A Holy Disrespect

Preached FCCW October 1, 2017
Matthew 21:23-32

In order to understand the full meaning of the story I just read, you need to rewind the clock by 24 hours. That would take you to a different scene in the Jerusalem Temple. There is Jesus, flipping over the tables of the money changers and chasing everyone out of the Temple who was using it for a marketplace instead of as a house of worship. In a fit of righteous anger, he shouts, “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.”

It did not make him very popular with a lot of very important people.

Which is why, in today’s passage, there is a posse of religious bigwigs, including the chief priest, waiting for him when he shows up at the Temple again the next day. They confront him, saying, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” It would not be inaccurate to ascribe a tone of outrage to those words. After all, this was the Temple of God that Jesus had disrespected with his act of public protest!

It’s not easy to find anything in our time to compare with the symbolic meaning that the Temple had for ancient Israelites. It was more than the centerpiece of their religion. It was the crowning glory of their civilization. The Temple reminded them of everything that set them apart from the other nations.
It was a monument to their unique relationship to God and the special destiny they had in God’s plan for humanity. Thousands upon thousands had given their lives to its construction. Armies of soldiers had lost their lives defending it. When their enemies defeated them in wars and wanted to crush their spirit as a nation they ransacked and ruined the Temple. Only to have another generation of Israelites rebuild it again.

So, when Jesus disrupted the business of the Temple, he crossed a line with a lot of people.

Matthew’s Gospel omits this detail, but in Mark’s version of the story it says that it was Jesus’ disrespectful actions in the Temple that was a major catalyst for the movement to have him eliminated.
And, yet, Jesus himself said that his outburst was not driven by disrespect for the Temple. His stated motivation was to rescue the Temple from the corruption that had infiltrated its courts and porticoes.
What drove him was a passion to preserve its sacred purpose as a house of prayer from the influence of those that would cheapen it by turning it into a den of robbers.

Not everyone shared the religious leaders’ indignation at Jesus. It says he was teaching in the Temple when they came to confront him. So, somebody thought that he had something to say that was worth hearing. We can only guess that he was speaking up for others who believed that there were things associated with the Temple that conflicted with its God given purpose. They might have seen Jesus’ disrespectful actions against the Temple as an actual act of holy disrespect, demanding that the Temple be purified from that which contradicted what it stood for.

When the Temple keepers approached Jesus with their “Who do you think you are?” attitude, he responded with a parable. A man had two sons. He told the first son to go work in the vineyard.  That son refused, right to his father’s face, with a disrespectful, “No, I will not.” Later though, he ended up doing what his father asked of him. Meanwhile, the father went to a second son, and told him to go to the vineyard to work. That son cheerfully agreed, “I’m on my way” he said.  He was so respectful that he even called his father “Sir.” But he never went to the vineyard.

“Which of the two sons,” Jesus asked, “did the will of his father?” They said that the son who refused to go but in the end did what his father asked was the one who did the father’s will. It seemed like a safe answer. Most people would agree that actions speak louder than words. In fact, Jesus agrees with them; that the one who DOES the right thing, not the one who SAYS the right thing, is the one who is truly respectful towards his father.

But Jesus compares the elders and priests to the other son. The one who SAYS the right things but DOES the wrong things. Their reverential attention to the holiness of the Temple masks the truth that they have tolerated things that betray all that the Temple stands for. They SAY “Yes” to God with their lips but do not DO God’s will.

Then, there is Jesus and his followers, who seem to be disrespectful towards the Temple, when what they are really disrespecting are the injustices being legitimated in the Temple’s name. That what was meant to be a “house of prayer” had been turned into a “den of robbers.”

Rewind our clocks 60 years, to Central High School, in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education ruled that segregated schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional. The Governor of Arkansas defied the ruling and deployed the state’s National Guard to prevent nine African-American students from attending classes at the high school. The black musician Louis Armstrong – he of “What a Wonderful World” fame — was scheduled to perform in the Soviet Union as a cultural ambassador on behalf of the U. S. State Department.

In light of the events in Arkansas, Armstrong cancelled the tour because he could not in good conscience ignore such a disregard for the Constitution that was supposed to express the essence of American ideals he was being asked to represent to the Soviets. Before long, attacks on Armstrong’s patriotism led to cancellations and boycotts of his performances; and pushed the real issues of racism into the background.

In hindsight, it is clear that Armstrong’s actions were not evidence of a lack of patriotism, but of a level of patriotism that cherished American ideals of justice and equality enough to say “No” to passively condoning racism by continuing with business as usual, and to say “Yes” to supporting what America stands for.

There are times when our religious or national symbols and icons speak for us. They express our deepest creeds and convictions. They serve to unify us. There are also times when the religious and national symbols we revere speak to us. They sound a clarion call for us to return to the ideals they represent when we drift from them.

There’s an old story about a battle being waged between two armies for a strategic high ground. One side momentarily gained the advantage over their foes and triumphantly planted the flag in the disputed ground. No sooner had that been done when, the enemy mounted a fierce counter attack, forcing the hilltop to be abandoned again. The commander of the retreating company gave the order for the flag to be brought with them as they withdrew to lower ground. One soldier called back defiantly, “The colors are on the high ground where they belong. Let the company have the courage to rise and join them there!”

Lately, symbols and icons that should sustain national unity have been turned into flashpoints of division. The growing expression of frustration by athletes with what they perceive to be failures to address life and death issues in communities of color, by “taking a knee” during the national anthem has led to an angry backlash which has risen all the way to the highest levels of government. Charges that the protesters are disrespectful and unpatriotic have been met with the response that it is in fact patriotism for our noblest ideals that drives these acts of dissent.

Today, on World Communion Sunday, we honor the universal importance of this sacrament to Christians everywhere. Yet, we also confess that it has been one of the fiercest points of division between Christians. Again…there are times when our religious or national symbols and icons speak FOR us. They express our deepest creeds and convictions. They serve to unify us. There are also times when the religious and national symbols we revere speak TO us. They sound a clarion call for us to rise up and return to the ideals they represent.

Because, as Jesus demonstrated, there are times when a holy disrespect may be the very highest form of respect we can pay to preserve what it is about our symbols that matters most.

Copyright 2017 Raymond Medeiros