Tag Archives: N. T. Wright

Jesus Clears the Temple

A member of Resurrection sent me this cartoon today: “Jesus clears the temple.”* The cartoon got me thinking about the story in Jesus’ ministry (Mark 11:15-18). For many of us, the fact that Jesus cleared the temple of money changers is not significant or  meaningful. We don’t realize how upsetting and radical  Jesus’ action was for the ruling religious council in Jerusalem. We often see Jesus’ angry expression as some sort of deviation from the nice, kind Jesus we adore.  It was sort of “bizarre,” like someone “clearing” the temple on a skateboard.

But the Temple Cleansing was central piece of his Messianic vocation.  N. T. Wright helps to clarify this from the historical perspective of first century Judaism (the full essay is here):

Jesus believed he was Israel’s messiah, the one through whom God would restore the fortunes of his people. . . .  Anyone doing and saying what Jesus did and said must have faced the question “Will I be the one through whom the liberation will come?” All of the evidence—not least the Temple-action and the title on the cross—suggests that Jesus answered, “Yes.”

Second, Jesus’ radical and counter-cultural agenda, subverting both the political status quo and the movements of violent revolution, was focused in his awareness, of vocation.  John the Baptist re-enacted the Exodus in the wilderness; Jesus would do so in Jerusalem. Jesus’ gospel message constantly invokes Isaiah 40-55, in which God returns to Zion (Jerusalem), defeats Babylon, and liberates Israel from her exile. At the heart of that great passage there stands a job description. This would be the victory over evil; this would be the redefined messianic task. Jesus had warned that Israel’s national ideology, focused then upon the revolutionary movements, would lead to ruthless Roman suppression; as Israel’s representative he deliberately went to the place where that suppression found its symbolic focus. He drew his counter-Temple movement to a climax in Passover week, believing that as he went to his death Israel’s God was doing for Israel (and hence for the world) what Israel as a whole could not do.

Third, Jesus believed something else, I submit, that makes sense (albeit radical and shocking sense) within precisely that cultural, political, and theological setting of which I have been speaking. Jesus evoked, as the overtones of his own work, symbols that spoke of Israel’s God present with God’s people. He acted and spoke as if he were in some way a one-man, counter-Temple movement. He acted and spoke as if he were gathering and defining Israel at this eschatological moment—the job normally associated with Torah. He acted and spoke as the spokesperson of Wisdom. Temple, Torah, and Wisdom, however, were powerful symbols of central Jewish belief: that the transcendent creator and covenant God would dwell within Israel and order Israel’s life. Jesus used precisely those symbols as models for his own work. In particular, he not only told stories whose natural meaning was that YHWH (God) was returning to Zion, but he acted—dramatically and symbolically—as if it were his vocation to embody that event in himself.

Jesus saw himself as the means of salvation, no longer the Temple as the means. He became the sacrifice for our sins. He cleansed not only the Temple, but our hearts so that God can live in us. Amen.

Lord Jesus, continue to cleanse us.

*The cartoon is by Cuyler Black and you can find more of his cartoons here

Our Part in the Fifth Act

N. T. Wright, the New Testament scholar, helps me understand the Biblical story as a drama with five acts.  The first act is creation, beautiful and good, Genesis 1-2.  The second act is the human rebellion against God (also known as the Fall), Genesis 3-11.  The third act is the entire story of Israel, from Abraham to the Messiah (Paul sketches this out in Galatians 3 or Romans 4).  The story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is the climatic fourth act of the drama, the hinge on which everything turns.  The fifth act is the story of the church beginning with the book of Acts, and this is where we live today.

Wright goes on to explain,   

When we read the story of Jesus, we are confronted with the decisive and climatic fourth act, which is not where we ourselves live – we are not following Jesus around Palestine, watching him heal, preach and feast with the outcasts, and puzzling over his plans for a final trip to Jerusalem – but which, of course, remains the foundation upon which our present (fifth) act is based.    Indeed, telling the story of Jesus as the climax of the story of Israel and the focal point of the story of the creator’s redemptive drama with his world is itself a major task of the fifth act. (The Last Word, N. T. Wright, p. 124)

This story structure is central to our understanding of scripture, how we read and interpret it.  We are still in the story and it has not been completely written, but the main outline is known.  Jesus’ death and resurrection is now our assurance that evil and death has been defeated.    We live in confidence that God has won the war.  There may be individual battles and struggles ahead, times we feel discouraged or in grief.   Yet God’s victory is assured.  The centrality of Jesus’ death/resurrection is why we retell over and over the Good Friday/Easter story every year.

That is also why we can read the story of John 11, the raising of Lazarus, as our story, thinking at times like Martha and Mary that death has won the day.  But we know that Jesus’ resurrection has happened and we live in that new reality.   A new creation is present now and will be fully realized in the future.

