Just before reading the scripture lesson last Sunday, the story of Jesus’ protest march from Bethany to just outside Jerusalem, I mentioned that my plan for Lent this year is treat each of the 6 Sundays as one of the days during Jesus’ last week. We’re on week 2 of Lent, which means day 2 of Jesus’ last week.
I’m doing this because I think it might be a good way to deal directly with the sad, old, theme of Lent — the idea that Lent is about feeling guilty for the action God took in killing Jesus for us. In theological language this is called substitutionary atonement. It simply means that we really should be put to death for our sin, but because God loves us, God substitutes Jesus,”his only begotten son.” and in so doing we are atoned and made acceptable.
It’s all over the place. Turn to almost any hymn in the Lent section of our hymnal, and you’ll see it. “O who am I, that for my sake my God should take frail flesh and die?” “Alas! and did my Savior bleed, and did my Savereign die? Would God devote that sacred head for sinners such as I?”
This kind of thinking about Jesus’s purpose leads to horrific ideas about the cross, also well attested in our hymnody. When we recall that the cross was the form of capital punishment at the time the glorification of the cross amounts to an modern day glorification of the electric chair. I am quite sure that the gospel is not about the glorification of violence in culture, ancient or modern.
Why then, take on Holy Week? Is not Holy Week the epitome of the violence that I am trying to escape?
Yes, there is a good deal of violence in these stories — The brief point I want to make this morning is that when the historical context of these stories are examined, the violence that we might otherwise attribute to Jesus, is in fact Jesus exposing the violence of the empire. It is well known that the Pax Augustus created a reign of peace and economic prosperity for the empire. What is less well understood, is that that peace and prosperity was accomplished by discounting from the calculus, the landless peasantry who worked the fields and orchards and seas in order to provide the goods that provide for a successful empire.
I want to simply look a bit more carefully at two stories that are hardly every preached, but are nonetheless widely known, to see if we can’t discover something about the violence imposed in order to maintain the Pax Augustus, and see that the violence of Holy Week is condemned, not glorified.
In the first story, Jesus curses the fig tree — and the tree withers. What? Again, it seems proof for the violence that lies at the root of these stories of Holy Week.
In the second story, Jesus “occupies” the great temple of Jerusalem, getting rather agitated and violent.
The first story first.
I have to admit, I was a bit leery about preaching about the fig tree. In what way could that story possibly be relevant to the question I am posing here? It’s just gratuitous violence directed at an innocent fig tree. But I’m anything if not stubborn. And I plowed on with my plan, only to be pleasantly surprised by my research last week that the story fits with the moral arc of Holy Week as about the confrontation of justice with the powers that be.
What I learned was simply fig botany. One would normally expect to find figs in various stages of maturation on a fig tree in leaf, as this tree was that Jesus spied.
The question, with this tiny bit of information, suddenly changes from “Why would Jesus do this violence?” utterly uncalled for if the fruit tree was not reasonably expected to produce figs, to “Why did Jesus not find fruit on this tree?” And the simple answer is that figs tend not to grow on trees, at either end of its season, if that tree is not properly cared for. In other words, the great Peace of Augustus may have ushered in an era of prosperity — but the prosperity was not evenly distributed. But an empire does not operate without a cheap source and steady source of income. Figs, which were once farmed by the peasants, where not profitable to the Romans. Olives were. As a result, the fig trees “went to wood,” meaning they were no longer cared for. A fig tree produces very few figs on old wood and none on old wood at the beginning or end of its season.
The barren fig tree testified to the invisible hand of the Roman empire throttling the throat of the agrarian worker who, in order to survive, no longer even raised his own food. Jesus curses the artificial famine created by an unjust social system.
Now the second story.
When the editors of the King James Version of the Holy Bible, did their work back in the early 17th century, they also added, free of charge, headings to the various sections and stories of the bible — headings which never existed in the original language. Well, thanks to those 17th century translators, we now call the story of Jesus in the temple on this second day of Holy Week, the story of Jesus “cleansing” the temple. Such an idea comes to the fore of Christian thinking a generation after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, when the temple was no longer of any importance to the now mostly gentile Christians. Prior to that the temple was important to Jesus as a house of worship, even if it was often abused by the priestly class.
That priestly abuse came to a head for Jesus when Caiaphas, the same High Priest who turned Jesus over to Pilate after his arrest, moved the location of the market for the purchase of animals from outside the walls of Jerusalem, across the Kidron Valley near the Mount of Olives to inside the Temple. While it is commonly assumed that Jesus protested the collection of taxes that day in the temple, it is more likely that he protested Caiaphas’ new system. Yes, taxes were collected in the temple, but they were also collected at numerous other locations around the country, and a protest in the temple would have been ineffective.
Caiaphas instituted this new system in order to make the temple more efficient. Historian Bruce Chilton writes: ” . . . the Temple was the center of Judaism for as long as it stood. Roman officials were so interested in its smooth functioning at the hands of the priests they appointed that they were known to sanction the penalty of death for gross sacrilege.” It is not, he notes, that the animals were unclean (they weren’t) or that the priests were performing the sacrifice improperly (again, they weren’t). It was all streamlined and proper, but it served the interests of the Roman empire, not God. And it was this that Jesus could not accept.
Jesus’s purpose had nothing to do with “cleansing” the temple, it had to do with an occupation, protesting that the Roman quest for economic efficiency was being made on the backs of those for whom the temple was a place to worship God, rich or poor.
Jesus might well have been arrested in the temple that morning, and tried for execution, for interfering with the smooth function of the temple. But they did not, and the question is why?
The answer may be found in the timing of his arrest. Several days later, Jesus, perhaps discouraged in his quest to make the temple a place of real sacrifice, abandoned it and in a supper in an upper room in Jerusalem, instituted a new sacrifice, one that could never be usurped for financial gain. And here Jesus committed the grossest of sacrilege — at which point, at least Judas had had enough, and he turned Jesus over to the authorities.
Jesus was arrested for the high crime of blasphemy against the temple.
Today we share a meal around the table of Jesus with no fear of arrest. But the implication, whenever we share of it is the same implication it had for the twelve — will we follow on this path, seeking freedom in the name of God, letting loose the waters of justice, and creating communities of husbandry where all are cared for, even if that means challenging the current peace of the day.
The point is simply that Jesus offers communion with God without tying that communion to any condition that has to be met first. Such a freedom, because it is the freedom that is the ground of our very being, breaks the yoke and cycle of violence by removing the need for our participation in it.
We are free, during Lent, and in all the seasons of the year, to rejoice that no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey, that we are loved by God and accepted in the communion of God. Amen.