God’s Folly

Sermon for the third Sunday in Lent
1 Corinthians 1:18-25 and John 2:13-22

On this, the third Sunday in Lent, the lectionary has us shift somewhat abruptly from following the Gospel narrative as set out by Mark to reading from John. We’ll be reading from John until we shift back to Mark for Palm Sunday, so before plunging in to the reading I thought it useful to make just a couple of more general remarks. John’s is a gospel quite unlike the other three. John trains his camera lens differently, follows a different time-line, and seems quite happy to change details in order to suit his goals as a gospel writer. John offers a handful of extended teaching images—the shepherd, the vine, the bread from heaven—but his gospel includes no true parables. He does, however, include long dialogues: Jesus with Nicodemus, with the Samaritan woman at the well, with the disciples at the last supper, with Pontius Pilate at the trial, and with Peter on the beach in light of the resurrection.

The novelist Reynolds Price calls John’s Gospel, “the most outrageously demanding work, in any type of prose or verse, that had yet appeared in the West or Near East,” and this on account of its claim that Jesus of Nazareth is God Incarnate. It is all set out in the gospel’s opening prologue: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” And then just a few verses later, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Such words, Price claims, “demand that we might a hard choice.” Do we believe what John is telling us?

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Unlike Mark’s gospel, over the first half of which Jesus keeps cautioning people to not speak openly, not spread the word too fast, not tell of the healing they’ve just received, in John there is no sign of Jesus wanting or needing to slow down the spread of his message. He’s public—very public—pretty much right from the start.

And so it is close to the beginning of the gospel that John gives us the story of Jesus driving the merchants and money-changers from the temple; a public act if there ever was one. In the other three gospels, this event takes place in the final days of Jesus’ life, and seems to be a big part of what triggers the deep hostility of the religious leaders. And in the other three gospels, Jesus doesn’t even visit Jerusalem until those final days of his life. How is it that John pictures Jesus in Jerusalem at such an early stage? Because John is a poetic artist with a story to tell. No, that’s too weak. John has truth to proclaim. He is simply not troubled by the very modern and linear assumptions that inform our way of preserving what we take to be the truth. What’s at stake is the claim that “the Word became flesh and lived among us,” and John needs to show us the fullness of what that means.

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’

Talk about a public act; nothing subtle, understated, or veiled there. It is useful to have a bit of a sense of the layout of the Jerusalem temple. Think in terms of a series of layers, almost like concentric circles. At its heart was the holy place, around which was the court of the priests, then the court of Israel (open to Jewish men…), the court of women (open to Jewish women), and finally the court of Gentiles, which was an outer area open to everyone. It would have been in this outer courtyard that Jesus encountered the merchants and the money-changers (who, incidentally, were doing a profitable business exchanging tainted Roman currency for the duly religious shekels that were required for temple payments). The issue that Jesus addresses directly is that of turning “my Father’s house [into] a market-place,” but I think it is also fair to assume that part of what has infuriated him is the way in which the one place open to non-Jews has been completely co-opted by the machinations of a rather commercialized version of the faith of Israel. And he is clearly infuriated: there is the “whip of cords,” the dumping of coins and overturning of tables… this is a pretty impassioned act.

Not surprising, then, that Jesus is asked on what authority he was doing this: “What sign can you show us for doing this?” To which Jesus rather enigmatically answers, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years,” they respond. “And will you raise it up in three days?” And here John notes that Jesus was speaking not of the physical stone temple, but rather “of the temple of his body,” and that it was only “after he was raised from the dead, that his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”

Ah, so the act was public, but its meaning veiled; a classic example of hindsight being 20/20… so that’s what he was talking about…

You do realize, of course, that from a practical perspective Jesus accomplished absolutely nothing there that day. I mean, he clearly made an impression on his disciples, and he doubtlessly raised the hostility of those for whom the temple’s business-as-usual was working just fine, thank you very much. But what do you suppose happened after he left the temple? They rounded up the animals, swept up the coins, set the tables up, and went back to business. Maybe the guards were alerted, and someone was even appointed to keep an eye out for that Galilean hooligan, in case he came rolling back in with his wretched whip. Otherwise? Nothing.

This is actually something that can be said of just about everything Jesus did. As Robert Capon rightly observes, even his wondrous miracles weren’t a “program for fixing up history: most of the blind of Jesus’ time went on being blind; Lazarus rose only to die again another day; lepers are still with us; and the descendants of the bridegroom at the wedding received no guarantee of a full wine-cellar in perpetuity. As salvation scenarios, they’re a bust.” “The program itself,” Capon continues, “when Jesus does get around to revealing it, turns out to be nothing but himself in his death and resurrection.”

When you think about it, it is a wildly impractical way for anything to get done. Wouldn’t a decently respectable reform and renewal campaign have done the trick? Wouldn’t one that took advantage of the solid bricks and mortar that were already in place—to say nothing of the well-established religious practices of the day—have made more practical sense?

God, it seems, specializes in impracticalities. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” writes Paul in his stunning introduction to the 1st Letter to the Corinthians. “[W]e proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Both Jews and Greeks, Paul writes, which is something the old system could never quite come to grips with.

Of course Jesus acts in impractical ways; of course he keeps doing these things that from a strategic point of view are utter folly. That’s the whole point. If God in Christ—the Word made flesh—is in fact God’s “new thing” then he will be all but unrecognizable when viewed through old lenses. But when those old lenses fall to the ground and are smashed to pieces on the paving stones (“after he was raised from the dead, and his disciples remembered…”) we begin to see something of what is really there, and with Paul can proclaim that extraordinary, upside down truth: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

And it is only in light of that acknowledgement that anything that Jesus does—whether chasing the money-changers from the temple, or having an extended conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, or offering forgiveness to a broken person caught in adultery—anything he does only makes sense when we embrace it as part of God’s folly. And God’s folly is so deeply wise.

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