Repent!  It’s the Law!  3d Sunday in Lent

Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

The “orthodox” interpretation of these readings is as follows:  There is still great reward in keeping the Ten Commandments.  But St. Paul reminds us that Christ is the power and wisdom of God for those of us who are saved, and is “foolishness to those who are perishing.”  The world did not know God through wisdom, Paul says, but through Christ crucified.  God decided to save those who believe in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  This is a “stumbling block to Jews.”  As confirmation, during the “Passover of the Jews,” John’s Jesus cleanses the Temple.  When “the Jews” object, and demand a sign that he has the authority to do this, Jesus says, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.”  “The Jews” then take Jesus’s words literally.  How is it possible to re-build a temple that has taken 46 years to construct?  But, the narrator says, Jesus was talking about his own body.  “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered . . . and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” – unlike “the Jews.”

The readings from Paul’s first extant letter to the Corinthians and from the Gospel of John refer to “the Jews” six times.  By the end of the “reading of the word” in most Christian churches, the people have heard that “the Jews” are foolish sinners, who corrupt God’s Temple, break God’s law, and refuse to accept that Jesus is the Messiah they have been praying for since King David wrote the Psalms.  

This is an opportunity for preachers of the Gospel to put their seminary training into practice.  Otherwise blatant anti-Semitism is unavoidable, even (perhaps especially) in mainline Protestant churches.  It is a chance to further the process of moving the Church off its long detour from the Way that Jesus died teaching.  To use a word popular for this time in the Christian year, “Repent!”  It rhymes with “Lent.”

Start with the story in John’s Gospel.  The Gospel of John was written sometime either very late in the First Century, or within the first 25 years of the Second Century.  Burton L. Mack, in The Lost Gospel,  suggests that John’s Gospel only made it into the Canon because second-third Century organizers of the new Christian movement thought it was actually written by a disciple – perhaps “the one Jesus loved.”  Aspects of John’s Gospel are almost too close to the old gnostic heresy, and if it had not been attributed to “John,” it would likely have gone the route of the Gospel of Thomas, and perhaps not have been found for nearly 2,000 years.  As Elaine Pagels has also pointed out, Christian theology would have been very different without it.

The story of Jesus driving the money changers out of the Temple first was told by Mark, and later by Matthew and Luke, as part of Jesus’s last week, perhaps on Monday of what became “holy week.”  But the Gospel of John works this story into a visit by Jesus to Jerusalem during a Passover celebration that is not Jesus’s last week.  Instead, the incident follows the story of Jesus’s first miracle – the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine.

John is the only gospel writer that puts Jesus’s purported quote about rebuilding the temple on Jesus’s lips.  The writer uses these words to reinforce the metaphor of Jesus’s body, resurrected after three days.  The Jesus Seminar scholars point out that the quotation was attributed to Jesus in a fragment from the Sayings Gospel of Thomas.  That the saying was circulating among the various fledgling Christian communities is evident, but whether the saying refers to the actual destruction of the Temple in the late 60s, or to the story of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, is impossible to discern.  Mark’s story uses it in the context of Jesus’s trial before the high priest (Mark 14:58), when he is accused of blasphemy.  Later these same supposed words are thrown back at Jesus by his tormentors on Golgotha (Mark 15:29).  The writer of Matthew’s gospel does the same (Matthew 26:61; 27:40).  Luke does not use this quote until his opus magnus, “The Acts of the Apostles,” which scholarly consensus is dating well into the second Century.  In Luke’s story, it is the “false witnesses” against Stephen who accuse Stephen of having said that “Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us” (Acts 6:14).

John’s community was apparently in the midst of controversy.  The writer continually points out that the Jewish temple leadership (scribes, pharisees) rejected the idea that Jesus was the Messiah.  John’s Jesus starts his ministry in Galilee – Capernaum, Cana – then he goes down to Jerusalem for a Passover celebration.  After that, he makes his way back to Galilee, where he hangs out for some time.  Then comes the fateful decision (Chapter 7) to secretly return to Judea, where he hangs out near Jerusalem for the remainder of the story.  When the Judeans demand to know what miracle Jesus can show them to justify throwing the money changers out of the Temple, John’s Jesus retorts, “Destroy this Temple, and I’ll resurrect it in three days.”  