How has the story of Jesus become your story?

Apples and Friends

Is Your Apple Finished?

Yesterday’s I mentioned my childhood friend, David Brown, and our logging adventures.  Our friendship had many ups and downs.    He was bigger and more athletic than I was and so he was often selected for playground teams when I was not.  I thrived in the classroom, where he often struggled.  On most days these differences did not bother us. We were best friends.  Occasionally, however, we get into intense disagreements over trivial matters. 

I remember the day my mom gave us each an apple to eat.  I ate my apple down to the core, savoring every bite.  David nibbled around the outside and said it was finished.

 I said, “Your apple isn’t finished.  You barely started.”

“Oh, my apple is done.”

“No, it’s not!”

“Yes it is!” 

He stormed off home and I swore we would never be friends again.  But the next morning, I stopped at his house on the way to school and we picked up as if nothing happened, until the next argument erupted.

In Simply Christianity, N. T. Wright describes our hunger and deep desire for relationships and yet our daily struggle to make our relationships work.  Wright writes, “We are made for each other.  Yet making relationships work, let alone making them flourish, is often remarkably difficult.  We all know that we belong to communities, that we were made to be social creatures. Yet there are many times when we are tempted to slam the door and stomp off into the night by ourselves, simultaneously  making a statement that we don’t belong anymore and that we want someone to take pity on us , to come to the rescue and comfort us.  We all know we belong in relationships, but we can’t quite work out how to get them right.  The voice we hear echoing in our heads and our hearts reminding us of both parts of this paradox and its worth pondering”  (p. 30). He goes on to suggest that the “echo” we are experiencing is the love God created us to experience with God and our neighbor, but our human sin has clouded and twisted our capacity to give and receive love.

How have you struggled in your relationships? How has God been faithful?

The Purpose of Scripture

The Bible is Word Power

Have you heard the concept, “The BIBLE stands for Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth?”   I struggle with that concept.  My fear is that we will turn the Bible into a glorified self-help book that we try to control, rather than the Word of God that comes to recreate us in God’s image.  God’s Word has more than great advice; it has the power to transform us.

N. T. Wright describes this transforming power. “The Bible isn’t there simply to be an accurate reference point for people to look things up and be sure they’ve got them right.  It is there to equip God’s people to carry forward his purposes of new covenant and new creation.  It is there to enable people to work for justice, to sustain their spirituality as they do so, to create and enhance relationships at every level, and to produce that new creation which will have about it something of the beauty of God himself.”   (Simply Christian, p. 182-183)  God’s Word is to actively work at transforming us into the image of Christ.   It calls and empowers us to love God by loving our neighbor in creative, just ways.

Jesus himself had to reinterpret the law because the Pharisees and other religious officials had misused it.   The Pharisee’s loved the Torah (first five books of the Bible), but in their love they tried to control and protect it by building sharp boundaries between holy and unholy.   They tried to avoid all contact with unholy people, so as to remain pure before God.   They used the scripture as their way to stand apart from those in need (lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners).  Jesus proclaimed a message that engaged the unclean and envisioned a new creation.   Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17).

How is God’s Word transforming your life?

Prayer Helps

Bishop N. T. Wright

I am preparing for a talk on prayer this evening and wonder if and when anyone uses the written prayers of others to guide their prayers.  I am convicted by N. T. Wright’s comments that, “we moderns are so anxious to do things our own way, so concerned that if we get help from anyone else our prayer won’t be ‘authentic’ and come from our own heart, that we are instantly suspicious about using anyone else’s prayers. . . . We are hamstrung by the long legacy of the Romantic movement, (which) produced the idea that things are authentic only if they come spontaneously, unbidden, from the depths of our hearts. ” (N. T. Wright, Simply Christian, p. 164-165)

I confess that I have at time been such an advocate of spontaneous prayers of the heart.   Yet I also know the value of written prayers that have guided Christian prayer for centuries.   Jesus, being a first-century Jew, learned memorized prayers such as the Shema (“Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one,” found in Deuteronomy 6:4)  and the Psalms.  He taught his own disciples his kingdom prayer, the prayer we call the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6 and Luke 11).  The prayer of St. Francis continues to “make us instruments of God’s peace.”   Martin Luther wrote short prayers for the morning and evening to be included in his Catechism.   AA groups use Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer to close their meetings.  Written prayers can give shape and structure to our devotional life.

One of my favorite written prayers I learned from the Lutheran Book of Worship, but it probably has a deeper history.   The prayer is part of the morning prayer service and I have used it at various time in my ministry, especially at the beginning of something new.

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

What written prayer(s) have shaped your faith life?  In what ways?