Canon Ailsa Newby’s Sermon
Kingdom and Conflict
We’re told that Jesus, making a whip of cords, drove all the animals from the Temple, overturning the tables of the traders, scattering the coins of the money changers.
Oddly, only John has this particular detail of making the whip to cleanse the Temple and I wondered how he came to make one there and then, in the Temple. So I went and bought some cord and had a go.
One of these can do some damage. I rather wanted to show you – thwack out at the pillar or the pulpit or something. But I’m too afraid of the consequences and the damage I might do merely to illustrate a sermon point.
It is a fearsome thing. It COULD do some damage.
Is such a thing a tool for growing the Kingdom of God?
Listening to this gospel you may have in your mind’s eye some of the great dramatic old masters paintings of this sceneof the cleansing of the Temple, the energy – the zeal for his Father’s house that Jesus shows and the sheer havoc createdby his actions.
To Christian pacifists there’s a bit of a problem with this incident because the Jesus portrayed isn’t exactly pacific. Does Jesus condone violence? Pacifist Christians go to greatlengths to point out the exact Greek used which is reflected in our translation ‘making a whip of cords he drove all of them out of the Temple – both the sheep and the cattle.’
And they say, so that is alright, the whip of cords was just to drive out the sheep and the cattle – not a weapon used against the humans. This allows them to say Jesus is not condoning the use of violence against people.
The text could also be translated: ‘he drove them all out of the temple AND the sheep and the cattle’. That has Jesus using his whip of cords against the humans too. And if you look at Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus is said to drive out all the people, not just the cattle.
But either way, I’m not sure it matters because what is certain is that this is a violent confrontation. There’s no getting away from it. Direct action against people and private property:
*Overturning the money changers’ tables, scattering their money
*Inevitably some pushing and shoving of people there to turn the tables
*Possibly some injury to them jostling or as the tables fell
*Possibly breaking tables
*Possibly manhandling the traders out of the temple.
*Depriving the owners of their cattle and sheep to be lost in the city (there’ll be those of you who could imagine the outrage if this happened in a Yorkshire cattle market!)
*And shouting at the dove sellers. Intimidating them. St Mark says he overturned their chairs.
In modern terms he’d be liable for arrest and prosecution forcriminal damage, affray, breach of the peace, theft and possibly causing actual bodily harm (particularly if it is right to say he whipped the people as well as the animals).
How do we feel about such actions being a necessary means to the end of building the Kingdom of God?
Would YOU do that? Would you be prepared to do such things? Is such direct action, such conflict really necessary to grow the Kingdom of God?
I have to say I personally am deeply uneasy that the call to build the Kingdom of God might involve that kind of law-breaking. Rightly or wrongly I know I’m just not up for it.
We’re used to such images of Kingdom-growing like the parable of the mustard seed growing into the sheltering tree, the yeast used to make lovely bread; the quest for the pearl beyond price. Safe, empathetic, touchy-feely metaphors. Ideas and images I’m happy to live with. I LIKE gardening. I LOVE bread-making. It’s a nice idea to grow the Kingdom of God by nurturing a seed into a big plant. Baking a loaf. It’s do-able. But law-breaking?
I was pondering this issue of whether conflict is a necessary part of growing the Kingdom of God a few weeks ago when there was much in the media about the 100th anniversary of women being given the vote. Something I was listening to on Radio 4, delved into the history and discussed the difference between Suffragettes and Suffragists.
Suffragists as you will know (both men and women) thought it right to campaign within the law to extend the franchise to women. Suffragettes on the other hand were willing to break the law in order to bring about the change they advocated: all the way from spitting at policemen or chaining themselves to railings to hunger strikes or fire bombs.
As part of this programme, the Prime Minister was interviewed and asked whether she would have been a suffragette or a suffragist. She dodged the question. What do you think? For my part I think it is pretty clear she’d have been a suffragist: breaking the law, violent protest, out of the question.
I’d certainly have been in the suffragist camp. I don’t have the courage to break the law. Which would you have been? Anyone here firm enough in their views to have been a suffragette?
I say firm in their views because I think that is about the top and bottom of it: suffragettes had a firm, strong, conviction of what was right. A willingness to follow that conviction all the way.
Jesus’ conviction was akin to that of a suffragette. A firm, strong conviction that had to be seen through to its logical and necessary conclusion. On this programme about suffragettes a writer called Caroline Criado-Perez was interviewed about the current suggestion that it is time that the suffragettes were formally pardoned. And she said this:
‘The suffragettes were breaking the law to make a point. Pardoning them would whitewash their radicalism.’
Jesus was breaking the law to make a point. Do we do the same thing with his actions? Do we whitewash his actions by minimising the reality of what he did?
Direct action or law-breaking of the kind Jesus does in this story has a noble place in Christian history. A few random examples:
*The peasants’ revolt – seeking some equality between all God’s children: ‘when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’
*Those who broke English law importing illegal English language bibles into the country in the 16th century.
*The US civil rights movement and its campaign of civil disobedience, refusing to obey the rules about apartheid in the Southern States.
*Even murder: those in the Confessing Church in Germany who plotted to assassinate Hitler.
All of those groups sought to grow the Kingdom of God and understood that their Christian conscience demanded they must break the laws of the time in order to do so. In doing that they were emulating our Lord. So might we need sometimesto move away from cosy ideas that the Kingdom can be grown like a houseplant seeded in a pot, containable, controllable, domesticated by us?
The Dean in his sermon in this series said:
It is as if Jesus is saying…look down to this imperfect earth and follow me by acknowledging that God is king over his creation and by helping his world to become more like heaven.
Helping God’s world to become more like heaven might just mean a move beyond our comfort zone. Into conflict. I certainly pray that I’m not put to that particular test.