Food for Thought-He’s Not Angry-It’s A Game Thoughts on John 2:13-22


This is one of the most misunderstood passages in the New Testament. It’s been used to justify all sorts of crazy behavior over two thousand years. It essentially boils down to this, based on what we read, it looks like Jesus throws a temper tantrum in the temple and throws out the money changers. He does this wielding a whip and uttering strong language. Thus, the age old analogy, even Jesus lost his temper so we can as well. I think we read too much into the story. We’ve seen paintings, illustrations from our Bibles, and created pictures in our minds. Yet, when what we’ve seen is so out of character from what we read about Jesus throughout the gospels, we ought to immediately call into question our most basic assumptions about this story. Could something which diverges so radically from the portrait of Jesus we see in Matthew, Mark, Luke (and elsewhere in John) be that accurate in the first place? John’s gospel was written between the years 90-95 AD. That’s some sixty years after the events he’s describing with first hand dialogue. John places the temple incident at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry; where other gospel writers locate it in the week before Jesus’ death. There are enough questions surrounding this passage that should make us want to ask more questions. What’s going on here? What’s the point of telling us this story in the first place?

Follow the money. This passage is about money. It’s not about Jesus’ humanity and justifying our own expressions of anger. In the end, this passage is about the use of the temple to exploit the poor people into parting with what little money they had in order to do what ought to be free. The temple had its own currency. This currency was ritually clean and wasn’t used anywhere beyond the temple walls. Pilgrims who came to the temple would come to money exchanges (as you might encounter in a foreign airport) to change their local Roman currency for the temple currency. These money changers charged exorbitant rates to change their currency; making obscene profits for themselves and the temple authorities. One armed with the temple currency, the religious pilgrims would buy doves, pigeons, or other animals to sacrifice according to rituals proscribed in the Torah. The temple authorities were colluding with what was effectively organized crime to rob their own people, people attempting to do their religious duties as proscribed by the Bible. People had to come to the temple, they had to have the sacrifices, and they had to have the approved temple currency. This was the worst kind of corrupt monopoly one can imagine. This is institutionalized corruption backed up with the force of Roman arms.

This made everyone angry. Jesus knew the game. The whole world knew the temple was a religious charade. It wasn’t as if Jesus said to his disciples one morning, “You guys know what’s really going on up there? What you say I go get a whip and we’ll show them we mean business?” If Jesus had said something like that, they would have been, “You and what army?” Remember, Roman troops protected the Temple. Jesus also knew (as well as the Pharisees, temple authorities, and the money changers) that if he goes in there any flips over a few tables (there were probably hundreds of money changers, Jesus probably only flipped over six or seven tables) and runs them out, within an hour, they’re up and running again. Within 24 hours, no one remembers what he did at all. It’s not as if when he walked in there the practice stopped, the corruption ended, and the world came to its senses. Far from it, things kept on going.

If everyone knew about the corruption and the turning over the tables had zero long term impact on the temple, why do it? For fun? Just for kicks? To make a scene? Yes. That’s closer to the point than you may realize. Jesus needed to shake up the temple authorities and their Roman overlords. There was a consensus in upstanding Jewish society that people wouldn’t dare question how the temple authorities ran the place because people didn’t do that kind of thing. The temple authorities (the Pharisees, elders, scribes) maintained an uneasy peace with the Romans. God was worshiped and things seemed to work. No one was going to call them out on things that would simply make everyone uncomfortable; except for Jesus. Jesus was more than willing to make everyone uncomfortable. Jesus wanted to “go there” and be the “oh yes he did” kind of Savior. Those boundaries of corrupt propriety that were keeping people in bondage no longer mattered to him. As the Contemporary English Bible says, he was consumed with passion for God’s house. He was changing the ground rules on which religion was understood. He was one person. The system would restart the next hour. Yet people would know the corruption could be stopped. The program could be rewritten with new rules.

See what I mean? There’s so much happening here more than an “angry” Jesus with a whip. It’s a chess match, I can imagine Jesus smiling as he turns over each one of those tables. He’s making an opening gambit. He’s picking a fight he’s prepared to both loose and win but that’s another story.

