Wednesday, 17 June 2015

A Lenten Catastrophe (Mark 11:15-19)

(Homily for the University of Sheffield Chaplaincy's Ecumenical Communion on Mar 11, 2015)


If I had had the chance to consult with the author of the gospel of Mark before he sent his final manuscript in for publication…I probably would have asked him to reconsider today’s gospel text.  Was he sure that Jesus had demonstrated so aggressively against the moneychangers in the Temple?  Was this the same Jesus who told us to love one another?  The same Jesus who, according to Matthew and Luke, told us even to love our enemies?  I wouldn’t want to deny Jesus feelings of righteous indignation and perhaps a few choice words—but he did actually overturn the moneychangers’ tables and drive them out?  Isn’t that a bit too much?

This anxiety of mine…it was probably shared by the moneychangers themselves, and it certainly was by the chief priests and scribes, who were none too pleased with what Jesus had done.  So, oddly enough, for once I find myself standing opposite Jesus, in the company of his opponents.  I, like them, am appalled.  Why, Jesus?  Was it really necessary to overturn those tables and chairs?  Was it really necessary to drive these guys out?  Why not a quiet word with them first, at least an attempt at reconciliation?

To hear Jesus’ response, I return to the story, this time listening a bit more closely.  Perhaps Jesus is overturning more than literal tables and chairs.  Perhaps there is a part of me that is left overturned as well….

The first strange, defamiliarizing echo I hear is precisely in this word “overturned.”  In the Greek, Jesus “katastrepsen” the tables.  That is, Jesus was a catastrophe [to the tables].  This word appears only here in Mark, which is striking, because it suggests that the only real catastrophe in Mark is Jesus.  And he is a catastrophe not to the objectionable world around him—not to the greedy tax collectors or the oppressive Romans.  He is a catastrophe to his own people, to the Temple, to the heart of his religion.

That’s not to say, however, that Jesus indiscriminately attacks religion.  On the contrary, Jesus does a bit of teaching after he’s done catastrophizing, and we hear that “the whole crowd”—presumably all the Temple-goers—were “spellbound by his teaching.”  Or more literally, they were driven out (e˙kplh/ssw, cf. “expel”) of their minds and hearts by what he said.  So while Jesus drives out (e˙kba¿llw) the settled moneychangers, he drives the rest of the crowd out of their minds, out of their hearts, with hope and desire for what he teaches.  And according to Mark, what he teaches is a bit of Isaiah, something about the Temple being “a house of prayer for all the nations” (Isa 56:7).  And if Jesus was teaching them from this passage in Isaiah, then it’s likely he also quoted the surrounding bits of Isaiah, in which God gathers in the foreigners, and the outcasts, and yet others (Isa 56:6-8), and in which Isaiah rails against the leaders of Israel “who have all turned to their own way, to their own gain” (56:11).  It’s not difficult to see, then, what’s going on.  Like a righteous whirlwind, Jesus storms against the powers that be in the Temple, the settled ones who are exploiting others for their own gain.  And then he proclaims God’s care for the outsiders—the foreigners, the outcasts, and still others.  No wonder the “whole crowd” is driven out of their hearts and minds with hope.  God loves them.  God says that they’re welcome, they’re accepted, even if the religious leaders who keep them on the outside say or imply otherwise.

Jesus strikes out at the settled, satisfied, and selfish, and leaves the crowd dumbstruck, hope-stricken.  He catastrophizes the center even as he captivates the margins, leaving them trembling with anticipation for what is to come.  He drives out the powers that be, but the nobodies—the populace on the periphery, the potential on the edges—he drives them out of their mind with hope and desire.

And with me?  Perhaps it’s just the same.  Was I offended that Jesus overturned a few tables and chairs?  Perhaps really I was offended that Jesus would dare upset the heart of his own people and faith, and that he would therefore dare upset my heart too.  Perhaps this Lent, perhaps even today, even this afternoon, Jesus would come storming into the temple of my heart and unsettle the self-satisfied center of me, that part of me which through its very profession of my hopes and dreams and faith is always subtly seeking my own gain, my own security. 

But even if that’s so, it’s only half the story.  Because as Jesus overthrows my center, he also overwhelms my outer limits with hope and desire. 

A simple, simple story to give this some flesh and bones.  It is a common story.  One we live out all the time. 

We lose something important to us.  A friend.  A place we call home.  A way of living.  And we grasp.  We grasp after what we’ve lost, clawing for its impossible return.  It’s painful.  Catastrophic even.  Our world is overturned.  And yet, in time, we find that other parts of ourselves are flourishing.  Our world is overwhelmed with new possibility.  New friendships.  New places to call home.  New ways of living.  We find, in fact, that whereas before we had settled into security, into our self-satisfied center, into a rhythm of selfishness, we are now again alive around the edges, sensitive and receptive and vulnerable to the world around us.  We are seeking—as the prayer says—not so much to be understood as to understand, not so much to be loved as to love.

And so I close now with this short prayer, a prayer that perhaps is already being realized in our lives this very day: Come, holy catastrophe.  Come into the temples of our hearts, where we are settled, satisfied, and yes, selfish.  And wreck us once more that we might be renewed, that we might hope anew for what you are yet to do in our world.  Amen.

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