Archive for March 5th, 2018


Thoughts on The Cleansing of the Temple

I’m glad I wasn’t there when Jesus cleansed the temple.  My bias is toward order and courtesy, and the mere thought of Jesus upending tables and chasing people around makes me wince.

The Gospel of John chapter 2 suggests it was a chaotic scene, and those who were just trying to make an honest living must have been a little put out, to say the least.  I have sympathy for them, and they had every right to ask Jesus why he did what he did.  At least they were polite, according to John.  Jesus, on the other hand, comes off looking not nice.  In Minnesota, where I live, that’s a big no-no.

It’s a bit of a stretch for me to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt, until I consider this.  First off, Jesus wasn’t against commerce.  Elsewhere in the gospels he spoke of money rather dispassionately.  He paid his bills, and we know so from the instance when Peter paid the temple tax for the both of them.  So commercial activity in itself was not his target.

C80953FD-BBA8-4067-A731-37B35381F443This case was different, and it had moral nuance.  It was complicated by the fact that the animal-sellers actually provided a service to pilgrims who couldn’t pack birds or lambs or bullocks in their luggage for the trek to Jerusalem.  For their part, the money-changers let pilgrims avoid using the Roman coins that would have polluted the temple.  Despite these good intentions, things had gotten out of hand, and the point Jesus made was that commerce had displaced religious experience as the primary activity at the temple.

A common thread runs through the teaching of Jesus, and it casts light on his actions that day.  God places a higher value on a pure heart, even over the slaughter of animals.  That, in fact, was the point Jesus made in his death on the cross, and it helps to explain why Jesus seemed to lose his cool that day.  He was struggling, and that personal struggle would culminate in his agony in the garden of Gethsemane.  That day, then, Jesus expressed his anguish in deeds that continue to speak powerfully, even today.

As drastic as his actions were, Jesus was not an anarchist.  Rather, he hammered away at the spectacle of a commercial complex that had overwhelmed what should have been a sacred space.  And this is a critique that Jesus levels at us.  By extension Jesus takes to task anyone and everyone who would transform religious experience into a display of power or manipulation of others.  Not coincidentally, that dovetails with his concern with religious officials who load people down with burdens from which they exempt themselves.  Such hypocrisy has nothing to do with the search for God.

F4F2206C-4EA7-4F34-A382-AA29E0A4BB6BWhat Jesus did that day was a one-off in terms of the events of his life, but its symbolic value continues to echo.  In our own lives the spiritual quest can never be reduced to some sort of commercial activity.  In practice this means there’s never a time when we can reduce our relationship with God to a series of legal negotiations.   We may bargain with God on occasion, but we cannot demand pay-back from God for all our wonderful sacrifices.  That’s not what the search for God is about.  That bargaining with God will always be secondary, because getting a glimpse of God at work in our lives is at the heart of our spiritual quest.

That, it seems to me, is a good takeaway for Lent.  Clearly there are moments when I’d prefer to think of God as a merchant or a banker.  It would be so much easier to do business with somebody like that, and not just because I could keep my heart isolated and out of the transaction.  Those transactions would be clean and clear, and at the end I’d know exactly where I stand with God.

This puts a different value on our Lenten sacrifices.  Giving things up for Lent cannot be a business proposition.  Rather, they are an expression of deeper meaning in our lives.  God’s an artist and not a banker, and this explains God’s preference for pure hearts over bullocks or doves slaughtered on an altar.

Striving for a pure heart is not an after-hours job.  The point of it is to get a glimpse of God stirring within us.  So it is that we strive for lives of purpose and beauty.  That’s what makes all of us artists, full-time, no matter what our day jobs might be.


+Today’s post is a reflection on John 2: 13-25, which happened to be the gospel passage for the Third Sunday of Lent.

+In last week’s post I noted that on February 26nd I would preside at the funeral of my friend Jo White.  It all turned out wonderfully, and she would have loved it.  The sisters chapel at the convent of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondolet in St. Paul was packed, and the liturgy was lovely.  The drive to the cemetery was a bit of an education for me, since I had never heard of the village of Credit River, MN.  Such a place exists, as I discovered after getting lost along the way.  Even my GPS couldn’t figure it out.  But I made it to the cemetery service just in the nick of time.

+This week Daniel Smith of Minneapolis joined our community at Saint John’s Abbey as a monastic associate.  For the next several months he will live and pray with us, and in the process learn more about the monastic life.  During this time he will work as an apprentice in the Saint John’s Pottery.

+On March 1 and 2 I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+In today’s post are two pieces from the Wallraff Richards Museum in Cologne.  The first, at top, is a tryptich of the Descent from the Cross, made in the region of Cologne, ca. 1470.  The last two photos show Christ on the Cross between Mary and John, Cologne, ca. 1460.  At the bottom of the image is the family of the unknown donor who had commissioned the work.


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