Food for Thought-What the Dress Can Teach the Mainline Church


People will devote a few moments of their time to consider the most inane and pointless questions. This is the existential reality of social media. This is what I learned from last weekend’s viral epidemic known as “what color is the dress”. In truth, I knew this already. The idea was only reinforced in ways that made our collective fascination with the stupid all too real. To be honest, it has made me angry. Whether a contrived plot by a marketing genius or a bridesmaids gown gone awry, this dress did what most Christian churches have been unable to do for decades; it got people to stop and pay attention to what’s in the background and foreground of the world around them. What are we doing wrong, that people can’t see the contrast between Jesus’ idea of loving our neighbors and how we live so out of touch with that reality? When a badly framed optical illusion can capture the attention of more people in less time than our most well-thought out and well funded publicity campaigns; we’ve missed something. Are we too afraid of the political and social consequences of putting a radical picture of Christ forward; this is who we are and make of it what you will?

What am I suggesting? The method and means in which the mainline Protestant churches are attempting to connect with the wider world are spiritually and theologically bankrupt. We are out of spiritual and theological capital to invest in this enterprise. The shareholders of our corporation, those rank and file members who would front the “funds” to pay for further investment are no longer willing to part with the cash (energy, time, money, effort). In fact, I don’t believe they see any value in the enterprise as it is currently constructed. Throwing good money into theologically bankrupt projects has sewn seeds of mistrust and doubt throughout local congregations in the United Methodist Church. Until we declare bankruptcy, we operate with the illusion of evangelical and missional solvency. Clearly, the money we’re spending and the well meaning programs we introduce don’t resonate in the same way viral videos and internet memes ever will. The façade of contemporary Methodist evangelism doesn’t even want to acknowledge what these seemingly silly trends are getting right and what we might be doing wrong.

Food for Thought-The 10 Commandments, Sadism, and the Death of God


There are 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible. Of those 613, the Judeo-Christian tradition has decided 10 of these are of greater merit and value. While the Bible doesn’t use the term “The Ten Commandments” their chronological prominence and content gives them pride of place in the history of law giving among God’s people. However, when push comes to shove, a Biblical law is a law when it is handed to man from God. One would think that all God’s directives carry the same weight, shouldn’t they? Just as I honor my mother and father and love my neighbor, I should stone adulterers and bar lepers from my village (or nearest equivalent in 2015)? Of course not. We pick and choose what to follow when it comes to the 10 commandments and the other out of date and out of place laws throughout the Bible. This is especially true for Christians who wrestle with an understanding of Jesus; a man who came to redefine the law in terms of love, compassion, and neighbor. The remaining 603 laws are up for debate if you follow the Messiah from Nazareth named Jesus. So are the silly and culturally irrelevant laws you want to forget you’ve ever read. Others, like the Ten Commandments linger in the background, demanding we come to terms with them.

To be honest, some of the 10 Commandments have never set well with me. I’m fully aware they carry a great deal of weight and tradition; if only for standards we usually fail to meet. The prohibitive commandments are not a problem. We are told not to steal or commit murder. A proscriptive commandment, such as the reminder to honor our mother and father, are simply sound ideas, regardless of their divine origin. What does bother me stems from Exodus 20: 5. In verse 5, we are told, “Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” (CEB) He punishes children for their parent’s sin to the third and fourth generation. Are you kidding me? Is that right, fair, or just? That makes me physically sick. I want no part of worshipping a God who punishes innocent children for things done three and four generation prior to their birth.  It’s not only unfair, it is sadistic. If this is the God I am supposed to believe in, then I’m sorry, I want out. This is not the God I was raised to believe in. I didn’t sign up for the responsibility of asking people to believe in a deity who hates children he’s never met.

I’m also uncomfortable with the image of God in Exodus 20:7. The traditional interpretation is to “not take the Lord’s name in vain” or as the CEB says “Do not use the Lord’s name as if it were of no significance”. The Bible says the Lord will not forgive those who use his name that way. I’m sorry, I thought there was nothing the blood of Jesus couldn’t or wouldn’t forgive. Have I been lied to all these years? Have I been lying to my congregations for the past 16 years? Do these time-tested and well-worn elements of the 10 Commandments fly in the face of everything we know about Jesus Christ? Instead, do they point to a God who is already dead?

