Sermon by Stephaine Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, March 7, 2021. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)
Our Lenten journey continues this week with a familiar story from the life of Jesus: the story of Jesus raging through an outer court of the Jerusalem Temple, turning over the tables of the currency exchanges, spilling jars of coins, driving out those who were selling animals for the prescribed sacrifices with, the gospel says, a whip of cords. This must have been an important story for how early Christian communities understood Jesus because some version of it appears in all four gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke place the story toward the end of Jesus’s ministry, right after he enters Jerusalem, welcomed by a crowd who spread their cloaks and tree branches on the road before him. In those gospels, the disruption Jesus created in the temple becomes the reason for his arrest and execution.
John, whose version of this story we heard read by Joey Hsia, instead places the story near the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. It’s the second sign Jesus performs in John’s gospel. The first is the changing of water into wine at the wedding at Cana—a sign that revealed Jesus’s glory and gestured toward the joy of the messianic feast. Jesus’s second sign is to appear as the prophets of old, taking up their argument that worshipping God in the temple is not enough to make up for injustice in the community and the oppression of foreigners and other vulnerable people. Just as Jeremiah stood in the gate of the temple asking, “Has this house…become a den of robbers in your sight?” John’s Jesus cries out, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
What is it that is making Jesus so angry in this story? Some scholars see the story as a continuation of an ongoing argument about temple worship and social justice that began with the ancient prophets of Israel. Others argue that Jesus made the disruption in the Court of the Gentiles, in full view of the Roman soldiers who would have been present there, to protest the ways the Roman Empire benefited from the temple tax and the sale of animals and the exchange of currency. The story was written, of course, not by contemporaries of Jesus, for whom the temple still stood, but by a member of a community who lived in the wake of the temple’s destruction by a Roman army that had razed Jerusalem to the ground and carried the temple’s holy objects back to Rome in triumph. For the community from which this gospel emerged, it is the resurrected body of Jesus that would become the new temple.
This story is cherished by many in our own day, especially by Christian activists who see it as a call to righteous anger in the face of injustice and an inspiration to active resistance to it. The anger of Jesus in this passage feels like a practice of hope—hope that things could be otherwise. If we’re angry about the way things are, that means we can still imagine the way things should be. Learning to keep the distance between what is and what ought to be in view is crucial if we and our world are going to change.
But over its long history this story has been marshalled in other ways as well. The image of Jesus, whip in hand, has been used to argue for the Christian use of violence—it was invoked in the preaching of the Crusades and in attacks on so-called heretics by both Catholics and Protestants.
It might be rare to hear such an argument today. But this story still works on our imagination in some dangerous and insidious ways. The gospel of John notoriously sets Jesus against “the Jews,” although Jesus is himself a Jew, who according to the gospel of Luke has been faithfully making the journey to Jerusalem for Passover since childhood. But in our day, this story, with its moneychangers and merchants, can play into modern anti-Semitic mythology about Jews controlling money and institutions, a mythology that did not exist at the time this gospel was written, but that is very much operative in our time, and in the antisemitism that is on the rise around the world today. In his book Constantine’s Sword, Boston writer James Carroll remembers preaching on this gospel story as a young priest in love with a radical Jesus who stood with the powerless, an image of Jesus that still undergirds his faith to this day. But looking back, he sees how easily he claimed the prerogative to do what Christians have long done, to our detriment--to define the meaning of Judaism ourselves so that the meaning of Jesus as somehow in opposition to it would be unmistakable. “If you had told me that my characterization of the Temple culture—the greed of the moneychangers, the exclusivity of the priests, the near idolatry of the edifice as such—partook of anti-Semitic stereotyping,” Carroll writes, “I would not have known what you were talking about.”
We’ve probably all had the kind of experience James Carroll describes. The magnificent Psalm 19, which Jimmy Young read for us this morning, contains a prayer for all of us who have ever passed along dangerous images and ideas about groups to which we do not belong because those ideas have been so hard-wired into us that we don’t see them. The prayer is verse 12 of Psalm 19: “But who can detect their errors?” the psalmist writes. “Clear me from hidden faults.”
This season of repentance is a time to reflect on the ways we have caused harm knowingly. But it is also a time to seek out the hidden faults that are more difficult to detect. We know the names of some of these faults—white supremacy, racism, antisemitism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism. But we don’t always know when they are at work in us. And when they come to us through our families or communities or religious traditions, we’re often reluctant to look for them.
Gregory the Great, a sixth century pope who wrote a book about how to be a good minister, advised those who want to lead that, as he put it, “the mind often lies to itself about itself” and our virtues can easily mask our vices. We might think we’re frugal when really we’re stingy, he says. Or we might think we’re open-handed when really we’re wasteful. Or we might think we’re zealous when really we’re just angry. Pastors have to take care to sort the one from the other, he says, or we hurt not only ourselves but others.
How do we do that? St. Teresa, the great Doctor of the Church, has some advice in her masterpiece on the human search for God, Interior Castle. The grandchild of converted Jews who were made to suffer by their fellow Christians after the Spanish convivencia—the living together of Jews, Christians and Muslims in Spain—came to a violent close, had this to say: love your neighbor. We can’t always be sure, she wrote, if we are loving God, but we can know quite well if we are loving our neighbor. There is never a point on our spiritual path when we can say we’ve passed beyond the stage of loving our neighbor, she insisted. Love is the heart of our spiritual path for Teresa; it is the point of it.
This is the teaching, too, of Jesus, who, when asked which commandment is the greatest said: To love God with all our heart and soul and mind and our neighbor as our self. It is also the teaching of Rabbi Hillel, who died in the decades before Jesus began his ministry. As Rabbi Hillel put it, the whole of the Torah can be summed up like this: What is hateful to you, don’t do to anyone else.
Last week during the College’s celebration of Women’s Week, I was lucky enough to join a panel of women religious leaders from diverse traditions who spoke powerfully and movingly about their life of faith. One of them, Avital Habshush of the Harvard Hillel, spoke about her research in genetics and how the study of science, for her, was a way of seeking God. I thought of Avital when I was reading Psalm 19 this week:
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
And the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night declares knowledge.
What is this wordless speech that each day communicates? What is this knowledge that runs along what the poet Emily Dickinson once called “the Rope that Nights were put across”? What is it God wants us to learn? Perhaps that we are all of us living within this ordinary glory, that the turning of the planet from day to night and back again gathers us all up under the same sky and puts us into relationship with each other whether we are alive to those relations or not. This speechless voice, the psalmist says, goes out through all the earth, and its words to the end of the world. There is no place where God is not calling to us to love more, no time when God is not drawing us toward one another. This Lent may we resist everything that obscures the dignity and freedom we owe one another as fellow inhabitants of God’s creation, everything that pulls us from each other’s care.