In my address for Palm Sunday, I offered two metaphors – clashing storylines and snapshots – for thinking about the events of Holy Week and Easter.
Two themes have been running around in my head this Holy Week: the distinction between the holy and the sacred, and does Jesus know as tensions rise how his last week will end?
The world is a holy place, and God’s holiness pervades every part of it. Human experience of God’s holiness is an enticing and infuriating experience of the numinous. What is enticing about the numinous is that it can only be intuited or sensed. What’s infuriating about the numinous is that it can only be intuited or sensed – diffusing everything and yet remaining beyond out of our reach to grasp, capture, and control.
Our human response to the tease of the numinous is to create boundaries and name the space within them as sacred. Once created, boundaries need protecting and the sacred space within, policed. The very act of policing requires mechanisms of control and domination. In sacred spaces and places – there are two kinds of persons to be found: those who police and those who are policed; those who control and those who are controlled.
Thus, the Jerusalem Temple was a sacred place, within which grace and violence formed the two sides of the same coin. In driving the sellers of cheap grace from the Temple, Jesus is clarifying the distinction between two distinct storylines – one sacred and one holy. Jesus must clarify the distinction between them because from the human perspective they are easily and often confused.
Throughout Holy Week, Jesus is teaching his disciples about the storyline of the holy -and in doing so – he presents himself as a danger to those who police and protect the sacred against contamination by the holy.
In the Holy Week snapshot we glimpse three clashing Messiah storylines.
- The disciples and those who gathered around Jesus to listen to him. They are still in the Palm Sunday storyline of hope in which Jesus is the Messiah – the long-promised figure of Jewish national liberation.
2. The Temple authorities inhabit a variation of this storyline – but in this variation hope for the Messiah is replaced by fear of the Messiah. They fear Jesus. If he is the Messiah, then all is about to be lost.T
They fear the loss of their power to police the boundaries of the sacred space. They fear the loss of their political power as the quisling Jewish administration tasked with keeping the people compliant under the Roman occupation.They fear the loss of their economic privilege as a 1st century IRS and Wall Street rolled into one – the Temple, at the center of the complex web of taxation, insider trading, and profiteering.
3. Then there is the storyline of the Messiah as God’s agent.
The question about what did Jesus know or not know i.e., his omniscience, is sparked by a comment of Viktor Frankl’s: if you find a why, you can bear any how.
Does Jesus know how his last week amidst escalating tensions will end? Of course, the gospel narratives portray him to varying degrees as omniscient – knowing ahead of time what was to happen and moving through events rather like the star actor in a well scripted play – the outcome of which is known by all in advance.
There is a theological rather than a literal purpose for the Evangelists in presenting Jesus this way. Yet, I feel this robs Jesus of his human limitation – for after all, isn’t the point that he is like us? The question is not – did Jesus at this point know the manner by which he would die? But how did Jesus understand his role in the storyline of the holy –i.e., God’s vision for the Messiah?
Jesus knows and has always known that his path is as principal agent in God’s unfolding storyline of a promise made to the whole of creation. This is the storyline that has been guiding and leading him to this week.
In other words, it’s not necessary for Jesus at this point to know the how of the future, only to know the importance of the why the future must flow from his deliberative courage – courage born of choices he has the power to make or not make. Viktor Frankl again: if you find a why, you can bear any how.
Jesus is in the Temple because it’s here and only here – where the final confrontation between the holiness of God and the violence of the sacred must begin!
Please remember in your prayers over the coming days:
The cause of peace – remembering the people of Ukraine. We pray for them as they undergo this terrible national and personal suffering. We remember and give thanks for the example of their courage and resolve in facing down Russian sacred violence. We pray for the peace of Jerusalem – still a symbol of conflict and division.
The plight of all forced to flee from their homes to become strangers in a strange land.
The oppressed peoples of the world. For Russians dreaming of freedom from tyranny – esp. remembering Alexei Navalny; for China’s persecuted minorities; for the peoples of Myanmar, Yemen and Palestine.
For those among us suffering from loneliness and isolation; for the distressed in body, mind, and spirit; for those nearing death, and others facing different kinds of loss.
I look forward to seeing you, preferably in person or otherwise online for the Great Three Days of Easter.