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The Reverend Kathleen Killian

Lent 3B/24

Exodus 20:1-17

Psalm 19

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

John 2:13-22

March 3rd 2024


Foolish Zeal?

There’s a word in our gospel reading that catches the ear, at least it did mine, which is “zeal”; an old fashioned biblical word largely out of usage. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually heard anyone use zeal in a sentence or conversation. Zeal can mean excitement of mind or fervor of spirit; or as in Jesus’ case, the fierceness of indignation. After witnessing Jesus’ zealous cleansing of the temple, his disciples remembered the phrase from Psalm 69, zeal for your house will consume me. Indeed. 

All four gospels recount the story of Jesus cleansing of the temple. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the event occurs towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, and was the final instigating straw that provoked the authorities to put Jesus to death. But in the gospel of John, Jesus overturns the tables in the temple at the beginning of his ministry—right after turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11). I mean, who’s going to take offense at that delightful miracle? Jesus is not yet on anyone’s adversarial radar, so why his foolish zeal? 

The setting of our story is Passover when all Jews, including Jesus, were required to make a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. From far and near, faithful throngs poured into the city, where many would have to buy sacrificial animals and exchange their pagan imaged Roman coins into Jewish shekels in order to pay the temple taxes. 

These services were needed to be sure. But the temple in Jerusalem was also Israel’s “national bank”—a powerful treasury with great wealth—and great wealth rarely sits idle. Sacrifices were sold, and money loaned and exchanged at high interest rates, not unlike the medieval churches that sold expensive indulgences or a get-out-of-hell card to the fearful faithful. 

When Jesus arrives at the holy temple and sees that its commercial marketplace had become a system of exploitation, particularly of the poor, sick, and common folk who had little choice but to pay exorbitant tithes, he is outraged: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”  Whip cracking, coins clattering, people scattering, animals bolting, the temple court in chaos, Jesus unhinged, the authorities ask him—and I think rather calmly, considering—why have you done this, what sign can you give us for your actions?  

Jesus’ answer—destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up—is one of self-revelation as was his reference to his “Father’s house.” His enigmatic statement intimates that destruction and creation are related forces; that a tearing down gives rise to building up; that dying leads to new life. And it is understandably confusing to those listening. The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed twice before, and had been under construction for forty-seven years in the process of being rebuilt for a third time. Jesus’ disciples also didn’t understand that he was speaking about the temple of his body, until after he had been crucified and raised from the dead. 

This is an unsettling story. What are we to do with the anger of our beloved gentle Jesus? What are we to do with our own anger?

On the most basic of levels, Jesus was human and all of us humans have all of the emotions. Though anger is one of the eight dangerous thoughts and one of the seven deadly sins, it is not always dangerous or a sin; sometimes anger is necessary, as an initiating or purifying energy, as in Jesus’ cleansing the temple. 

It’s interesting to me that when Jesus “drives” the money changers out of the temple court, it is in the Greek the same verb (ekballo) when he “casts out” demons and evil spirits (for example Matthew 8:16); when he “cleanses” the lepers (Matthew 10:8); and when he warns us to “pull out” the mote from our own eye before judging our neighbor (Matthew 7:5);  as the psalmist prays, who can tell how often he offends? cleanse me from my secret faults. 

Sometimes Jesus’ forcefulness is tagged as holy or righteous anger. I don’t particularly like this phrase because as the world well knows, anger has been used in the name of religion and God as a weapon of annihilation and to justify violence. If we have to tag it, I prefer the phrase “conscious anger”; in that Jesus was fully aware of his motivation and actions. He was not acting unconsciously or selfishly, nor was he out of control. He was not seeking vengeance but liberation and restoration. Becoming conscious of what we do and why is much of what it means to grow up into the full stature or fullness of Christ. 

Nowhere in our Old Testament reading of the Ten Commandments does it say: thou shalt not be angry; though anger is certainly implicit to some of the forbidden actions. There are slightly varying versions of the Ten Commandments (as well, Deuteronomy 5:6-21, Exodus 34:11-26) that were given to Moses by God as a way of “making conscious” for Israel the ethical norms and principles by which they were to live. Roughly the first half of the commandments are those that define Israel’s relationship with God, while the remaining commandments are concerned with human relationships, which grow from our foundational relationship with God. 

It’s as if the Lord is saying: Follow these rules, and we will co-exist in harmony. But faithfully keeping even one commandment—your pick—is easier said than done. Jesus emphasized the significance of God’s commandments and observing them, but he called for more than an external compliance or a legalistic conscience, insisting that the kingdom of God manifests in true change of heart and authentic transformation. Jesus “cleansed the temple” not to abolish the law but to fulfill it by casting out false allegiances, evil intent, spiritual complacency, oppression of the poor, hypocrisy, idolatry, and greed, that the temple—our bodies and souls—are free from corruption and terminal death. 

This season of Lent, what has Jesus come to emphatically overthrow in your life? What freedom has he come to vigorously insist upon? Have we become so worldly wise that we know better? Is our faith so abstract, so disembodied, that the power of Christ in us has atrophied? Or is our relationship with God so transactional as to be a marketplace of deals, buys, and bargains? 

Do we love God zealously, foolishly?

Foolishness is the word that St. Paul uses five times in our Epistle to describe the message of the cross. Say “foolishness” five times fast enough—try it with me—and foolishness becomes gibberish, which is what many of Paul’s contemporaries would have thought: you’re talking gibberish Paul, and this cross stuff is foolishness.

But Paul’s letter was addressed to followers of Jesus, meaning us; and specifically to the Corinthians, who though they had already confessed their faith in a crucified Christ, had become proud and competitive among themselves causing disunity and hurt. Paul reminds the splintered church at Corinth that the gospel does not operate according to the wisdom and ways of the world but by the foolishness and way of the cross. 

The story of a savior crucified on a cross is one of divine weakness and poverty that deconstructs our every lust for power. Jesus comes to drive out our every lust for illusion, including that of his church. Never once does he say, understand me; nor does he say worship me; rather, Jesus says something far more difficult and personal. Follow me. Take up your cross, and follow me—which means he is in the lead! 

So let us take heart that if you’ve lost sight of him, if you can’t hear him calling, Jesus is still there—here—calling and leading us, that we may follow the true and living Way.