Readings for the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome: EZ 47: 1-2, 8-9, 12; I COR 3: 9c-11, 16-17; JN 2: 13-22. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/110914.cfm
On Thursday, September 20th 2001, President George W. Bush addressed the nation and a joint session of Congress following the horrendous attacks of September 11th. He explained the tragedy in the following words:
“Americans are asking ‘Why do they hate us?’ They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”
Surprisingly, that explanation stood without contradiction. And it did so with virtually none of our political or thought leaders in the mainstream questioning its validity. Not even our poets or religious leaders who should be sensitized to reading symbol found voices strong enough to redirect the response so everyone could hear.
Why do they hate us?
The answer should have been: Look at the targets and their symbolism. They were carefully chosen – the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and (probably) the White House. The targets said: they hate our unjust economic system which since the fall of the Ottoman Empire has oppressed the poor of the Islamic world and robbed them of their resources. They hate our military that enforces the system’s injustice even to the point of blasphemously stationing goyim troops near the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Above all, they hate the political system that cooperates unquestioningly with Israel in its oppression of Palestinians and whose sanctions against Saddam Hussein killed more than half a million Iraqi children without remorse.
Hence the targets – the center of world trade, of military planning, and of anti-Muslim political conspiracy.
The religious and political leaders of Jesus’ day also probably wondered about the origin of his apparent hate for them and their religion. Why would a good Jew symbolically “raze” the temple and predict with apparent prophetic delight its actual destruction? “Why does he hate us?” I’m sure they wondered.
The answer: consider the temple’s symbolism and the violence of Jesus’ attack.
First of all the symbolism . . .
All of today’s readings describe the temple’s intended meaning. For Ezekiel, the temple is the very source of life. It’s as though all the earth’s life-giving waters flowed from it, so that “every sort of living creature can multiply and live” including sea creatures, fruit trees and health-giving medicinal plants. Today’s psalm responsorial calls the temple the very home of God who is the refuge of his favorites – the widows, orphans, and undocumented aliens. In today’s second reading, Paul says the temple represents what human beings should actually be – the very home of God’s Holy Spirit of love and compassion.
All of that Jesus found contradicted by the sociopolitical reality of his day. Here’s what he saw and wanted “cleansed”:
Economically, the temple had become the principal “means of production” in all of Palestine. Its reconstruction and renovation had begun 46 years before under Herod the Great. It continued until 63 CE – just seven years before the Romans finally razed it to the ground. You can imagine then the day laborers, brick layers, stone masons, and artists employed in that very long process. As a public work, the rebuilding of the temple stimulated the Jewish economy.
While that wasn’t bad in itself, the temple primarily served the interests of the elite. It was the banking center of Jerusalem. To it flowed the taxes and tithes from all over the Jewish world – the equivalent of billions of dollars. So it represented the corruption that always accompanies great wealth. The temple’s overseers were infamously avaricious. Even the conservative Jewish historian Josephus called high priest, Ananias (47-58 CE) “the great procurer of money.”
Most damningly, the Temple was the ideological center of the Jewish faith. As such it embodied the whole “purity code” that was so oppressive to simple people such as Jesus’ own parents. You recall how temple authorities were especially hard on the long list of “impure” poor people who were particularly close to Jesus’ heart – the prostitutes, lepers, Samaritans, undocumented aliens, sick and starving. Temple authorities despised those people. They saw them all as being punished by God for their well-deserved afflictions. Such “unclean” people had to offer sacrifices of pigeons and doves to make reparation for their second class social status.
Jesus rejected all of that. So along with his friends he attacked it symbolically. John the Evangelist describes Jesus’ bringing temple business to a screeching halt – driving out those “who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers seated there. He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, ‘Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.’” It’s hard to imagine Jesus accomplishing such disruption by himself; he must have been part of a much larger demonstration.
Worse yet, Jesus predicted with prophetic delight the actual destruction of the temple which would have been even more shocking to Jews than the destruction of the Twin Towers. Jesus’ action, he implied, was merely a pantomime version of a real destruction to come. In Mark’s version of the event, he says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (MK 13:2). Does that sound like 9/11? What blasphemy! For Jesus’ contemporaries, his actions coupled with those words predicted a catastrophe like none other.
His words actually came true in the year 70 when the Romans leveled the entire city of Jerusalem. No wonder the Romans and their Jewish collaborators saw Jesus as a terrorist worse than Osama bin Laden!
You get the idea. Jesus’ direct action in the temple represented an attack on the status quo politically, economically, and ideologically. It might even be true to say that Jesus’ choice of targets followed the same lines as the 9/11 terrorists when they attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and probably intended to do the same with the White House. All of those symbolize what’s wrong with the world in the eyes of those who consider themselves oppressed by empire.
And the lessons from all of this? I’d be interested in what you think. For me it means that we must:
• Be attuned to the “signs of the times.”
• And to the repercussions of cooperating with actions and policies based on greed, empire, and vilification of the poor and powerless.
• Think poetically embracing the explicative power of symbolic language as more powerful than the merely descriptive.
• Interpret that symbolism for others – in the name of the Christian faith we ostensibly share.
• Be willing to be thought of as terrorists and atheists ourselves,
• Entailing a willingness to participate in bold, public actions against the prevailing power structure.
• Be willing to suffer the painful consequences of such actions – as Jesus did.
• Admit that we deserve the hate of those working to destroy the system that oppresses them.
• And pray for the defeat of U.S. policies based on false explanations of opposition to imperial oppression.