Moving out beyond the rules

Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :- “To those who have been called, whether they are Jews or Greeks, a Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-25). My guess is that throughout the entire story of the human encounter with God, humankind has misconstrued the relationship, taking as folly, as foolishness, God’s actions towards us and believing that we know better. Even today, Christians find it almost incomprehensibly difficult to accept that Almighty God could become incarnate for us and suffer and die for humanity, whilst the notion that his intention for us is that we actually share divinity with him is simply risible. We can only think about God according to our terms; those parameters fixed by power, control and above all success; and however much we claim to follow Jesus the Son who died and rose for us we actually find it almost impossible. Each Lent, reaching up to Easter, its dramatic climax or damp squib depending on how one views things, we follow Jesus on the route to his death and our salvation, and the utter incomprehensibility and folly of God hits us in the face. Many will try to excuse the catastrophe of the passion and death by claiming that Jesus did not really suffer; that he did not really die or that the resurrection, when it came, was some elaborate psychological game. Those of us who do believe it simply have to shake our heads. It is quite inexplicable.

Perhaps this is why the compilers of our lectionary get us to explore the 10 commandments at this point in our Lenten journey. (Exodus 20:1-17). This set of rules, by which the people of Israel were to abide, clearly dates from considerably later than the time of Moses, though some of them may have come up from an earlier format and would have been rules to safeguard the smooth running of the community. We can see this in the injunctions against killing, stealing, and bearing false testimony. Others date from a period when the Jerusalem temple and the Jewish faith were more securely established and religious conformity was de rigueur. Such would be the demand to worship one sole God, (distinguishing him from times when many were known); the injunction against the making of images and their worship (one recalls the tales of the making and worship of the golden calf, let alone the influence of the pagans and their gods); and the setting aside of the Sabbath as a day of rest and thanksgiving. All of these latter commandments have very clear ties to the unique relationship the Israelites had with Yahweh and were designed to give that relationship shape and sustenance. In a way all of the commandments are materialistic, they shape and define Israel as much as they tell us about their relationship with God.

In St John’s Gospel (Jn 2:13-25) the incident we call the ‘cleansing of the temple’ occurs at the start of Jesus’ ministry, directly after the Prologue, the call of the disciples, and the wedding at Cana. It will therefore set the tone of his entire ministry all the way through. Jesus is presented throughout as the one at odds with temple Judaism. His ministry will embrace dubious foreign women and from early on present an alternative core worship in his great Eucharistic exposition in Chapter 6 “I am the bread of life.” Unlike the brief synoptic picture, which presents the cleansing of the temple as part of the final build up to the arrest and passion, John has done something deliberate and quite distinctive with this well remembered scene. His account is far more detailed and raises the whole issue of the significance and power of the temple and speaks of its complete replacement by the person of Jesus. Why?

Can it be that Jesus believed that Temple Judaism had completely departed from its earlier call presented in the Exodus tradition of the 10 Commandments? Are we to think that his violent expulsion of the animal sellers and money changers represented precisely their adoption of a multiplicity of gods, money being their chief, with their idolatry made clear in their greed and their hypocrisy? Certainly the policy of the temple authorities in allowing these sales to shift into the temple precinct profaned the temple and made the Court of the Gentiles, (where the market was) impure. We know that there were shops around the perimeter of the temple which could offer animals for sacrificial sale, so there was no actual need to profane the temple, apart from the desire of its authorities to get a tighter grip on the sale of the animals. St John’s image of Jesus and of his actions and entire ministry, shaped as they all are by this dramatic incident, leaves us in no doubt that he intended us to see Jesus as someone distinctly at odds with Jerusalem and its brand of Judaism; and as offering the faithful a new and wholly richer notion of their relationship with the divine, summed up par excellence in his great prayer in John 17, in which he calls for our total unity with one another and the Father and the Son, their gift to us, with all its staggering possibilities.

And so, on the Third Sunday of Lent one feels that the pressure really has been turned up as we are faced with the great call of Jesus to move out beyond the rules and regulations, whether we abide by them or not, and to begin to accept the great offer that Father and Son are holding out to us as we, like the temple, prepare to be cleansed and offered new life in the death and resurrection of Jesus.






































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