A Good Spring Scourging

You may listen to Mother Erika's sermon here.

I have always loved to read. Indeed, I have been a bookworm from my mother’s womb, a trait I inherited honestly from both my parents, who were never, ever without something to read. I was reading on my own by the age of three and devouring chapter books by the time I started Kindergarten. So when I entered middle school, of course, I decided that it was time to write my own novel. Longhand. With a Papermate erasable pen. I can’t remember the subject matter, although I have a vague recollection that it had something to do with a long-abandoned cottage in the woods that was tangled in the vines of an overgrown garden…and in my own florid, overwrought prose. But in my ten-year-old mind, the more adjectives, the better. What tripped me up was the dialogue. I felt pressure, for some reason, to place an adverb after every single line. How else would the readers (of which I imagined there would be many) know what the speakers were thinking and feeling? So line after line of the text ended with phrases like, “…she said, sadly,” “he said, bravely,” “she said, happily, simperingly, fabulously, tearfully, frustratedly…” and on and on and on. I remember my mother – my loving, patient, wonderful mother – reading my first draft and suggesting that, perhaps, there wasn’t a need for quite so many descriptors. But without my adverbs, I was lost. What to do? So my first great novel languished in its notebook and was eventually lost to time. And oh, how I wish I had that notebook now!

There is a decided lack of adverbs in scripture. Remember that the earliest texts of Holy Scripture were stamped letter by letter into clay or scribed onto paper that was both rare and expensive. So every letter, every word mattered. And apparently the writers of scripture did not feel the need, as I did, to provide an emotional context for every single statement, or, for that matter, for many at all. The Bible doesn’t offer us many phrases like, “…Moses said, petulantly,” or “Jesus told his disciples, exhaustedly.” There is little verbiage about the emotional state of speakers in scripture, even in the Gospels. Very occasionally, the Gospel writers will provide us with a clue as to Jesus’ emotional state – he weeps, he loves, he is amazed, he is moved with compassion, or pity. Mark’s Gospel offers more descriptors than any of the other three – Jesus looks at the Pharisees “with anger,” he sighs “deep in his spirit” when asked for a sign, he is “indignant” when the disciples try to prevent the little children from coming to him. But for the most part, we are left to imagine what Jesus was feeling in any given moment. When he spoke words to the disciples, or the Pharisees, or the centurion, or the woman with the hemorrhage, was he smiling? Frowning? Laughing? Outraged? Most often, we just don’t know.

But today’s Gospel has long been seen as a clear example of Jesus’ anger and indignation boiling over. For centuries, people have imagined him striding into the outer court of the Temple, disciples in tow, spoiling for a fight. As he had suspected, he finds not a serene and holy gathering of God’s people making their way into the inner courts to offer their yearly Passover sacrifices, but a wholly tangled mess – animal-sellers hawking their wares, the incessant buzzing of bargaining in the air, queues of anxious pilgrims all knotted up in a jumble by the trade tables where corrupt moneychangers sit at tables, inscrutable and hidden by piles of coins – and always the braying and bleating of cattle and sheep and doves, oh my. Faced with this frenetic scene, Jesus stands alone with clenched fists, furious to see this Saturday-at-the-Philadelphia-Flower-Show, Target-on-Black-Friday, McGillan’s-on-Saint-Patrick’s-Day kind of mob scene in this most sacred place. And so he grabs a whip and goes nuts – flailing the animals and the animal sellers alike, kicking over tables, hurling fistfuls of coins into the air, spinning and shoving until finally he stands alone in the middle of the court, his whip dangling at his side, panting and covered in sweat and dust and pigeon feathers.

And this is a completely fair picture of what this scene may have looked like. I have no doubt that Jesus experienced anger, and this moment known as the “Scourging of the Temple” may be the best example we have of Jesus’ letting loose some of his long pent-up frustration. But without that long stream of repetitive adverbs, is it possible that there is another way to look at this story?

The Scourging of the Temple is one of really only three stories that appear in all four Gospels. But John, as is John’s wont, treats this story very differently than Matthew, Mark, and Luke. First of all, in John’s Gospel, this story takes place right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. There is no long build-up to this event in John, so there is no sense of stifled frustration with the religious authorities after a Gospel’s-worth of confrontations and arguments. Secondly, it is only in John’s Gospel, in fact, that Jesus uses a whip. But notice what the text says here, “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.” This was no handy whip that Jesus seized on an impulse; this was a whip that Jesus made himself, wove together out of reeds or grass, to help him get the animals up and out of the court. And finally, we can see that Jesus’ core complaint is different in John’s Gospel. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus is full of righteous indignation. He accuses the moneychangers of corruption, of cheating the pilgrims who needed to trade their Roman coins for temple shekels, which were the only coins that could be used to pay the required temple tax. But here in John, there is no fiery accusation of robbery, only the command to stop making the house of his Father into a house of trade.

And so what if we pictured the scene this way – Jesus enters the Temple courts on Passover because he is a faithful Jew. As he ascends the Temple mount he feels at the root of his being the sympathetic vibration between his body, where the fullness of God dwells, and the innermost room in the Temple, the Holy of Holies, where the fullness of God dwells. He knows a deep consonance between the place where he stands and the body he stands in; he knows that he is the place where God’s love will be most powerfully contained. He knows what he has to offer to the world, he knows the sacrifice he will make for the people who press in all around him…and yet no one else knows it. No one else can even see him through the maze of people and sheep and never-ending queues. What to do? Clear out the court, he says. He braids a cord to help him control the animals and sends them on their way. But that doesn’t grab the attention of the people who are afraid of losing their place in line, so he knocks over the tables so that there is no longer anything to be in line for. And only then does he stand in the middle, his impromptu cattle prod hanging at his side, his face intense and earnest – stop what you are doing, he says. Look up from your queue, look at me, for I am the temple of the full, final sacrifice, I am the temple that will be raised up in three days. No queue, no buying and selling, no trading necessary here.

Seen this way, this Gospel story is not only a Scourging but also, importantly, a Cleansing. A cleansing of the Temple – a clearing of the way so that all of the people could see with unobstructed view and undistracted attention the invitation that stood before them. See me. Follow me. Jesus’ coming into Jerusalem was the coming of something new and astounding, something that required space and attention. And His coming into our lives means precisely the same thing. Former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple put it this way: “His coming means a purge. So it is always, not less with the shrine of our hearts than with the Jewish Temple.” Jesus’ coming clears away those things that distract us, drives out those things that get in the way of our truly seeing Him, unclutters our hearts so that Christ may be enthroned there. What is it that blocks your view? Fear? Busy-ness? Over-scrupulousness or anxiety? Judgment, of others or of yourself? Are you reticent to forgive or be forgiven? Do material things get in the way of remembering that it is the Lord who is your strength and your redeemer? Do the great commandments of God seem like walls that are impossible to scale instead of hand-holds that help you love God and your neighbor? What stands between you and Christ? And are you prepared to have it cleared out? Because our Lord Jesus Christ has come, is coming, and will come again; he stands ready to cleanse you, body and soul. He stands here, at this altar, now, offering your heart a good old-fashioned spring scourging. “Take these things out of here,” he says to you, “Stop making the shrine of your heart anything less than fully my own.” What to do, what to do? Say yes, Christ says. Yes, we say, finally, humbly, thankfully.                                          

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

11 March 2012

Saint Mark's, Philadelphia

Posted on March 11, 2012 .