Another talk I gave last Sunday, on the gospel story about Jesus chasing merchants and moneychangers out of the temple (John 2:13-25).
I’d like to begin with the gospel acclamation: “God loved the world so much, he gave his only Son, that all who believe in him might have eternal life” (John 3:16). This was one of two Bible verses I remember memorizing during the two years I attended Baptist Sunday school. We were also made to memorize the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. There were other readings, which I don’t remember. In fact, at that time I was beginning to be interested in spiritual texts, like the Bhagavad-Gita, which in my mind were equal to the Bible.
The other verse I memorized was from Psalm 19, today’s responsorial, minus the last verse: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight.” Of course, this prayer is addressed to the Lord, but I might address it to you, asking your patience with my use of the first-person singular today. I hope my words will be acceptable in your sight.
When I feel trapped by the gospel at Mass, I find a way out through the verse that goes with the gospel. In this case, we have the statement that “God so loves the world;” with this key we can unlock any prison, including the prison of our sacred structures, whether material temples or literal translations or hierarchies of teachers.
One locked door I come up against is the “whip of cords.” I feel trapped by this thing that seems to wound my personal image of Jesus: is the whip a sign of strength, and does it make Jesus a strong man? I am also blocked by his attempt to cleanse the Jewish temple, and I cannot understand why the Rabbi of Nazareth, who preached from a boat on the lake and from a grassy meadow on a hilltop, would even bother to purify outward religious forms, when his life and teaching seemed to prophesy their end.
Moralism is not a way out of these problems. Today’s first reading, about the Commandments, doesn’t help us make sense of the story about Jesus purifying the temple. If I had been free to choose, I might have preferred Ezekiel 5, where the prophet cuts off his hair and beard, as a sign of the cutting off and scattering of the people who will be taken off to Babylon, after the temple has been destroyed.
I cannot isolate the sign of Jesus and his whip of cords from the total message of his life, which is a message not of scattering but of gathering and healing. Jesus is not a prophet of doom and destruction, but a messenger of hope and forgiveness. At least, that is the best sense I can make of his life and teaching. But I do look at that whip, which, by the way, is a detail found only in John. What I see in it, is a sample of the bittersweet humor that is found, here and there, in the prophets and the gospels.
The whip of cords is one thing; the whip of the Roman soldiers and the temple guards is another. Their whip was a cat-of-nine-tails, made with leather thongs tipped with metal balls having sharp points on them, which ripped deep into the flesh. In fact, Jesus with his whip of cords is a schlemiel, a comic figure whose strongest gesture is really a sign of weakness. His whip could harm no one, neither the animals, upon which I suppose he used it, nor, much less, the moneychangers and the sellers of doves, upon whom he cannot have used it. Before Jesus went up to the temple, he had been traipsing all over Galilee, teaching people to love their enemies and to judge no one. So I imagine that, when Jesus made his whip, he made it out of the rope they tied up the lambs and calves with, and he used it to free the animals from their doom as sacrificial victims and to herd them out into the open air.
We also listened to words of Paul, which give us another key to unlock the gospel. “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” The weakness and foolishness of God and of Jesus are the cross. Jesus was whipped and crucified outside the sacred precincts, where he died and was resurrected. This event purifies both the sacred and the profane, if we will let it. The strength of the cross works upon us through the Eucharist, which is the Body of the weak Redeemer risen from the dead. May we learn wisdom from this sign, and become like Jesus in his weakness and strength.