One Week in Jerusalem: Monday – the Cleansing of the Temple

Scripture: Mark 11:15-19

Last week we began our observation of Holy-Week-throughout-Lent with the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem for his final Passover.  We learned about how it was less a triumphant entrance and more an intentional political statement: that while the Romans marched into the city from the west on their fancy horses with their pristine uniforms and state-of-the-art weapons, anticipating trouble on this Jewish holiday of liberation, Jesus staged his own parade, and rode into the city on a donkey with a ragtag band of followers shouting Hosanna.

Though we didn’t get into it last week, at the end of this Palm Sunday account, Mark includes one detail that I find very intriguing.  As Jesus and his parade near town, Mark tells us, “Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the Temple.  After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.”

I love that – Jesus enters the city, goes into the Temple, just kind of looks around for a minute, and then leaves.  He goes back to Bethany, two miles outside Jerusalem, where he and his disciples are staying for Passover – after all, there are a lot of pilgrims in Jerusalem this week, and the lodging’s cheaper a couple miles out.  But he’ll be back.

The next morning, Jesus is on his way back into Jerusalem when he comes upon a fig tree.  He’s hungry, so he goes over to see if there are any figs.  But it’s too early in the season for figs.  The tree is not bearing fruit.  Jesus curses it, and goes on his way.  We already know, at this point in the story, that it’s going to be that kind of day.  Remember the fig tree, though.  It’s more than just a fig tree.

Jesus keeps going, into Jerusalem and into the Temple: the place where, as a boy, he once sat and verbally sparred with the elders, at least according to Luke – the place he called his Father’s house, he place that had once felt more like home than anywhere else; he enters the outer courtyard, resolutely this time, and he rolls up his sleeves, and he heads up to an unsuspecting guy at a currency exchange booth and in one swift motion he knocks the table on its side, coins spilling everywhere.  And before the stunned crowd even has time to react, he does the same thing to the next table, and the next, and he throws the chairs of the pigeon sellers to the side as they scramble to get out of his way, and he yells at people gathering up their wares to move out of his way.

Not exactly the gentle Savior, meek and mild, we learn about in Sunday School, right?

He quotes Isaiah and Jeremiah as he stands in the middle of the Temple courtyard, eyes flashing fire, and bellows that this place which was supposed to be a haven of prayer has become a hideout for robbers.  The elders and the chief priests rush out at the commotion, and when they see who is in the middle of it, they purse their lips knowingly, and at that time, they vow to destroy him.

But maybe let’s step back for a minute to ask this question: why was Jesus angry?

It’s more than just the fact that people are buying and selling things in the Temple.  Jesus doesn’t hate youth group bake sales – as far as I know.  He’s not turning the tables at the church spaghetti dinner.  The moneychangers and dove sellers were legit.  Pilgrims were arriving in Jerusalem for Passover from all over the known world, and they were bringing Roman money, because that’s what they used.  But you couldn’t pay your temple tax with Roman money, because it had Caesar’s picture on it, and that was idolatry.  Moneychangers, at your service.  And of course you’d need to make your Passover sacrifice, but you weren’t going to travel to Jerusalem from Asia Minor dragging an unblemished goat and carrying a cage full of pigeons.  You’d have to acquire those there.

It could have been that the moneychangers and the dove sellers were engaging in some good old-fashioned price gouging – after all, demand was high, and the pilgrims were pretty much a captive market.  Maybe those businesspeople made it particularly hard especially for the poor among the pilgrims to fulfill their religious obligations.

Or maybe it was that while it was fine for people to provide these services, the business aspect of things had overwhelmed that Temple courtyard, so it was no longer a place for people to come and pray and find a connection to God.  It was no longer “a house of prayer for all peoples,” as Jesus and Isaiah put it.

A couple sources I found suggested that it wasn’t really about the moneychangers at all.  It was the whole big picture of the Temple and how it was run, and the fact that the chief priests and elders were at this point in history little more than Roman puppets, clamoring for power and selling out their people in the name of God.[1]

Personally I’m inclined to think that it couldn’t have helped matters that Jesus never did get breakfast that morning.  Remember the fig tree?  It’s possible that if Jesus had just eaten a granola bar, took a deep breath, and counted to 10, that maybe he could have just had a rational, gentle conversation with the moneychangers and dove sellers, or the Temple leadership, or whoever he was truly mad at.  Maybe he could have won them over with kindness or at least engaged in a little nonviolent direct action.

If so, then it may be that what we are seeing in this passage is a truly human side of Jesus: that he lost his temper sometimes, that he spoke too soon, that once in a while – and especially during Holy Week – he had a serious case of the Mondays. Maybe it’s comforting to think of Jesus like that, because he sounds so very much like us.  Or maybe it’s really discomfiting – because he sounds so very much like us.

If it’s true that this story shows the human side of Jesus in his anger, then at the very least what that says to us is that anger is a God-given human emotion, not sinful in itself but part of the makeup of who we are.  Obviously, this doesn’t mean God wants us to follow our anger wherever it takes us.  You are not Jesus (neither am I) and if I hear that you got mad and knocked a bunch of stuff over in public – or let’s face it, even at home – I will accompany you to court, but I will not make excuses for you.  We do have to remember that out of all the stories we have about Jesus, while this is not the only one in which he gets angry, it is the only one in which he does anything arguably destructive.  When we talk about following in the footsteps of Jesus, it’s probably good for our focus to be on peace and forgiveness.