Food for Thought-Me and the Book of Discipline


I have to admit it, there are times when I don’t follow the United Methodist Book of Discipline. In fact, I openly flaunt its regulations. In the highly charged atmosphere prior to this year’s selection of delegates to the next general conference I should get it out in the open. I have openly violated the spirit and letter of the Book of Discipline. Let me tell you what I’ve done. In clear violation of paragraph 336, I’ve served my ministry in a status of debt, “enough debt to embarrass my work”. This debt was accrued, nearly $100,000 dollars worth not while gambling in Moscow, or on prostitutes in Las Vegas, but on studying for the United Methodist ministry in Durham, North Carolina. I admit it. I am in clear and flagrant breach of the Book of Discipline. I am ready for my judicial trial. Among the general rules of United Methodists, as noted in paragraph 104 in the Book of Discipline, proscriptions exist against reading books or listening to music which do not promote the love of God. I listen to Mahler, read Byron, and watch American Idol with my children. Each of these activities are in clear violation of the Book of Discipline. I am not only skirting the edge of what it means to be a good United Methodist; I have clearly left what remains of the big tent we once called United Methodism. Again, with this open and public admission I await my trial by the judicial council. I have openly violated the Book of Discipline, a book where all the rules are equally enforced and held together by decency, respect, good theology, and common sense.

Food for Thought-I’m Not Sure I Want to Be Washed Whiter Than Snow


After witnessing the epic winter weather across the United States and two recent snow events here in North Carolina, I have meditated upon the words of Psalm 51:7. The Psalmist writes, “Purge me with hyssop; and I shall be made clean, wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” For Christians, there is an obvious allusion within those words to Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection. However, it is helpful to remember, these are not Jesus’ words. In the opening chapter of Isaiah, the Lord says (in an appeal to the reason of the Israelite people), he has a desire to prevent the further destruction of Israel. “Though your sins are like scarlet,” says God, “they will be white as snow. If they are as red as crimson, they will become like wool. If you agree and obey.” Context matters. This passage has nothing to do with the salvation of humanity or Jesus of Nazareth. It does have everything to do with the imminent deportation with the Israelite nation to Babylon. God will square them with Babylon; not their sins with the cosmos. That’s not the issue.

Jesus never uses the word “snow”. The word was used to describe his apparel at his ascension in Matthew’s gospel. John recycles Isaiah’s prophecy and adapts it to early Christian apocalyptic thought in the Book of Revelation. That’s the sum total of snow in the New Testament. Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, made no mention of our bloody sins being washed away. Shedding and washing are two completely different words in New Testament Greek.  Washing sounds folksy and like something you can imagine your grandmother doing.  Someone “shedding” blood sounds like a man who was taken out to a Roman Imperial black site and executed on political charges.  As a result, if Jesus never talked about our sins becoming as white as snow (as a result of his sacrificial shedding of blood). So why do we keep pushing this image?  Is it because of the sanguine obsessions of late 19th century hymn writers?  Because it’s not in the New Testament. It’s not something attributable to Jesus of Nazareth.  Call me crazy, but I put a priority on doing things Jesus did, not stuff  we make up and then later pretend he did or said.

I don’t want to be washed white as fresh snow. I don’t think Jesus wants me washed as white as the wind driven snow on a George Winston CD cover. Jesus needs me dirty, tarnished, muddy, and filthy. Because this is who Jesus has called me to serve, love, and live among. The people who can’t go inside, make chili, post pictures on Facebook, haven’t showered in days, have no one to love them, can’t afford their Lorazepam, the people who are broken and no one wants to sully themselves by stopping to look at the dirty mess by the side of the road. Because if you’re looking at them, how can you praise God for all the great things God has done for you, how blessed you’ve been, and how grateful you are that you are clean.

Lord, I beg you. Keep me dirty and muddy and free from unsound scriptural metaphors about snow.  I need my sins to make me a better Christian.

Food for Thought-Divergent Jesus Thoughts on Mark 8:31-38


Shortly before we left Northern Ireland, my daughter Jordan wanted me to watch a film.  I’ll have to admit, for a 17 year old, she has fairly good taste in cinema.  This one was something supposed along the lines of “The Hunger Games”.  Dystopian fairy tales are right up my alley as well.   However, all the girls (I am the only man in a house with four women) said this movie was fundamentally different and I might like it more than the “The Hunger Games”.  So, we watched “Divergent”. One reason I note this is because a sequel to “Divergent” is about to be released.  It’s called “Insurgent”.   Both are based on a series of books by Veronica Roth.

