Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Third Sunday in Lent
March 7, 2021
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the moneychangers seated at their tables. Making 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 moneychangers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After 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.
1 Corinthians 1.18-25
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
When Jesus turned over the tables in the Temple market, in the story that Jane read, you could say that it was an act of foolishness. At best it was symbolic – it wasn’t a calculated move toward reform, not part of a strategy for change. There was no question that the pigeon-sellers and moneychangers would be back the next day, hawking their wares to foreign pilgrims who needed to buy supplies for temple sacrifices. Maybe Jesus just lost his temper. Or perhaps it was a deliberate provocation of those who were watching him. Certainly the way it is told here in the Gospel of John, it becomes a declaration about the resurrection of Jesus. But it alerted the authorities to the presence of a threat. So was it foolish or wise?
Probably most of us have some experience with this kind of foolishness. A significant part of political activism consists of gestures. Perhaps you have asked yourself about such public events of celebration as Black History Month, or International Women’s Day tomorrow, or PIE day next week, asked yourself what they accomplish. Theatre, some would call it. (Though theatre can accomplish a lot.) Still, when people march, or sign petitions, or write letters, it sometimes feels as if it is more about expressing their own anger and frustration than about making actual concrete change. You can think back through the years about public reaction to suffragist hunger strikes, or to the Bathhouse Raids protests, to Occupy Wall Street, to the Women’s March, to Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Some people do write them off. Or perhaps sometimes you have sat alone at home writing an email to a Member of Parliament, or a letter to a Minister of Justice in a country halfway around the world, or an address to a shareholders’ meeting in a big corporation – perhaps you have done that and wondered whether you were wasting your time. (But you write it anyway, because you’re so darn mad). Foolishness or wisdom?
Is anger a good fuel for change? Christians sometimes take the story of Jesus in the Temple as a kind of authorization for righteous indignation, a source of energy for social justice work. Even Jesus got angry, we say. Well, yes. But reading through the whole story of his life, it’s not clear that anger was at the root of what he said and did. Looking carefully at Jesus’ words and actions, as we do in the season of Lent, it’s hard to discern what his objective was. He healed people, and fed them, and told them parables about how to live together. Enjoyed children. He was loving and inclusive, open to women and foreigners and the disabled. Occasionally angry. He broke bread with absolutely anybody. But it seems that he was not particularly oriented toward a social reform agenda. Not even especially committed to the growth of his own movement. He was attuned to a different song.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he too puzzles over Jesus. Paul readily admits that the message about the cross is a stumbling block, and foolishness to those who don’t grasp it. He acknowledges how unfathomable it is that the one he calls Lord would have been so ineffective in a worldly sense that his work barely got started. (Three years, according to the Gospel of John, but some scholars say just one year.) It is not just that Jesus was going along having a brilliant and successful ministry, which was unfortunately cut short by the crucifixion; Paul insists that there is something about the cross that is the point. Something about Jesus’ absolute solidarity with the human condition, in all its fragility and failure. Something about surrendering to the worst of what the world has to offer. About humility. His risen life is a function of his painful death, not an evasion of it. But this is almost beyond us to grasp.
We don’t know whether Jesus regretted his outburst in the Temple that day, but it seems that he never again raised his hand in anger. As Paul reminded his readers in Corinth (and now us, today), what the world sees as foolishness is better understood as God’s wisdom. God’s weakness has a strength of its own.
As we continue on the path of the Lenten journey may we too find the foolishness and the weakness that leads to wisdom and strength. Amen.
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