April Fools

Kevin Boteler

March 4, 2017

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

Good morning, Eighth Day.  If I may, I would like to start out with a familiar prayer that is also the last verse of today’s lectionary Psalm text.  If you’ll bow with me:

14 Let the words of my mouth
    and the meditations of my heart
    be pleasing to you,
    Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

I’m not yet sure yet exactly what my Call is at 8th Day, but I do know that a part of my Call (with a capital C) is to say yes when I get a “little c” call asking me to serve in some way.  I have found that saying yes to bringing the teaching without first checking to see what the lectionary is often brings interesting surprises.  So it is with this time, as I read the scriptures and realized two things:

  • As probably the least radical person in the 8th Day community, I had to develop a teaching around one of Jesus’ most radical acts and,
  • I also had to discern some meaningful connection between the Hebrew scripture passage – the Ten Commandments – and the Gospel passage of Jesus clearing out the money changers.

I mentioned this challenge to an amazingly spiritual young friend, and he reminded me that the Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways.  My pairing with this particular set of lectionary scripture is certainly another of those mysterious ways.

I read each Sunday’s lectionary sometime during the week, but preparing for a teaching leads me to spend more time with the lectionary text, in particular with how the various texts relate to and complement each other.  I find myself increasingly curious as to who decided on the lectionary scripture combinations, as I find this Sunday’s combination especially puzzling.  I’m sure there are several here who know the answer to this, but I’m embarrassed to admit that my curiosity wasn’t strong enough to cause me to reach out and find the answer, so I approached this in blissful ignorance.

A couple of the aspects of today’s scriptures are especially puzzling:

  • What do the Ten Commandments have to do with Jesus running the money-changers out of the temple?
  • Why is it that that the passage from John is used instead of the corresponding passage from Mark, which is the Gospel used throughout the Year B lectionary?

I’m keenly aware that many of you probably know the answer to those questions, and that any attempts on my part to decipher such things is probably pretty silly in view of the biblical scholarship present in this room, but I have been led to a few thoughts about the connection and possible meanings of these texts, so I’ll humbly offer them for you this morning.

It’s probably always appropriate to start with the Gospel, so I’ll do so. 

All four Gospels have an account of Jesus clearing the temple, but the account from John is different from the three other accounts in two major aspects:

  • It occurs at the beginning of Jesus ministry, not at the end.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus clears the temple right after the procession into Jerusalem that we traditionally celebrate as Palm Sunday.  In John, this incident occurs just after the miracle in Cana.  Looking at it in the context of John allows us to see it as a radical moment that sets the stage for the radical ministry to come.
  • The John passage is the longest and most detailed account of this event.  John devotes four verses to it; Matthew and Luke two, and Mark one.  John is the only Gospel that mentions Jesus making and using a whip—Jesus most violent act in all the Gospels—and the only Gospel that mentions specific animals: cattle, sheep and doves.

I had always thought the temple-clearing as a simple matter of Jesus clearing out base commercial interests who had corrupted the temple, but in the last couple of weeks, aided by my study Bible, I’ve realized the situation isn’t that clear-cut.  If we think about the Levitical laws set out in the early days of the Jewish people, there were very clear-cut regulations for worship and especially for offering sacrifices.  The temple tax—especially the requirement for the temple tax to be paid in currency specific to the temple—isn’t clearly in the Levitical laws of the Bible, but there are certainly requirements for gifts and offerings in addition to animal sacrifice going back to the freewill offerings of materials to build the first tabernacle.

From this perspective, these commercial interests existed specifically to support worship practices that had been a core part of the tradition for centuries.  One might even think of them as honest business people helping to support the work of the church.  Yet, at least in the John passage, Jesus completely disrupted this core part of the tradition at the very beginning of his ministry.  I found the mention of the dove-sellers especially ironic, since, in Luke’s account of Christ’s birth, Mary and Joseph offered a sacrifice of two doves when they brought Jesus to the temple for his circumcision.  Is it possible that Jesus chased out the very vendors who sold his parents the doves they offered as a sacrifice of thanks for his birth?

Hold that thought, as we move to the most puzzling of today’s passages.  What do the Ten Commandments have to do with throwing animal and currency-exchange vendors out of the temple?

I thought about that a lot.  As with all things when I bring a teaching, it is only through the Holy Spirit that I have a hope that my conclusions are anywhere close to correct. So, in prayer that the Holy Spirit is indeed at work, here are my thoughts. 

As the Israelites were wandering around in the wilderness becoming God’s special people, the Ten Commandments were the first set of laws that God gave to Moses.  The giving of these laws was accompanied by thunder and lightning that placed the people in fear and awe.  It was a really big deal.  And the laws weren’t just an oral tradition—they were written on stone tablets.  The stone tablets were placed in the ark and the tabernacle was built to contain the ark, and the specific worship practices specified by God around the ark, the tabernacle (later the temple) were the precursors of a tradition that extended to the animal sellers and money – changers of Jesus’s time.  Those ten commands were also precursors of many other laws and of religious structures focused on interpreting all those laws.  But all this complication started with ten statements giving clear guidance from God on how God’s people should live.  Just as the universe existed without form and void before creation, there was no legal structure within God’s chosen people before the Ten Commandments.

