In a time of violence where do we look for solutions? What do we need more of? What more could we do to set things right? Maybe you’d go for more of the first reading? More law, more order, more UN resolutions? More strong leaders to enforce that law, more than willing to do the hard thing that needs doing in the service of peace—even using violence against violence?
Or maybe you would rather invoke the second reading: what we need is more peace at any price, more sacrifice, more imitation of Christ crucified, more of his way of holy inversion, divine folly, selfless sacrifice in the face of violence.
I don’t think the gospel will let us take either route. The zealous Jesus that John portrays seems to want less not more. Less law and less sacrifice and less of the demonic economy that unites them. What is law but an exchange of gifts? I’ll do as you say if you promise me safety, order, and a roof over my head. What is sacrifice but that same exchange made holy? I’ll do as you say if you promise me blessing, mercy, and eternal bliss. And in the Temple the two economies show their one body in coinage, currency, cash—each piece covered with holy slogans and heads of state.
Why are we at war with Saddam? Because we gave him money, arms, aid, made him strong. Because now he won’t fulfil his part of the bargain. And because there’s oil at stake.
Wherever there’s violence there’s money. Wherever there’s money there’s violence. Only, most of the time the violence is quietly exercised on those whose lives feed and fuel the sacred system—the poor within our borders and the poor we keep poor across the two-thirds world. That’s not to mention the violence against the planet our way of life demands. War simply unmasks the ever-present economy of death.
But Jesus will have none of it. This isn’t just a bad day for him. He isn’t just a little testy this morning. He sees, he understands, he stops to make a whip, and he carefully clears the Temple, cleanses it.
He clears it of money, of money changers, of money dealers. But he clears it also of what money can buy—sacrificial victims, surrogates for our sin, blood for our blood.
And when they stop him he does worse—with a word he destroys the Temple too, and puts in its place his own body and bones. Money, sacrifice and law, he rubs out and writes in their place his own self, his flesh and blood. The whole triple economy replaced.
But, ever pragmatic, we have to ask—did it work? What did he achieve by his little show? Did he put an end to violence once and for all? … Not at all. Once he unmasked it, it turned on him with all its force and anger so that within a year or two in John’s chronology the might of money and law and sacrifice were to pull apart the sanctuary of his body and leave it vacant.
So who wins … Jesus or the powers of the world? … Of course there is the resurrection—the promised three-day rebuilding—but what has it changed? Aren’t we still at war? And isn’t the economy of money, law and sacrifice still in command of our lives? Isn’t it still the silent, sacred bargain we make to put violence at someone else’s front door and not our own?
Not if we follow Jesus. He would not pay off violent men with his compliance. He threw himself into the hands of a God he knew makes no bargains for the human heart. He unmasked the violence we take for granted and showed himself to be free—beyond purchase, beyond law, beyond sacrifice. And if we follow him we are free. Not because we have bought our freedom but because nothing can take away the freedom God has given us. God’s love is the only coin we count, a love before and beyond prices paid and bargains struck. God loves us and nothing can change that.
March 23rd, 2003