And at the same time, we don’t need to be ashamed of feeling anger.  We don’t need to run from it.  We don’t need to deny it so people will think better of us.  We don’t need to suppress it so that it festers inside us.  We are human and we get angry sometimes.  Even Jesus knows the feeling.

But what if that’s not the takeaway this story has for us?  What if we didn’t just catch Jesus on a particularly human day here?  What if his anger in this scene isn’t just a raw depiction of his humanity, but a reflection of his divinity?  What if anger can be holy?

I tend to stay away from talking too much about the wrath of God.  You can go down all sorts of rabbit holes talking about the wrath of God, and in the end, I think God wants all of us to come to God out of love, and not out of fear.  That said, the “wrathful” God of the Old Testament is the same as the “loving” God of the New Testament, and if you know your Old Testament Bible stories, it’s clear that even our patient and ever-faithful God gets angry sometimes.

And it’s not my most cherished, comforting image of God, but on the other hand, when you look at everything going on in the world these days (and, let’s face it, probably since the beginning of time), what good is a God who doesn’t get angry at some of it?

That Monday of Holy Week when Jesus enters the Temple, what he sees is a holy space profaned by leaders who claim to worship God but in reality only worship power.  What he sees are people who sing songs about God’s holiness and majesty but are ready to sell out the poor and vulnerable at a moment’s notice.  What he sees is a place where we claim to put God first but in reality we only come to justify ourselves.

You know what makes Jesus angry?  Not the sin of humble, repentant people.  What makes Jesus angry is the hypocrisy of religious leaders.  That’s a fact that certainly gives me some pause.

But if Jesus’ anger can be holy, maybe it’s possible that ours can be too.

I know when we think of great leaders, people who really change the world for the better, we often think specifically of people like Nelson Mandela, who famously refused to be angry and bitter despite the 27 years he spent as a political prisoner.  But I recently listened to a TED Talk by a Nobel Peace Prize winner named Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian children’s rights activist who fought the caste system and rescued thousands of children from slavery.  This is what he said:

“Today, I am going to talk about anger. When I was 11, seeing some of my friends leaving the school because their parents could not afford textbooks made me angry. When I was 27, hearing the plight of a desperate slave father whose daughter was about to be sold to a brothel made me angry. At the age of 50, lying on the street, in a pool of blood, along with my own son, made me angry.

“Dear friends, for centuries we were taught anger is bad. Our parents, teachers, priests –everyone taught us how to control and suppress our anger. But I ask why? Why can’t we convert our anger for the larger good of society? Why can’t we use our anger to challenge and change the evils of the world?

His first career was as an electrical engineer, and he said he “learned how the energy of burning fire, coal, the nuclear blast inside the chambers, raging river currents, fierce winds, could be converted into the light and lives of millions. I also learned how the most uncontrollable form of energy could be harnessed for good and making society better.”

“So dear friends, sisters and brothers, again, as a Nobel Laureate, I am urging you to become angry.”[2]

I’ll step back again here – speaking as myself again – to once again emphasize that not all anger is created equal, and not all anger is holy.  Anger that is selfish is not holy.  Anger that is about justifying ourselves is not holy.  Anger that is jealous or abusive is not holy.  Anger that festers until it explodes is not holy.  Anger that someone is taking too long with your bagel at Panera is not holy (not that I am preaching to myself, this morning.)  As Kailash Satyarthi put it, “if we are confined in the narrow shells of egos, and the circles of selfishness, then the anger will turn out to be hatred, violence, revenge, destruction. But if we are able to break the circles, then the same anger could turn into a great power. We can break the circles by using our inherent compassion and connect with the world through compassion to make this world better.”

Have you listened, in the past week and a half, to the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida as they’ve taken on the politicians who they see as offering empty thoughts and prayers in the wake of this latest mass shooting, who so far have done nothing to prevent this from happening the next time?  Have you heard them say, “We call BS?” That, I think, is a holy kind of anger.  And what’s more, I believe that these teenagers may just be the ones to turn some tables in this country.

So I think it’s worth asking: what, in this terribly broken world, makes you angry?

And I think it’s worth asking: How might you channel that God-given emotion to help build the Kingdom of God here on earth?

On Thursday of Holy Week, Jesus will wash his disciples’ feet, and remind them that the world will know them by their love for each other.  He will be arrested, given up by the friend who betrayed him, and he will not resist. According to Matthew, he will tell his disciples to put their weapons away. On Friday he will refuse to lash out at the people who want him dead, and by Luke’s account he will even plead with God for forgiveness for those who know not what they do.  All of these moments, all of these instances of choosing peace where someone else might not have, all of them make Holy Week holy.

But first, on Monday, Jesus is going to turn some tables.  And Monday is a holy day, too.

Oh, remember the fig tree?  When Jesus and the disciples head back into Jerusalem from Bethany the next day, the fig tree has withered.