I didn’t ask David to read today’s Psalm, Psalm 19.  But, as in many of the Psalms, there are a couple of verses that point back to these laws:

The Lord’s Instruction is perfect,
    reviving one’s very being.[b]
The Lord’s laws are faithful,
    making naive people wise.
The Lord’s regulations are right,
    gladdening the heart.
The Lord’s commands are pure,
    giving light to the eyes.

There is certainly wording in these two verses that could lead to an interpretation that they refer to the entire set of commands and regulations in the Torah, but I think the last part of the passage—“The LORD’s commands are pure, giving light to the eyes”—refers to those first, pure commandments, not to the complex regulations that followed and the even more complex interpretations of the laws and regulations that were created in the ensuing centuries.  And the last part of that verse suggests that it is through those pure commands that we should look at and approach the world around us.

When I think about the Ten Commandments, I think about the single commandment that comes later in the Torah and that has been proclaimed for millennia:

Sh’ma Yisroel!  Adonai Elohenu, Adonai echod! 

“Hear, O Israel.  The LORD is God, the LORD is one.” from Deuteronomy 6:4 and the next verse, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and being and strength” are called the Great Commandment.  In fact, the Ten Commandments are essentially corollaries of this single commandment that we are to acknowledge, worship and love our God, and to do so with every fiber of our being.  So perhaps that is the role of the Ten Commandments in today’s story – to push aside all the other regulations, interpretations, doctrines, and practices of our religion and remind us of the one true thing: our God—the One God—in whom and about whom we should be focusing all of our lives and efforts.

Three down, one to go. So how does our Epistle help us gain meaning from today’s scriptures? 

In the Epistle, we read Paul’s assertion that Christ’s main message makes no sense.  Not only does it make no sense, but those who don’t believe in the message see the message, and those who believe in it, as ridiculous.  In verse Paul specifically uses a reference to Isaiah 29:14:

“The wisdom of the wise will perish, and the discernment of their discerning will be hidden.”

The Corinthians passage specifically refers to the dominant religious and thought traditions of the day: the Greek tradition focused on the pursuit of wisdom and the Jewish tradition focused on discerning the meaning of the Torah and on building elaborate traditions, laws and regulations around them.  Paul makes it clear that Jesus message—the message of saving grace through death on the cross—doesn’t depend on either wisdom or discernment, but through preaching—and, by association, believing—the Good News of the Gospel of Christ.  The message of salvation is available to all, regardless of education, or status, or conformance with intricately prescribed religious traditions.  The New Interpreter’s Study Bible says that verses 20 through 25 of these passages tell us that “[Paul] speaks against using wisdom and its eloquence as a means of claiming status over someone else”.

Salvation doesn’t need a lifetime of study.  Salvation—being a part of the Kingdom of God—just requires belief.

To recap our bounces around today’s lectionary scriptures:

  • At least in John, Jesus started his ministry by violently and radically disrupting established religious traditions and orthodoxy.
  • Before there were elaborate regulations prescribing worship and religious practices, God provided very basic guidance on how we were to treat God, ourselves, and each other.
  • And all the wisdom and discernment in the world is useless in accessing the true meaning of Christ’s message and the point of all this.

Now what?  How does all of this inform us where we are right now, in Lent, 2018?

I’m certainly not qualified to speak for “us”, so I’ll speak to how I have tried to process this and incorporate it into my Lenten journey.

I think that, just as systems grew up in the temple courtyard focused on supporting religious orthodoxy rather than the fundamental message and truths, we can allow our spiritual life to become crowded with rituals and practices that we do because we have always done them, or because we think we should do them.  Lent is an opportunity to examine my spiritual life and practices in a whip-wielding, table-turning way and to strip away the parts of my spiritual life that obscure the core message of God.

During the remainder of Lent, I need to examine and determine where I have strayed from the basics, focusing on detailed laws, doctrines, directives and interpretations instead of the most fundamental laws God as provided for me. 

And I need to identify where I am focusing on being wise and discerning (for example in preparing for this teaching) instead of simply and foolishly focusing on the message of the cross?

None of those acts of introspection have anything to do with what I eat or don’t eat, or how many minutes more I read the Bible, or whether all the music I listen to is in a minor key, or whether or not I say “Hallelujah” before Easter.  In fact, focusing on those religious trappings could cause me to miss the real meaning of this time in the wilderness, preparing to celebrate Christ’s resurrection.

These “back to basics” Lenten practices just require self-examination, honesty, reflection and a lot of prayer, all of which are much more difficult than following the established religious practices of Lent.  I have my work cut out for me.

As we close, it is audience-participation time. 

Does anyone know what day Easter falls on this year?  (April 1)

In our society, what other name or tradition is associated with that day on the calendar?

In view of Paul’s teaching today, how fitting it is that the day that we celebrate the foolishness of the cross is the day dedicated to Fools.  As I complete my Lenten journey, I pray that I can throw aside the trappings of wisdom, discernment and religious orthodoxy so that, on April Fools Day, I can be a fool for the cross of the risen Christ. 

I hope you’ll join me.