Pandemonium in the Temple

“The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’”

John 2:13-16

Let’s start with a question—what did Jesus have in mind that day when he entered the Temple?—what was his motive for taking on the role of agitator and kicking up a fuss?

Well, Jesus was obviously not trying to engineer a take-over of the Temple—this was not an armed insurrection designed to topple the Temple authorities.

This was a one person protest that did not endanger life, limb, or property—there was no burning of buildings or shattering of windows or taking of hostages.

Yes, according to the gospel of John, Jesus wielded a whip of cords—but there’s no indication he used the whip to inflict pain on anybody and it sounds like the only actual damage might have been a few nicks on the tables and chairs.

Jesus’ protest in the Temple seems to have been much more of an annoyance than a threat, a little flurry of agitation after which the merchants and money-changers probably dusted themselves off, got things straightened around, and quickly returned to business as usual.

For, after all, this rabbi from the sticks attacking the machinery of the Temple was like a mosquito stinging a rhinoceros—a defenseless, powerless Jesus would have been no match for the machinery of the great Temple, the most powerful, revered Jewish institution in all of Palestine.

So I’m wondering if Jesus’ trouble-making in the Temple was a kind of performance art, a sort of over-the-top gesture of protest that expressed his dismay at a hierarchy that had become callous, arrogant, and self-serving, a system that had forgotten its founding vision—an institution that had become very institutionalized.

I’m wondering if Jesus ruffling feathers in the Temple was his way of making a statement, his way of echoing that famous passage in the Book of the Prophet Amos in which the Lord, the God of Hosts, declares,

“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fatted animals I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Maybe this text is what Jesus had in mind when he strode into the Temple that day—for it would seem that justice and righteousness, with a lot of mercy thrown in, was the song he loved to sing.

I’m wondering if this vulnerable yet daring figure of Jesus taking on the Temple is a little bit like Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” taking on the high and the mighty.

Did you know that Charlie Chaplin once said: “I want to play the role of Jesus. I look the part. I’m a Jew. And I’m a comedian.”?

Of course, Jesus was not, strictly speaking, a comedian—but he seemed to have had a comedian’s sense of timing when it came to upsetting the apple cart of the callous and the arrogant—there was a kind of hilarity about the way this uncredentialed, uncertified rabbi without a power base could turn the tables on those who flaunted their sense of virtue, piety, or superiority.

We might say that Jesus’ demonstration in the Temple combines an acute, almost laughable vulnerability with a certain exuberant daring.

And as we think about Jesus acting up in the Temple, perhaps memories spring to mind of other protests against callousness and arrogance in which the protesters were both absurdly vulnerable and unaccountably bold and daring.

There was the anonymous Chinese man standing in front of a line of seventeen tanks the day after the government crackdown on Tiananmen Square who, for a half hour, stepped into the path of the lead tank every time the driver tried to go around him—and who eventually climbed up on the tank and allegedly said to the driver, “Why are you here? My city is in chaos because of you.”

There was Willie Morris, one-time editor of Harper’s Magazine, who, as a senior at the University of Texas, was editor of the student newspaper and repeatedly issued broadsides against segregation and censorship—on one occasion, Morris wrote an editorial that lashed out at the governor and other legislators for what he claimed was their collusion with the oil and gas interests that ran the state—the university’s Board of Regents prohibited him from publishing the editorial, and so he put out a blank editorial page with these words emblazoned across it—“This editorial was censored!”; as Morris later wrote, “A student editor in Texas could blaspheme the Holy Spirit and the Apostle Paul, but irreverence stopped at the wellhead.”

When I was in the 6th grade, we had a coach and gym teacher who was immensely popular with the students—it is not too much to say we loved Coach Renwick—we would push ourselves to the limit trying to excel at some game or exercise just to receive one word of praise from him which we would treasure for weeks—one day when we reported to gym, another coach, a towering man we feared but neither liked nor respected, called the class to order and told us Coach Renwick was no longer employed at the school and that he would be taking over his duties—we were a dazed, morose group—but as the day progressed, our shock turned into anger, and as we huddled together, one of our nervier comrades hatched a plan which the rest of us quickly endorsed—the next day when the new gym teacher called us to attention with his usual military cadence, instead of snapping to, the whole class, in one coordinated movement, sat down—the teacher was totally flummoxed—he sputtered, waved his arms, and headed for the principal’s office—interestingly enough, no discipline was ever meted out to us—the assistant principal came and sat down with us and patiently explained that Coach Renwick had resigned for personal reasons and the school regretted his leaving—but I think the school recognized that the bond between a teacher and his students should not be so rudely broken and that they had handled the situation badly—and I’m sure that if our more audacious fellow-student hadn’t put forth the idea for the little protest, we more timid types wouldn’t have been brave enough to do it.

I think it would be a gross misreading of Jesus’ protest in the Temple to conclude that he wanted to wreak havoc on the Temple as an institution.

On the contrary, I believe that as a faithful Jew he was trying to honor and preserve the institution by applying a little shock therapy to remind those in charge of the Temple’s original, founding vision.

If we read the story this way, we can say that the spirit of Jesus’ protest is really applicable to every institution.

All of us work and live in institutions—businesses. law firms, health care, government, education, the military, the church—institutions are essential and indispensable—they are the primary carriers of the precious, hard-earned wisdom and know-how of the past.

But all institutions are perpetually susceptible to institution creep—that is, all of us who live and work in institutions are continually in danger of falling prey to institutionalization—becoming dull and robotic or worse, callous and arrogant, but, either way, losing sight of the founding vision.

