March 4, 2018 The Third Sunday in Lent (Year B)


Exodus 20:1–17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1:18–25, John 2:13–22

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+

In the name of Jesus, the Lamb of God. Amen.

In Walter Brueggemann’s book, Sabbath as Resistance, he argues that the fourth commandment requiring Sabbath observance was given to the Hebrew people who were slaves to Pharaoh in his drive to amass more wealth and power. Pharaoh and Egypt, says Brueggemann, are metaphors for any socioeconomic system that serves “the way of endless desire, endless productivity, and endless restlessness.” (p. 11) By contrast, “[t]he Sabbath commandment is drawn into the Exodus narrative, for the God who rests is the God who emancipates from slavery and consequently from the work system of Egypt and from the gods of Egypt who require and legitimate that work system.” (p. 2) In other words, Sabbath was the gift of the Creator God, who rested on the seventh day from the creative activity, to the Hebrew people to give them relief from the work system of Pharaoh and the false gods of commerce who support him. Sabbath observance is to live a life of resistance against any socioeconomic system that seeks a relentless pursuit of commerce, and the religion that supports it. In short, observing Sabbath helps people of faith take a stand of resistance against the way of the world, and a stand of affirmation for the way of God, the way of life in the world.

Sabbath observance is not merely a day off in which one rests, perhaps by turning off technology, by not shopping, or by engaging in neighborliness—each of which is a good Sabbath observance—but Sabbath observance at its heart is bigger than that: a whole way of life in which all that one has and all that one is stands against the ways of the world and affirms the way of life in the world, in this case against any socioeconomic system that drives people toward the relentless pursuit of commerce, and the religious structures that support this system. Sabbath observance is a mindset in which one consistently must draw a line and say “enough is enough”—in which one refuses to believe the lie that the constant drive toward wanting and acquiring more will bring happiness, contentment, or joy. It is, rather, to assert and publicly witness that these things can only be found in God.

Now, lest you think Brueggemann is being too political in his biblical interpretation (for his interpretation does not go gently on a capitalist economic system such as ours that blesses and encourages “the way of endless desire, endless productivity, and endless restlessness,” often in favor of the rich at the expense of the poor), we need only turn to our Gospel reading for today in order to see that Jesus himself makes this a political issue. “But wait,” you may observe. “In that text Jesus is cleansing the Temple, not taking on the socioeconomic system of the Roman Empire.” Except that he is. In their book, The Last Week, biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan remind us that at the time of Jesus, the Temple in Jerusalem had become “the center of local collaboration with Rome.” (The Last Week, p. 15.) The Temple authorities hailed from aristocratic families whose wealth existed primarily in land ownership. These leaders included the high priest, the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes, and the council called the Sanhedrin. Though priests in Jesus’ day were prohibited by Jewish law to own land, the theologians argued that what the law actually meant is that priests could not work the land, but they could own it—an example of religion twisted to support an oppressive socioeconomic system and protect the rich, like the religion of the Pharaohs.

These Temple leaders presided over a two-tiered tax system—collecting local taxes and the imperial tax. Local taxes were called “tithes,” which amounted to up to 20% of agricultural production each year. Also, a “temple tax” was assessed yearly on Jewish men of a certain age. In addition, the Temple was the center of the imperial tax, the tribute owed to Rome as the occupying force in the region. It was the religious authorities of the Temple who were responsible for collecting all these taxes, and the theology of the religious elite in Jesus’ day was constructed to support this oppressive socioeconomic system. So, when Jesus thundered into the Temple with a whip of cords, driving the animal merchants out of the Temple and overturning the tables of the money-changers and dumping their coins on the ground, he was making a political statement against an economic system that supported an oppressive regime and the local religious aristocracy that supported it through their political and religious collusion. And when Jesus justified his action, saying, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” he was challenging the dominant theological position of the religious aristocracy, which argued that God himself had set it up this way, so “[t]his is the way it is.” (Ibid. p. 20) (Does that argument sound familiar?)

Jesus was so dangerous to the religious aristocracy because his message challenged the legitimacy of Roman oppression and flew directly in the face of the prevailing theology of the religious aristocracy that supported an oppressive socioeconomic system, which made the rich richer and the poor poorer. No wonder Jesus, in his inaugural sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, identified his ministry with the vision of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The people of whom Jesus spoke were not merely dealing with personal struggles; these people were caught in a socioeconomic system that kept them poor, captive, blind, and oppressed. These people were the victims of the politics of oppression and the religion that supported it.

When we reflect each week in Lent on the Ten Commandments, as we do when we begin our liturgy with the Penitential Rite, it is not enough for us merely to reflect on these as a personal discipline, that is, as a matter of our own personal behavior vis-à-vis God. That is why Sabbath keeping at its heart is not merely the call to take a personal rest weekly shorn of technology and engaging in commerce, while seeking to engage more readily in neighborliness and the love of God. These things are good as far as they go. But Sabbath rest is also a metaphor for taking a stand of resistance against the powers of the world, including oppressive socioeconomic systems that serve “the way of endless desire, endless productivity, and endless restlessness.” It is a metaphor for choosing to affirm, against such systems, the way of life as found in the God who created the universe and who is the Lord of the Sabbath. As such, our Lenten reflection must also drive us to ask how we, like the religious aristocracy of Jesus’ day, are in collusion with the political powers of our world to support policies that bind rather than free people; and to ask how our religious systems and theologies support the status quo. As followers of Jesus, we should be filled with righteous indignation as he was in the Temple, and with zeal for the Lord of the Sabbath in whom alone true happiness, contentment, and joy are found. May our Lenten reflection lead us there. Amen.

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