This was one of the most theological movies, particularly for young adults, I’ve ever seen.  The movie starts with the same underlying premise Jesus shared with his disciples shortly before he died.  In John 17:21, Jesus prayed, “that they may be one.”  One body, in agreement, with no divisions; this was Jesus’ prayer.  This promise of unity-social, cultural, moral, legal, and ethical is where this movie begins.

The film’s basic premise is that (at some point in the future) peace can only be achieved by organizing people into groups (factions).  These groups then become the main source of an individual’s identity.  Upon reaching their mid-teens (it’s ultimately unclear exactly what year) the young people are tested to see which group or faction they are best suited.

When the test results are announced, the teens leave their biological families to join their respective factions.  They will remain with these factions for the rest of their lives.  The faction will come define their identities.  Who they were before they were they joined their faction, especially if they choose the defense faction, is expected to be completely forgotten. Each faction is expected to contribute something unique to the common good.  One faction functions in a political role, another group works as bureaucrats or administrators, another serves as a defense force.  As is it conceived, each group needs the other faction in order to survive.  This means one group is less likely to launch a coup to overthrow one faction to consolidate their own power.  In theory, the world they’ve created works, up to a point.

Except, when they do this testing, to see which group people are most suited for, some people blow up the test.  By that I mean they don’t come back with standard results which are easily interpreted that say, “Yep, you fit in here, there, or there.”  These people come back with no clear answer of where they belong.   As such, they are called, “Divergent”.  A divergent person is someone who is gifted and skilled in every area of life.  A divergent is someone who can’t be pigeonholed as any one type. As you might imagine, a divergent is a danger to the well-prescribed hierarchy and order which had been created.  If the “divergents” let the cat out the bag that the factions and groups are just a way to control society then the jig is up, the game is over. Divergents were to be stopped and killed.

Jesus was a divergent.  Jesus was the original divergent.  You and I are called to be divergents; to borrow the language of the film, especially if we’re honest with our own test results.

Jesus refused to be placed in a faction.  We let ourselves be put into constituencies, factions, and groups all the time.  Despite the fact Jesus comes to us and says, “You don’t have a faction or a group.  I’m you’re group, me, Jesus.  I’m the only faction you have and we work and love everyone.”  We are divergent.

Being a divergent is about denying factionalism a place in our lives.  What we know from our own lives (not just from the movie) is that factionalism and factions doesn’t work, labeling and ordering the world in some pre-conceived notion of the common good is the very opposite of freedom-whether you’re motivated by politics from the left or right.  It’s the opposite of what Jesus envisioned.

How does Jesus say we, as divergents deny the power of faction, the go along to get along idea that sucks so many of us into this mentality?

In this week’s lectionary lesson, Jesus says you’re going to be rejected by the factions you may so desperately want to join.  The factional people, those who place stock in the factional way of life, he calls them out.  (The elders, the chief priests, and the legal experts in verse 32.)

The factions are going to come after us if we’re living according to how Jesus teaches us to live.

Divergence is also about denial. When we welcome divergence, you start by saying no to the things with which you normally converge.  Divergence is about moving away from those things that normally define you.

Jesus also tells his early followers and disciples to “take up our cross”.  I do think the statement “Everyone has a cross to bear” minimizes Jesus’ identity and the reality of his execution by the Roman Imperial authorities.  The cross is the great equalizer. The function of the cross is to draw humanity to Christ.  When you’re a Christian it becomes the means in which you define yourself, the locus of you identity, you can’t talk about yourself without talking about the cross.  At the foot of the cross there are no factions. It may seem counterintuitive, but in order to get to that level ground at the foot of the cross, we have to become more divergent, more like Jesus.  We have to move beyond factional, Pharisee theology (believe like this or else) and diverge from the divisions and pray that they may be one.

Divergence is the way of Christ.  Divergence welcomes everyone and empowers us all to live, love, and serve without the boundaries created by humankind.  Serving Christ may not be as clean and clear as serving a faction but why would you join a faction when you could gain everything?