Editor’s (admin’s) Note. Third of ___* Lenten meditations based on lectionary readings on the covenants of Noah, Abraham and Moses. This one riffs on the Ten Commandments and the passage in the Gospel of St. John where Jesus speaks of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
John 2 (NRSV). 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 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. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
It’s been quite a week for covenants. Week? It’s been quite a month for covenants. Temples, maybe not so much. But … well, it’s like any other relationship, it’s complicated.
This year’s Old Testament readings for the first three weeks of Lent have been about the covenants of Noah, Abraham and now the Mosaic covenant — signed, sealed and delivered, as it were, with the Ten Commandments. Good stuff. And after reading all three in combination with the corresponding gospel lessons — with a nudge here and a fresh, new idea there from our weekly pericope study via Zoom chat — I’m in quite a different place regarding covenants than I was three weeks ago.
Up till now, I’d associated them with the Puritans in New England, who had a precise theology of covenants, the gist of which, as I understand it, was they and only they had a valid agreement with God and if you didn’t like it, they’d hound you out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in a blizzard like they did with Roger Williams.
But no, I came to find out in the Zoom sessions, that’s only part of the picture. A covenant is also a promise. God’s promise to the people of God.
Do right, Noah, don’t shed blood (and do patronize kosher slaughterhouses because they’re careful about not shedding blood), and God won’t destroy you with a flood next time. Stop laughing, Abraham and Sarah, and God will make you the father and mother of a mighty nation. Listen up, O children of Israel, Yahweh is the Lord thy God and thou shalt have no other gods before Yahweh. Ye shall be Yahweh’s people, and Yahweh shall be your God forever.
You promise, Yahweh? Sweet deal!
So I turn to Wikipedia, which is pretty much my summa theologica, and I learn this week’s covenant of Moses — also known as the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) — is modeled after the treaties that victorious Babylonian and Assyrian kings would hand down to conquered peoples. This appeals to the history nerd in me, and I read on:
The form of the covenant resembles the suzerainty treaty in the ancient Near East. Like the treaties, the Ten Commandments begins with Yahweh‘s identification and what he had done for Israel (“who brought you out of the land of Egypt”; Ex 20:2) as well as the stipulations commanding absolute loyalty (“You shall not have other gods apart from me”). Unlike the suzerainty treaty, the Decalogue does not have any witness nor explicit blessings and curses. The fullest account of the Mosaic covenant is given in the book of Deuteronomy.
See? It’s a promise. You’re on the home team now. Yahweh brought you out of bondage in Egypt, and now you’re free to straighten up and fly right. The dour Puritan stuff is still there, but you do it because you want to do it. And you want to do it because you’re on the team and that’s what teammates do.
This week’s gospel reading is also about a promise.
It’s the account in the Gospel of St. John of Jesus driving the money-changers out of the temple in Jerusalem. John places it earlier in his career than the other gospels, but the narrative effect is the same. It puts him on a collision course with the temple hierarchy. Destroy the temple, though? Doesn’t sound like much of a promise to me. We’ll have to dig a little deeper.
Think about it in terms of a 21st-century American church: The temple authorities probably took a commission on the money-changing fees, and built it into the temple’s operating budget as a revenue item. This is the only way I can get through the Gospel of John — when he rails at “the Jews,” oi Ioudaioi in Greek, I remind myself, he’s railing against the authorities. As a certified history nerd (MA, University of Tennessee Knoxville, 1966), I suspect John, or his redactor, is probably railing against a very specific set of Jews who threw him out of a synagogue in Ephesus around 90 CE. But if I’m going to get anything of value out of John, I’m going to have to put that aside and ask myself: How is he railing against me?
So if I’m on the scene when this hillbilly from Galilee comes charging into the temple brandishing a whip, knocks over the money-changers’ tables and creates a general ruckus, I’m going to call security. (In the synoptic gospels, in fact, that’s more or less what happens.) But in John, when the authorities ask him what in blue blazes he’s doing — can you show us a sign? — he just says, “destroy this temple, and I will build in back in three days.” He’s not saying he’s going to destroy it, at least that’s not the way I read it; they’re going to destroy it, and he can build it back.
My inner history nerd is nudging me and saying John’s final redactor would have added this bit about 30 years after the temple in Jerusalem was in fact destroyed and what we now call the Johnannine community fled to Ephasus. But I tell him to shush up. What, instead, is Jesus telling me?
I think it’s something like this — first-century Jews didn’t need the temple at Jerusalem to survive. Destroy it, as the Roman army did, and destroy Jerusalem for good measure. The survivors will flee, and sooner of later they’ll set up yeshivas at Yavne and Tiberias and synagogues all over the eastern Empire. And the emerging Christians will set up house churches and basilicas everywhere, not only in Ephesus but Corinth, Thessaloniki, Philippi and Rome as well as all over Asia Minor.
