Sunday, February 19, 2012

Third Sunday in Lent Year B

Third Sunday in Lent B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

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

Having spectacularly and
miraculously rescued the chosen from slavery in Egypt, God gives the rules that will prevent God's people from reverting to slavery or falling into the ways of injustice of their larger, more powerful neighbors. These commandments show how to practice justice to God, whose actions have saved them, and justice to one another.  Robert Alter adapts the notion that when the Hebrews shifted from recording sacred covenants  on metal or stone to ink on parchment or papyrus, the iterations of the "Ten" commandments became elaborated, as in this version.  (The Five Books of Moses, p. 428-429).  God's identity is the One "Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery."  God made is explicitly clear that no other gods nor their images will be tolerated in this relationship.  God makes no apologies for being "jealous," which can mean vindictiveness to the "third generation and with the fourth," or, conversely, "kindness to the thousandth generation...."  God knows who are "My friends," i.e. "those who keep my commandments."  God's name is not to be taken in "vain"; the sabbath is to be honored.  The following commandments regarding others are equally and integrally important: honor parents, do not cheat on your spouse, steal nor "bear false witness," nor "covet" your neighbor's family or belongings.

C.S. Lewis regards Psalm 19 as "the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world."  He also concludes that its structure is quite compatible with "most modern poetry," because it leaps from one concern-- creation-- to another-- the Law-- to a third-- personal confession-- allowing/causing the reader to make associations and connections, (Reflections on the Psalms, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Javonovich, 1958, p.63).  After celebrating the the splendor of each day with its spectacular beginning of sunrise, the psalmist understands the Law as a similar, life-renewing, life-giving brilliance, but concludes by acknowledging her own dark failures.

In Paul's imagination, there are two dominant, venerable
world-views-- Greco-Roman and Jewish. Each has centuries of accumulated texts, sophisticated systems of philosophy and wisdom, literature, poetry, ritual and piety. People live and die by them. They are re-enforced by politics, mores and conventional wisdom. They are the foundations upon which personal and public life are built. Paul understands fully the shock of a new announcement: "For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."

Whereas the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, Luke) place Jesus not going "up to Jerusalem," until the final week of his life, John's narrative places an earlier visit right at the beginning of his ministry. 

Jesus plaits a whip out of chords, over-turns the tables of the moneychangers and retailers of pigeons for sacrifice, spills the money on the floor and drives them out. "The Jews" ask the meaning of this violent action by Jesus. Jesus provides an answer that makes no sense to those who do not believe but is clear to his followers who recall, "After he was raised from the dead" what he said on that unforgettable occasion. What they remembered he said was, "Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up." Then John explains, "[H]e was speaking of [another "temple"] the Temple of his body." It is through the destruction and raising up of this "temple" that many, Jews and Gentiles, will find a new sign of God's beneficence and love.

When God gave the commandments to Moses that would preserve God's people, it was a terrifying event, shrouded in smoke and fire. "T]he whole mountain quaked greatly," trumpets sounded accompanied by the kettle-drums of thunder. (Exodus 19:18-19) God's commandments are a gift that, as the psalmist waxes, are perfect and just, making and restoring personal and corporate living, but their appearance in the world does violence to current ways of doing things.

The other three gospel narratives place Jesus' violent confrontation with the religious status quo just before his execution, but John places it right at the very beginning of his entrance into public life. And once again, God's spectacular gift of love, this time in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, conflicts with human invention and expectation.

God's revelation cannot be domesticated, or organized into human categories or systems. Characteristically, it always levels our assumptions.

Citing von Balthasar's
Theo-Drama 4, Kevin Mongrain' summarizes, "God is the immanent non-other (non-aliud) to the world, the Other who is fully present in self-giving to human creatures but yet always alludes the grasp of explanatory theories that pretend to see God and world together in one inclusive perspective." (The Systematic Thought of Hans urs von Baltahsar, p, 82)

Paul has bet his life on the radical revelation of God in Christ. He knows first-hand the inevitable conflict with human religious and political authority. But he also knows form his own personal experience that God's action in Christ is nothing less than "the power and wisdom of God."

Are God's life-giving actions only in the past? What about today? Jean-Luc Marion considers God's past revelations and extrapolates this way: "Whether it be a question of crossing the Red Sea [or the gift of the Decalogue, or the witness of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, we can add] or of the conquest of the Promised Land, 'the memorial of the Messiah, son of David your servant, and the memorial of your people', the event remains less a past fact than a pledge given in the past in order, today still, to appeal to a future-- an advent, that of the Messiah-- that does not cease to govern
this today from beginning to end." "The past determines the reality of the present--better, the present is understood as a today to which alone the memorial, as an actual pledge, gives meaning and reality." (God Without Being, pp 172-173)

Those who hear these biblical claims
"today" (and even more those who preach them!) are engaging with something that is notoriously unmanageable. It shakes well-established and deeply held political and even religious beliefs and rattles the structures that support them with the weight of human authority and tradition. There will be "violence" because God's revelation always "alludes the grasp of explanatory theories that pretend to see God and world together in one inclusive perspective."

The generous God of creation, who
declared it all good, is also the God of salvation, whose love always exceeds all human constructs and systems and leaves our imaginations reeling! To most this is "foolish." But to those who believe, it is the "power and wisdom of God."