Every institution has, as part of its charter, either spelled out or implicit, an undeniable ethical imperative—to serve “pro bono publico”—to serve the public good.

Of course, lawyers, doctors, business executives, and stock brokers all have to worry constantly about the economic bottom line—yes, excruciatingly difficult compromises have to be struck, agonizing decisions have to be made about lay offs and health care coverage—we’re not talking any kind of moral perfection here—but the point is that even for a company in the most intensely competitive business arena, Heaven forbid that profitability, although a must, would be the only consideration.

David Packard recalled that after he and Bill Hewlett had gotten their company off the ground 68 years ago, he attended a conference at Stanford University sponsored by the business school—he said, “Somehow, we got into a discussion of the responsibility of management. The professor made the point that management’s responsibility is to the shareholders—that’s the end of it. And I objected. I said, ‘I think you’re absolutely wrong. Management has a responsibility to its employees, it has a responsibility to its customers, it has a responsibility to the community at large.’ And they almost laughed me out of the room.”

Jesus’ protest in the temple is a burr under the saddle of every institution that drifts into a malaise of being only concerned with feathering its own nest—Jesus’ protest is a reminder that as soon as an institution ceases to serve the public good, it is already in the first stage of rigor mortis.

This past week I went to see my family doctor.

In the course of our leisurely visit, yes, I said leisurely, he told me that early in his practice an older physician who had become his mentor said to him, “If you look after your patients, if you do what’s right for them, the money will follow. Not necessarily a lot of money, but enough.”

And then my doctor said to me, “He was right. Of course, you can’t disregard issues of money, managed care. But if you are mainly devoted to your patients’ welfare, the other things will work out. And a fulfillment comes from this that you can never get if you’re only worried about your investments.”

In other words, take care of the means and the ends will take care of themselves.

Not long ago Dr. Charles Vialotti announced his retirement and the closing of his office in Greenwich Village where he had been seeing patients since l941.

Dr. Vialotti said, “I’m going to be 97 years old. I figured at that age it’s wise to have a short period of rest.”

According to the reporter Clyde Haberman who was covering this story, “In mid-January, Dr. Vialotti sent letters about his retirement plans to 810 patients he had seen in just the last two years. Many felt they had to call on him one last time—Joseph Buscemi dropped by the other day. He had been going to Dr. Vialotti for 60 years. Jeff Sweetland had moved from the Village to Jersey City, but he never switched doctors. He paid a visit. So did Christine Wandel, who had health questions about her young grandson. ‘I had to check with him,’ she said. ‘There’s never been a time when he’s been wrong.’”

The reporter goes on, “It is always risky to call someone the last of his kind, for someone else is bound to pop up. Even so, when was the last time you went to a doctor who did it all by himself, without receptionist or nurse? Who couldn’t be bothered with all the insurance nonsense, and charged low fees or, at times, none at all? Who kept records on index cards, not computers? Who took patients as they walked in, first come, first served?

Who made house calls? (Some day, kids, we’ll tell you what house calls were.)”

“Dr. Vialotti was, quite simply, an old style G.P., a term you barely hear anymore. The initials stand for general practitioner—Dr. Vialotti said, ‘People didn’t have to make appointments. Sometimes, there’d be 25 or 26 patients in the waiting room. They were sitting out in the hall. The joke among my patients was, “You’ll probably get well before he gets to see you.”’

“As for house calls, he recalls making 19 of them in a single day back in the 1940’s. It helped that some patients lived in walk-ups with connecting roofs. He could move easily between buildings. He recalled, ‘They used to say, “We’re leaving the roof door open, Doc.”’”

“One longtime patient, who preferred to stay anonymous, said, ‘You felt you were as important to him as he was to you.’”

Now we all know you can’t practice medicine that way anymore—and I’m sure Dr. Vialotti was a laughing stock among various high end physicians who considered him a Neanderthal doctor who never caught up—but isn’t it heartening to hear of someone who, for all those years, retained the founding vision of what it means to be a doctor.

And there continue to be doctors, like my own family physician, who, in the midst of the madcap, helter-skelter world of managed care, still honor and cleave to that vision.

You see, I believe that wherever we work and live in institutional settings, we are called to be a little daring, a little nervy, a little audacious, a little unconventional, on behalf of serving the public good—oh, to be sure we need to pick our spots—but at certain critical moments, when the timing is right, I believe we’re called to go out on a limb, risk embarrassment, look a little foolish, ruffle a few feathers, and, even in the teeth of opposition and ridicule, sing our song of justice and righteousness, with a lot of mercy thrown in, which is really the song of Jesus and the prophets.

When things are sliding downhill in the place where we work or spend much of our time, and a cold, calculating cost-cutting mentality rules the roost and clients, customers, and fellow employees are getting short-shrift, I believe we are supposed to sing our song and say our piece with humor, buoyancy, and boldness, and hopefully without being smug, grim, or self-righteous.

In short, I believe we are called to be vulnerable, daring, life-giving agents who willingly take on the costly business of combating institution rot with passion, laughter, and maybe a little creative zaniness.

But I have this problem—I’m a fellow who tends to play it safe, who is allergic to conflict and risk-averse, who hates making waves and will go to almost any lengths to keep the peace and who can be, let’s face it, a little wishy- washy.

This doesn’t sound like a recipe for daring.

But I find solace in the fact that we trust in a Spirit that can, in the moment of truth, suddenly convert our timidity into courage, our cowardice into bravery.

That’s what I’m counting on—how about you?

The Rev. Robert Dwight
3 Lent
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
March 19, 2006

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