consciousness of his mission, he finds them intolerable -- so much so that he drives out merchants and animals alike, overturning tables and spilling coins...
"Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" There is both anger and anguish in these words as Jesus sweeps away the elements of ritual activity based on animal sacrifice. He speaks and acts with authority, claiming Divine Sonship. John has already established Jesus' identity through preceding events; moreover, the Johannine Jesus is fully aware of events to come (his death and resurrection), and of whom to trust and not trust. His disciples, having witnessed the miracle at Cana, interpret Jesus' actions as the fulfillment of the scriptures. His ministry has only just begun and yet they have already beheld his glory (Jn 2:11). John's theological purpose, then, is to present Jesus as the Holy One who speaks with the authority of God.
So what is Jesus saying to us? For some Christians, the idea of an "angry Jesus" is incompatible with images of Jesus as healer, Good Shepherd, teacher, preacher, miracle worker... They see his violent actions but, unable to reconcile them with the Jesus of Faith, move on to a more relatable Jesus -- one who endorses the status quo and who affirms them in their own religious beliefs and practices. But Jesus' actions in the Temple puncture notions of religion based on habit and rote, calling us to find the Holy in all times and all places. In his encounter with the Samaritan woman, he says: "But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth" (Jn 4:23).
These words are key to understanding the Cleansing of the Temple. Our relationship with God must extend beyond religious practices that are transactional (I will do this so that God will do that); or habitual (this is how I have always prayed); or self-serving (this makes me look good and feel good); or mindless (I say my prayers and hope God listens). What Jesus is sweeping away are the archaic notions of having to appease God either to prevent disaster or to get what we want. He is turning the tables on those who imagine that sacrifices can merit God's blessing even if they are corrupt, heartless, and unjust. He is upending the attitude that prayer is something external, or that we can buy God's favor. Instead, he invites us to find God in the here and now, in the circumstances of our own lives; in that way, we can enter the sanctuary of our own hearts where the Holy One already resides.