So I think Jesus in this story is telling me I don’t particularly need a temple, either. I do need a community, but you don’t need anything as grand as Herod’s temple — under construction for 46 years — to have community. If a year of enforced absence from church during this pandemic has taught me nothing else, it’s taught me that. You don’t even need a storefront in a rundown strip mall, or a synagogue in Ephesus, to have community.
Or to follow the commandments. If there’s anything I’ve learned these first three weeks of Lent this year, it’s that the commandments — like the covenants of Noah and Abraham — are a gift and a promise.
Even if they don’t exactly look like that at first glance.
I like the way our weekly newsletter at Peace Lutheran, News You Can Use, ties these things together. (That’s got to be one of the most utilitarian newsletter names all all recorded history, by the way. I mean that in a nice way — after all, I once wrote and edited a faculty newsletter called Nuts ‘n Bolts — and it’s an accurate description of the content.) This week’s News You Can Use suggests:
The third covenant in this year’s Lenten readings is the central one of Israel’s history: the gift of the law to those God freed from slavery. The commandments begin with the statement that because God alone has freed us from the powers that oppressed us, we are to let nothing else claim first place in our lives. When Jesus throws the merchants out of the temple, he is defending the worship of God alone and rejecting the ways commerce and profit-making can become our gods. The Ten Commandments are essential to our baptismal call: centered first in God’s liberating love, we strive to live out justice and mercy in our communities and the world.
Good stuff. It’s definitely a better way of looking at covenants than worrying about the Puritans, the Salem witch trials and sinners in the hands of an angry God.
But I’m still left with a nagging feeling. So don’t the buildings matter, then?
Pretty much by accident, or serendipity (or something else we recognize in the 12-step community as more than a coincidence), when I was writing about the covenant of Noah a couple of weeks ago, I came across a picture I took outside the the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It showed a rainbow off in the distance beyond a hostel for pilgrims maintained by the Franciscans as Custodians of the Holy Land. The rainbow fit the theme, so I included it in the post, which I headlined, “Noah’s rainbow sign: Good news for the 53rd Sunday in Lent in a pandemic?”
Then last week, while I was writing about the covenant of Abraham in the lectionary reading for the second Sunday in Lent, I came across another picture I snapped a minute or two later from another angle. This one showed clearing skies and scudding clouds over the Church of the Nativity. I headlined the post, “A Lenten meditation on covenants, a Christian nationalist lynch mob, green bananas and a book proposal.” Clearly, I had other things on my mind that week. But the picture was lovely, and the church in Bethlehem is magnificent.
The Church of the Nativity has been around for more than 46 years, too. Located over the grotto where tradition holds the infant Jesus was born, it has been a shrine since the fourth century CE. I think you can sense that in the very stones of the building. If not in the stones, in the tourists and pilgrims who flock there, sometimes jabbering and shoving as they press their way into the grotto, sometimes standing aside in awe and wonder. The picture at the head of this week’s post shows the interior of the basilica. It’s gaudy, it’s kitchy. It’s as full of people as a bus terminal or the Statehouse rotunda on a legislative session day. It’s noisy. It’s incredibly moving. It’s holy.
Somewhere in the minor epistles, it speaks of living stones. Maybe the pilgrims crowding the Church of the Nativity are the living stones out of which the church is built. Are they — are we — the part of the temple that will not be destroyed? That will be raised up in three days?
One more picture (below, at the foot of the column). As our tour group was going into the Church of the Nativity, I snapped an exterior shot.
It was a muggy early November afternoon, a lot like a rainy August or September day in central Illinois, and there was a light rain falling as we crossed Manger Square. (The basilica is low building in the rear of the parking area, flanked by an Armenian Apostolic monastery at right.) By the time we emerged an hour later, those lowering clouds you see over the basilica had largely dissipated, the sky was clearing and the sun was coming out.
A sign? A covenant? A promise? Or a nice rainy afternoon in Palestine? Or (e) all of above?
Update (March 7). After watching our Sunday service on YouTube, I decided to look up the “living stones” quote. It’s from 1 Peter 2:5, and it goes like this: “like living stones, let yourselves be built[a] into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood […]” When Debi and I were in the Holy Land, we heard Palestinian Christians cite it often. The underlying idea was they were the people who built the church in the beginning and maintain it to this day.
They had a good point there.
*Asterisk because I can’t be sure the common lectionary won’t spring another covenant on us before we’re done with Lent.
[Revised and published, March 7, 2021]