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Third Sunday in Lent
March 11, 2012
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
God’s covenant with Israel delivered through Moses, the third in the series of covenants related in the First Testament readings for Lent, increases the specificity introduced in last week’s reading. The covenant with Noah embraced all humanity; the covenant with Abraham and Sarah extended to a multitude of nations and peoples; the covenant through Moses is with one nation, one distinctive people, who are called to a distinctive way of life in the world.
The human side of this covenant is spelled out in the Torah, here summarized in the Ten Commandments. The divine side of the covenant is also summarized in this passage, mostly in the “asides” and glosses to the commandments. In the first place, the God of this covenant is “the Lord,” YHWH, who identified to Moses as “I am who I am” or “I am the one who is” or “I am the one who causes to be” — not so much a name as a description, not so much a proper noun as a statement of freedom to be creative. It is this Free Creativity who covenants to be “your God,” the center of value and worship for this people. Moreover, this is the God who brought the people “out of the house of slavery,” creating new possibilities for freedom out of the evil of bondage and oppression; this specifies the God of creative freedom as also the God of creative transformation.
The divine side of this covenant also includes future provision for the people: this is the God who is “giving” the people a land in which their “days may be long” and their prosperity empowered. Also for the future, the divine side of the covenant commits to “punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
The note of punishment sounds harsh to modern, progressive ears; it is worth observing that the promise of steadfast love is orders of magnitude greater than the threat of punishment, and that both steadfast love and punishment are implied in the call to “be blameless” issued to Abraham in his covenant and now made more specific with Moses.
Finally, as I noted in the 2009 commentary for this passage, the core value in all of these ten commandments is fidelity: the Torah, the human side of the covenant, is designed to guide the transformed people in building relationships with God and with each other that are faithful, steadfast, just, and reflective of the integrity of both self and other. The prohibitions on murder, theft, adultery, falsehood, and covetousness are not just principles for social regulation, but are specific ways of regarding the integrity of the other as a center of value and intention, and not depriving the other of the things that pertain to that integrity; in other words, they are instructions for fidelity.
In this way human relationships are meant to mirror the relationality of God, whose steadfast love sustains the people, and whose love is respected in worshiping one deity, in refusing to limit the divine with images, in honoring the divine Name, and in keeping the Sabbath as a remembrance of the goodness of all God’s creation. The covenant with Israel through Moses, with its human side in Torah and its divine side in being the God of Exodus and Promised Land, is both more exclusive and more revealing: exclusive in that it is meant for one chosen people out of all the families of the earth; revealing in that it gives a much more detailed picture of the character of God’s steadfastness and the qualities of human fidelity that can represent God’s steadfastness. How that revelation is “re-inclusivized” for all peoples is one of the consistent themes of New Testament preaching, as for example in the passage from 1 Corinthians below.
The Psalm for today falls neatly into two parts: the first, vss 1-6, a hymn of awe and wonder for the beauties of astronomy, and the second, vss 7-14, a song of praise for the Torah. This second part of the Psalm thus reflects the Exodus reading, giving thanks to God for the Law that lays out the human side of the covenant that brings right relationship with the God of creative transformation. When coupled with the first part of the poem, the praise for Torah is set in the wider context of praise for creation, effectively linking God’s power as Creator with God’s power to empower human co-creation in the transformation of life.
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
This passage strikes a universalist tone, in contradistinction to the Exodus reading, especially in noting that the good news about Jesus transcends and includes the messages sought by both “Jews” and “Greeks.” These terms might be taken here not so much as identifiers of specific ethnic/cultural groups, as indicators of types of religious expectations. “Jews demand signs,” Paul says: they represent a religious orientation that is focused on mighty acts of God, demonstrations of God’s power such as those connected with the Escape from Egypt that stand at the head of the Ten Commandments. “Greeks desire wisdom,” on the other hand, which in the first century included everything from moral philosophy to practical skill to thaumaturgical techniques; to desire wisdom was to desire a means to direct energies and effect ends in the world.
“Signs” and “wisdom” both, therefore, indicate power — and that is why neither “Jews” nor “Greeks” as such are able to accept Paul’s proclamation of “Christ crucified” and the ultimate powerlessness that entails. The lack of power revealed in Jesus’ death on the cross can only be a scandal and a folly to those whose main orientation is to some form of power. But to those who can transcend that orientation, the message of Christ is both “the power of God and the wisdom of God”: set in the larger context of God’s purpose of creative transformation, the powerlessness of crucifixion serves to break the cycle of violence and prepare the possibility of resurrection. Accepting the scandal and folly and failure of death, and bringing forth from that wreckage the potential of a new dimension of life, is the definitive manifestation of God’s way of dealing with evil not by destroying it but by transforming it, as elaborated in the covenants with Noah, Abraham, and Moses. This new covenant in Christ is available to all — both Jews and Greeks — who are “called” and are “being saved.” This call is not specified to a single ethnic or cultural group, but is extended to anyone who can set aside their own expectations of power and give their heart to the proclamation of Christ.
The Synoptic gospels place the cleansing of the Temple near the end of Jesus’ public ministry, and make it one of the key moments in Jesus’ few days in Jersusalem that particularly angers the Temple authorities and leads them to seek his death. John changes the meaning of this incident drastically, by placing it at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, occurring during the first of three trips to Jerusalem Jesus will make, and by explicitly linking it to Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection.
One of the recurring motifs in John’s Gospel is that Jesus includes and transcends key symbols of Jewish faith and practice, re-signifying them as aspects of the abundant life of his own filial relationship to God, and offering them as aspects of abundant life that his followers can come to know through sharing the relationship he himself has with God. That motif is introduced in John’s Gospel for the first time in this passage, when Jesus uses the Temple as a figure of speech for his own body. The Temple is the place where God promises to make the Name to dwell (eg, 1 Kings 8:13); but Jesus is the place where the Word of God becomes flesh to dwell among us (John 1:14); and this new personal dwelling-place for the Name of God both reinforces and changes the meaning of the Temple building.
It is changed because the Temple now points beyond itself to a living dwelling-place, but it is reinforced in that the Temple serves as an enduring reminder of God’s intention and desire to be incarnate among the people. It is because of the enduring significance of God’s desire to be present in the people that Jesus cannot accept the business-as-usual behavior of the money-changers and sacrifice-sellers within the Temple precincts. They are on holy ground, and they are themselves called to be holy people, and of this the Temple is meant to be an enduring reminder, but they treat the Temple as nothing more than a place to pursue their trades and make their profits; they lack the “zeal for God’s house” that is in Jesus, and that ought to be in every Jew, and for this reason Jesus drives them out.
Only zeal for God’s presence, at first focused on the Temple and then focused even more on Jesus, can motivate the keeping of the human side of the covenant, and its call for co-creative transformation of life, that comes through Moses and Abraham and Noah. For the contemporary interpreter, the call of the gospel reading is to be mindful of God’s presence in churches and temples and places of business and, most especially, in the lives of human beings, so as to move beyond business-as-usual motivations in our dealings, and to act instead with the compassion and generosity and abundant life that can transform the world.