John’s community may have been post-Temple Jewish exiles, possibly living in what is now modern-day Turkey, and removed from the historical Roman sacking of Jerusalem by 40 to 60 years.  They believed that Jesus was the Messiah.  Because of that belief – and insistence on its truth – they may have been under some pressure to leave the synagogue they belonged to.  Given those circumstances, Jesus’s words are a defiant challenge to the leadership who refuse to believe who he was.  It is possible – given usual human behavior – that they blamed the destruction of the Temple on Jewish collaborators.  Whether they did or not, there is a fine double meaning in Jesus’s words reclaimed by John:  “I will not only rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem [which you destroyed] within three days, I will come back in the flesh to condemn you after you have killed me.”

These are fighting words.  They are not the words of non-violent, distributive justice, which were preached by the original Jesus.  Taken out of their probable context, they have been and continue to be dangerous.  It is time to repent.

The portion from 1st Corinthians is apparently pivotal to Christian orthodoxy because it is required reading in all three years, twice in years B and C and three times in year A: Holy Cross (all three years; September 14); Lent 3 (year B); Tuesday of Holy Week (all three years); and 4 Epiphany (year A).  Despite the Elves’ best efforts, these commentaries have managed to avoid it until now for three reasons: 1) the unpredictability of Easter, resulting in the elimination of 5 of the possible 8 Sundays in Epiphany, Year A; 2) confining discussion of specific days in Easter Week to Year C’s exploration of kenosis; and 3) concentration on Sundays, rather than other special days such as Holy Cross, Thanksgiving, and All Saints.  

Now that the Elves have at last prevailed, what can be done with Paul’s first argument after the cordial greetings in 1:1-10?  To start with, Paul’s opening salvo needs to be studied in its whole context, from 1:10 through 2:17.  (The Elves have us studying 1:10-17 on 3 Epiphany in Year A, and 2:1-12 on 5 Epiphany, Year A, which was an “Easter orphan” in these commentaries.  We never finish chapter 2.)  Next, two points made by Crossan and Reed in In Search of Paul need to be kept in mind.  First, Paul’s theology sets the realm/kingdom of God in opposition to the empire of Rome.  Second, Paul’s theology contrasts the self-serving normalcy of civilized life with the radical denial of self-interest (kenosis) of those who are committed to the great work of restoring God’s distributive justice-compassion.  When these two points are understood, anti-Semitism disappears, along with Christian spiritual exclusivity and Christian political hegemony.  

So, Paul is blasting his friends in Corinth for fighting about which baptism carries the most weight.  Paul says he wishes he hadn’t baptized anyone, because Christ did not send him to baptize people but to proclaim the power of the cross of Christ.  That power, says Paul, makes no sense to those who are “perishing” by living according to the unjust systems of Roman imperial society.  But those who get the point of the crucifixion of Jesus are liberated from injustice, and empowered to join and continue the work.  Paul calls for the Corinthians to consider who they were when they joined the group.  “Not many of you” were powerful or of noble birth – which implies that some indeed were.  But those who are of high rank or social status don’t get to brag about that, and claim power over others in the community.  “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord,” Paul says.

21st Century church leaders must repudiate the emphasis on Paul’s phrase, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” Clearly, this phrase has been used in the service of anti-Semitism from the beginning of the organized Christian Church.  Further, “Gentiles” has often meant non-Christians other than Jews who do not believe the Christian myth.  Both interpretations have been and continue to be anachronisms because the phrase has been lifted out of its context.  Paul goes on to say that “to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  In other words, to those who agree to participate in the restoration of God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion, regardless of who they may be, the crucified Christ symbolizes the power and the wisdom of God’s kenotic action in the world.

Because Paul was a devout Jew, and a Pharisee, he uses Jewish theology to powerful effect.  One aspect of Jewish theological tradition is the concept of the Wisdom of God.  Wisdom is personified as the feminine spirit who was with God from the beginning, who pitched her tents among the people, who calls from the heights beside the way.  When Paul says that “Christ [is] the power and the wisdom of God,” he is drawing on ancient and revered Jewish tradition.  In 1 Corinthians 2:8, he says “Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom . . . But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” “Lay aside immaturity,” Wisdom says, “and live and walk in the way of insight” (Proverbs 9:6; see, especially, Proverbs 8).

God’s wisdom is revealed through God’s kenotic, radically self-denying spirit, which was embodied in Jesus.  When Jesus died, that same spirit was then extended to those who can accept it.  This is craziness to people caught up in the normalcy of social hierarchy and control.  It is liberation to those who are able to discern that it is spiritual truth.  They (we) “have the mind of Christ.”