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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Zeal for Your House Will Consume Me

I read these words:
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “ZEAL FOR YOUR HOUSE WILL CONSUME ME” [John 2:13-17 NASB].
I closed my eyes to picture the scene. It was blurry and tentative, because I never went to the Passover in first-century Jerusalem. But I vaguely saw the back of Jesus walking amid the press of a crowd of black- and gray-headed, beige-clad pilgrims through the Beautiful Gate. I saw the vast and crowded plaza before the monumental facade of the temple. I saw Jesus with unobtrusive determination tying together a bunch of ropes to make a flail. I heard, like a huge flock of birds, the loud chatter of customers haggling with endless rows of livestock vendors and moneychangers.

Then I heard a big crash—a table fell over. A short, startled cry and a momentary, local hush. No, the table had been thrown over. The sound of a metallic shower of coins rippled through the air. Men hopped down fearfully to scoop the coins up, but they were suddenly flogged by Jesus on their buttocks, which scattered them. Another table fell and then another. I saw his hand grip the edges and throw them one by one. The crowd’s noise alternated between silence and uproar.

Then he reached the livestock. Clouds of pigeons burst into the air as their cages were smashed. Vendors fearfully clung to them before he could break them too, and his voice thundered, “Take them away—NOW.” He threw off the bolt fastening the sheep pen. With the snap of his whip, the sheep and goats were belched from their place; they rumbled by with manic bleating. Then Jesus reached the cattle pen. Uh-oh. With a rising, bellowing rumble a stampede surged forth as oxen, four abreast, lumbered through the courtyard, crushing under hoof anyone who failed to get out of the way.

No one knew what to do. Vendors wanted to scream at him, but apoplectic rage stopped in their throats. Panting, spear-brandishing guards wanted to seize him, but they were frozen where they stood. Twenty thousand eyes rested on Jesus, standing on top of a table, and twenty thousand ears heard him cry, “STOP MAKING MY FATHER’S HOUSE A PLACE OF BUSINESS!”

I opened my eyes. Then I closed them again.

I was in the cavernous, tinted-glass-enclosed atrium of a suburban megachurch during a break between sessions of a conference. Sunlight glowed off the neutral walls, softened by the gray carpet. I saw two parallel, almost endless rows of booths from one end of the enormous room to the other. Some of them belonged to Christian colleges; they bore facades with academic crests and photos of healthy blonde kids (with one black kid), and they were fronted by healthy, blazer-wearing admissions people. Some tables were for missions organizations; these were worked by homelier folks in logo-embroidered golf shirts and worn khakis (because donors are suspicious of missionaries who look too worldly). But most tables belonged to publishers and booksellers. These were covered with books, and the books were covered with pictures, many of them pictures of the people speaking in the eager auditorium at one end of the hall. A buzzing mass of humanity swarmed among the tables. Goods, bags, and folders were in everyone’s hand. Credit cards whipped through iPads in every direction.

I walked to the first table on the left. I said to the guy there, “You should move.” He looked at me funny, not knowing how to take it. I grabbed the back of his display and threw it over, just missing him. The light fixture on top sharply popped as the bulbs shattered. A surprised gasp burst from the clientele. I strode behind the table. With a heavy shove I tipped it and with a succession of loud thuds the books hit the floor. A cry of shock.

I went from table to table, wrecking all of them, sparing none. No one knew what to do. Anger, fear, alarm, or awe were on every face. People cleared out ahead of me. Security guards ran up; I ignored them, and for some reason they did not approach me. On every side ten phones recorded my every move. Some vendors stood in my way until I shoved them aside with their own falling displays. I could not hear any speech—was it because it was silent or because the furor was deafening?

I threw the merchandise off the last table and climbed onto it. “IT IS WRITTEN,” I cried to the crowd, “MY HOUSE WILL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER! BUT YOU HAVE MADE IT A DEN OF THIEVES!” I hopped down, punched the crash bar on the door at the end of the row and walked into the sunny afternoon.

I opened my eyes again. Lord, I said in awe, how did you do that? Weren’t you scared? Weren’t you afraid of being misunderstood? Wouldn’t they think that you were an insane crank or an enemy of the state? Wouldn’t you be arrested? Wouldn’t you lose all your audience, your friends distancing themselves from you, your family embarrassed by you? What message are people getting from what you did? The Passover requires a load of animals—God said so. They have to be supplied somehow, right? What did the vendor you beat have to do with it? He’s a regular Joe just trying to feed his family; he didn’t make the system. You knew his needs better than anyone else. Didn’t it matter to you what he thought of you?

The answer to all these questions was simple and obvious. Zeal for your house will consume me.

Lord, I said with a sob, I want that zeal. I want to be so obsessed with the purity of your house, your church, that I have no fear left. I want to be utterly unconcerned about being misunderstood, mislabeled, rejected. I am so afraid—I can’t picture myself doing that . . . except that I just did picture myself doing it. I don’t want to be arrested or sued. Even more, I don’t want to be hated. But if you tell me to destroy other people’s property for the sake of your house . . . (I’m so scared) . . . then I will.

St. Francis of Assisi publicly stripped off his clothes and disowned his father and then lived as a homeless beggar. John and Charles Wesley preached outdoors while mobs threw stones when churches refused them their pulpits. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched down a street and was cuffed and hauled away by police with dogs.

We revere these men; countless churches, schools, and even streets bear their names. We are the Pharisees: we build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous even though we are the children of their persecutors (Matt. 23:29-33).

We remember these men because they performed bold, infuriating, prophetic acts ready-made for misunderstanding and rebuke, even for arrest or being torn to pieces. They did these things for Jesus Christ, because he did these things.

It is hard to picture anyone doing anything like that today. We live in a skeptical age in which no one—at least no religious person—can make any moral statement without adding the caveat that “I’m as guilty of this as anyone else.” In this environment, every righteous utterance is assumed to be self-righteous, so prophetic authority is rare.

But once in a great while, God requires someone to do a righteous, bold, prophetic act like this—something that saves people but destroys life as people know it—something physical that people experience and interpret as violence, even if no one gets physically hurt . . . except for the person who does it.

I have not been ordered to do something like that . . . not yet. But I have not ruled out the possibility.

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