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This Week's Commentary
Third Sunday in Lent
March 8, 2015Exodus 20:1-17 | Psalm 19 | 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 | John 2:13-22
Today’s lectionary readings include the Ten Commandments. Their importance in history can hardly be exaggerated. In this series of lectionary readings, however, it is clear that we are invited to focus on the Mosaic Covenant. In the first Lenten Sunday, we read of the covenant with Noah after the flood. In the second, we learned of the covenant with Abraham. Today we learn of the covenant out of which many Jews today still primarily shape their lives.
We could, of course, examine this covenant carefully. However, I am adopting a different approach. Among its many inventions, none of Israel’s contributions to humanity has been greater than its introduction of historical consciousness. The Hebrews were taught to understand the meaning of their lives in terms of the decisive events of the past. This determined how they viewed one another and how they viewed other people. Most deeply it determined how they experienced their relation to God. The deep changes that had occurred in the past led many to anticipate at least one more decisive act of God.
Gentiles who appropriated this scripture as disciples of Jesus understood that another event had occurred and another covenant had been made, one in which they could fully participate. They also understood that this bound them into historical thinking. They appropriated the periodization of history the Hebrews had developed. Christian civilization lived out of this historical consciousness. Augustine wrote its most influential account.
Some Christians developed new versions of the periodization of history. Perhaps the most important was: the successive ages of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As Christendom eroded and secular modernity arose, the periodization changed. We divide history into the pre-civilized period, ancient civilization, the classical period, the Middle Ages, and modernity. Very recently, many envision a new age following on modernity, vaguely labeled “postmodern.” Today a very important question is whether one thinks that modernity should be or will be superseded. Meanwhile, however, the secularized Western mind has become ignorant of the Bible and less and less characterized by historical consciousness.
Whereas secularists regard the biblical periodization of history as worthless, in fact, it continues to have real significance. Interestingly, its account of the emergence of civilizations that were swept away in a great flood is gaining archeological support as cities are found deep below sea level that must have been submerged when the last ice age ended. Vast areas of land were submerged by rising ocean levels as the ice melted. Eventually secular accounts may become more like the biblical one than like the periodization on which we were brought up. In any case we can understand the importance of the single assurance to the survivors that constitutes the heart of the covenant with Noah and with all living things. God/Nature will not repeat the horrors that they had experienced.
Whereas this first covenant was between God/Nature and all living things, and was unconditional, the second was between one God and one people, and it was generally understood to be conditional. El Shaddai would bless the heirs of Abraham, multiplying them and giving them the land of Canaan, on condition that they differentiated themselves from other people by circumcision. The promise of the land was not fulfilled for centuries, and then only on conditions that were to be spelled out in the Mosaic covenant. But later Jews understood the wanderings of their ancestors, their settling in Egypt, their enslavement, and their escape all in light of the promise to Abraham. The emergence of a deeply ethical understanding of the relation between the God of Israel and the people of Israel developed in this context. To this day, the idea of devotion to One who transcends any particular location and to whom is owed a loyalty that supersedes that to any earthly power can be regarded as a tectonic change in human understanding. It is threatened by secularism, which tends to renew the ancient assumption that might makes right and that the nation has supreme claim to our loyalty.
In the Abrahamic periodization of history, the Mosaic covenant is often thought to be the determinative expression of ethical monotheism. In itself it is not that, since Moses’ Lord does not exclude that other people might worship gods who are real for them. But its call for total devotion to the God of Abraham and its detailed exposition of what God wants of Israel is certainly a crucial landmark in human history. A fully articulated ethical monotheism soon developed in the new community created by the Mosaic covenant.
I wish that we Christians could make clear to our secularist friends that the biblical periodization of history is based on deeper insights as to what is truly important than are modern periodizations. They provide relevant meaning to our lives, as modern periodizations do not. Moderns have congratulated themselves on their great superiority to pre-moderns only to find that they are leading the whole planet to catastrophes comparable in magnitude to the biblical flood, whose historical actuality is only now becoming established. Moderns are causing destruction of the sort which the Bible assures us God/Nature will not. It is hard to find meaning in being a modern, and one can hardly find within modernity the grounds for overcoming the consequences of modernity. Perhaps moderns will have to recognize that there was a wisdom in the “premodern” world they have neglected at their peril.
I will have to deal briefly with the other passages. The Psalm celebrates both the nature that is affirmed in the covenant with Noah and the ethical teaching that characterizes the Mosaic covenant. It represents the profound spirituality of Hebrew faith. The Romans passage speaks of the new covenant that has come into being through Jesus. Although it comes out of the Hebrew tradition, it does not fit the expectations of most Jews. Although it claims to affirm the deepest truth about the human situation, it can hardly be understood on the basis of Greek traditions. Its novelty was a great offense, but the actual experience vindicated its divine authority and life-giving power.
“Jews” still find the gospel Paul proclaimed a stumbling block. I put “Jews” in quotation marks because I am thinking more of Christians, both liberal and conservative who cannot believe that uniting our lives to that of Jesus in the way Paul describes can really have the effects Paul promises. “Greeks” still find all of this to be foolishness. No notion of a divine Spirit that works within us and among us to draw us together in love can make sense to sophisticated modern thinkers. But those who, in spite of all this, experience the Spirit in communities of authentic faith, know that Paul spoke truth.
We are in Lent, preparing for the darkness of Good Friday and the joy of Easter. Our lectionary calls attention to how Jesus also prepared for what was to come. His followers sometimes attributed to him a degree of foreknowledge of his destiny that other passages in the scriptural accounts suggest is exaggerated. But it is not unrealistic to think that Jesus anticipated that his confrontation in Jerusalem with the Jewish and Roman authorities would lead to his execution. The confrontation is most dramatic in his driving the money changers out of the temple.
The other gospels locate this event as occurring at the end of Jesus’ ministry, leading quite directly to his arrest. John locates it, improbably, at the outset. This gives him the opportunity to place on Jesus’ lips remarkably detailed accounts of what the disciples came to believe after his resurrection appearances. He explains their ignorance in advance of what was happening as failure to understand Jesus’ own predictions. For example, only after the resurrected Jesus appeared to them do they understand his pronouncement that he would be raised, just as only after he cleansed the temple did they think to apply to him the passage about the expected one being obsessed with zeal for God’s house.
But this use of the story to bolster a strong sense of Jesus’ divinity does not take away from the power of the story of confrontation with authority. The Jesus who considered the service of God and the service of money as the ultimate choices, could not brook the use of the temple to exploit the beliefs of ordinary Jews for money. We have here the only scene in the gospel records of Jesus acting with physical violence. In the other gospels the only violence identified is overturning the tables of the money changers, but John declares that he used a whip of cords to drive the animals (and perhaps some people too) out of the temple. I doubt that any living thing was injured. Even in John’s rendition, moral and charismatic force clearly play a much larger role than anything physical. But John wants us to think he wielded a whip!