St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Exodus 20.1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.13-22
The scripture readings for today cover a lot of territory – the ten commandments, a psalm proclaiming the glory of God as revealed in creation and the law, Paul’s proclamation of Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, and Jesus’ zeal for God’s house as seen in the cleansing of the temple. With Lent in mind, what is it that unites these readings? Is there some unifying theme not readily apparent?
The Fertile Crescent gave rise to several ancient legal codes, but the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, is radically different in three ways: First, unlike these other codes, it is God-given. Abraham’s descendants were encamped near Mount Sinai. The Lord descended on the mount and told Moses to warn the people not to break through to look upon the Lord lest they perish. After having done so, we are told, “Then God spake all these words” (Exodus 20.1; NRSV). Second, the commandments are set within the context of a loving, salvific relationship: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20.2: NRSV). And third, the nature of the people’s relationship to God, which is lacking in these other codes, is stipulated – the people are to worship no other gods (they were to abandon their polytheistic practices), nor to make any idols for the sake of worship, nor to use God’s name in vain. The quality of a right relationship to God is first spelled out, then the quality of a right relationship to our neighbor. These commandments set forth God’s design for life – a design which, if lived, will yield peace and wholeness.
Why is it that God gave us the commandments in the context of God’s love and mercy, yet we have received, perceived, and attempted to observe them in the context of God’s wrath? We have negatively construed what was positively given.
Our negative response becomes more apparent when we contrast it with the response set forth in Psalm 19 (you may wish to follow the reading in your bulletin). The first six verses invite us to consider the awesome glory of God as revealed through creation: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork” (Psalm 19.1; NRSV). Although the heavens and the firmament “have no words or language,” no voice, “their sound has gone out into all lands and their message to the ends of the world” (Psalm 19.3-4; NRSV).
Having touched on the awesomeness of God as seen through creation, the psalmist then turns to the awesomeness of God as revealed through the law. Note the positive aspects of God’s law as portrayed by the psalmist: “The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the innocent. The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean and endures for ever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Psalm 19.7-9; BCP). The psalmist tells us God’s judgments are “more to be desired…than gold” (Psalm 19.10a; BCP), for they serve to enlighten us; those who observe them are greatly rewarded. We should rejoice! The law of love was given through God’s love and mercy, yet we have turned it into an onerous burden and we seek to circumvent it.
The psalmist notes our proclivity to sin, to miss the mark, and prays for cleansing: “Who can tell how often he offends? Cleanse me from my secret faults” (Psalm 19.12; BCP). He further prays that God would keep him from “presumptuous sins,” i.e., from overstepping his bounds, from insolence; that such sins “not get dominion (or take control) over him.” Should God grant this, he would “be whole and sound, and innocent of a great offense.” The psalmist then closes with the prayer: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer” (Psalm 19.13-14; NRSV). We often recite these words before the sermon; Oh, that they would be on our lips at the start of the day!
In God’s immense love, God sent Jesus, his only Son, that we might see how to live more fully in love. In John 2 we read of how Jesus went up to Jerusalem as the Passover was near, of how, upon entering the Temple, he “found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables” (John 2.13-14; NRSV). Imagine the shock Jesus must have experienced at seeing the temple profaned. “You shall have no other gods before me,” yet here were the money changers worshiping wealth and robbing the poor in God’s temple. In Mark’s account, we read that following the cleansing, Jesus taught and said, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?’ But you have made it a den of robbers” (11.17; NRSV). Jesus made a whip of cords, drove out the cattle and the sheep, poured out the coins of the money changers, overturned their tables, and told those selling doves. “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” (John 2.15-16; NRSV)! In this instance, Jesus did more than teach – he acted in a manner which had some shock value. Gentle words and admonitions would not have made a difference.
The Jewish leaders then asked, “What sign can you show for doing this?” In other words, “By whose authority do you act?” And Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” This was madness to the Jewish leaders who reminded Jesus that the temple had been under construction for forty-six years; I suspect they rather sneeringly said “Will you raise it up in three days” (John 2.18-20; NRSV)?
John further tells us that the disciples, looking retrospectively on this event, later remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me” and realized that Jesus was speaking of himself when he said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2.17,19; NRSV).
Jesus’ life of love was more than this world could tolerate. He was crucified on the cross that those who believe in him might have everlasting life. From the world’s point of view, it was all madness. As St. Paul tells the Church of Corinth (and us), “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 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” (I Corinthians 1.18, 21; NRSV). Paul further notes how the Jews demand signs (as noted above) and the Greeks desire wisdom, i.e., reason and deliberation. In contrast, Paul says, “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” (I Corinthians 1.23-25; NRSV).
So, what’s the upshot of all this? The commandments and the gift of God’s son reveal God’s immense love for us; God desires that we know how to live and that we benefit from so living—that we have fullness of life. Eleanor Stump, a noted Catholic philosopher, says “God’s instruction manual…is not limited just to the sets of rules in the ten commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. There is a medieval saying: every act of Christ is a teaching for us (Omnis Christi actio nostra est instructio). Christ’s life and actions, as they are set out in the Gospels, are our best help for seeing how to live our lives well” (http://liturgy.slu.edu/3LentB030418/reflections_stump.html).
Ron Rolheiser, who I often quote, tells us more about the nature of love as it was displayed in Jesus’s life and actions:
What Jesus did in his passion and death was to transform bitterness and division rather than to retransmit them and give them back in kind. In the love which he showed in his passion and death Jesus did this: He took in hatred, held it inside himself, transformed it, and gave back love. He took in bitterness, held it, transformed it, and gave back graciousness. He took in curses, held them, transformed them, and gave back blessing. He took in paranoia, held it, transformed it, and gave back big-heartedness. He took in murder, held it, transformed it, and gave back forgiveness. And he took in enmity, bitter division, held it, transformed it, and through that revealed to us the deep secret for forming community, namely, we need to take away the hatred that divides us by absorbing and holding it within ourselves and thereby transforming it. Like a water purifier which holds within itself the toxins and the poisons and gives back only pure water, we must hold within ourselves the toxins that poison community and give back only graciousness and openness to everyone. That’s the only key to overcome division (http://liturgy.slu.edu/3LentB030418/reflections_rolheiser.html). [Emphasis mine.]
What an awesome God we have, and how awesome is what God would have us become. May the Spirit lead us in the work of transformation.