It seems that sometimes things need to be knocked down so that with God’s help and our willing hands, something bearing fruit can grow up in their place.

 

 

[1] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, p. 39-41

[2]     https://www.ted.com/talks/kailash_satyarthi_how_to_make_peace_get_angry

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One Week in Jerusalem: Sunday – Jesus Enters the City

Scripture: Mark 11:1-11

We cycle through news stories quickly these days – and don’t worry, I’ll come back to the most recent and pressing one – but it wasn’t so long ago that parades were in the news.  Not just Mardi Gras parades, either, but big military parades, and in particular, the idea of having one here.  I’m not going to get too deep into this.  Suffice it to say, from the reaction, that there are those who think a parade is just a parade – a way to celebrate our country and honor our troops – and those who think a parade is a statement, either to us here in the United States or our opponents abroad.

Just a parade, or an attempt to make a statement?  What kind of parade do you think the people of Jerusalem saw on that first Palm Sunday?

That might seem like a strange kind of question.  We’re used to Palm Sunday as the joyful, triumphant time before it all went wrong.  But still, it was an interesting kind of procession, wasn’t it?  Hardly what you might have called stately: a man dressed like a peasant, riding on a donkey colt, while a ragtag group of disciples and Passover pilgrims walked alongside waving branches and singing pilgrimage songs.  The kind where if you were there, you might have stopped and wondered what was going on.

Well, according to John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg in their book The Last Week, this was likely not the only procession to enter Jerusalem that day.  Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, would have also been on his way to the city.  After all, it was the beginning of Passover, the Jewish holiday of liberation, and the occupying Romans were ready for trouble.  Pilate, that day, would have entered the city from the other direction, riding on horseback, followed by impeccably dressed soldiers on horseback and on foot.  Borg and Crossan ask us to visualize: “A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.  Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums.”[1]

From the west, a stately imperial parade.  And from the east, a man rides into Jerusalem on a donkey colt, surrounded by a spontaneous crowd waving branches and singing Hosanna.

Coincidence?

You be the judge.  Of course, there were some aspects of Jesus’ ragtag Palm Sunday procession that might have caught the eye of those who were paying attention. For example, the prophet Zechariah had written long ago that the Messiah would arrive from the direction of the Mount of Olives, riding on a donkey.  Spreading your coats on the ground was something you might have done to welcome a king.  For a king to enter a city on a donkey, rather than a horse, was a sign that he came in peace.

Unlike, for example, the parade entering the city from the west.

Let’s be clear about one thing: Jesus could have walked.  He and his disciples had already walked from Galilee, in the far north of Israel, to Judea in the south.  He didn’t need to ride a donkey the last two miles.  It’s almost as if Jesus got to the Mount of Olives, cocked his head, heard the hoofbeats and drums of the Romans in the distance, paused for a minute, and then said to his disciples, “You know what?  Bring me a donkey.”

One parade to answer another.

In other words, it’s possible to understand Palm Sunday not just as Jesus’ brief moment of glory before all hell broke loose – but almost as an act of satire.

In other words, Palm Sunday is when the Gospel gets political.

And while it’s possible the disciples and the people surrounding them joined in the procession naively and unironically, it’s equally possible that as they watched Jesus prepare to climb on to the back of that too-small donkey and head toward the city, something clicked, and they began to smile as they spread their coats on the donkey’s back and on the road in front of him.

Their choice was clear: they could choose Rome, with its pomp and circumstance and raw military power and wealth.  Or they could choose Jesus, the peasant king who came in peace.

Who would they proclaim as Lord in their chants and songs?  Jesus, or Caesar?  Whose kingdom would they pledge allegiance to?  Jesus’, or Caesars?

On that day, they chose Jesus.  On that day, the Gospel was a political act.  In fact, you might call it downright subversive.

Doesn’t it seem sometimes like the Gospel has lost its edge?  Like we’re so worried about not being “political” in church that we actually forget about the very political implications of the Gospel?  Or even worse, that in the US in the 21st century, Christ and Caesar have somehow come to mean the same thing?

I’m certainly not trying to say that God is a Republican or a Democrat.  In fact, I think it’s pretty dangerous to go from “the Gospel is political” to “God happens to agree with all of my political views.”  But what I mean is that truly living out the Gospel does make a political statement, and it has to do with who we proclaim and serve as Lord.

Jesus didn’t get out there with signs protesting Roman rule.  He certainly never led a military uprising against this oppressive colonial power.  What did he do?  While Caesar’s representatives were marching into Jerusalem, he had his own parade.  And instead of conveying power and grandeur, he conveyed humility and peace.

And in doing so, he made a mockery of the values the Roman Empire was built on.  And this fact was not missed.  We only have to look to the end of the week to see that.

A couple years ago two pastors and 90-year-old homeless advocate were arrested in Ft. Lauderdale for feeding homeless people.  Ft. Lauderdale had been passing a series of laws designed to make it harder for homeless people to live on its streets, in an effort to “clean up” the city, believing that “the sight of homeless people was affecting tourism.”  One of these laws restricted feeding people in public.  So when Arnold Abbott, Dwayne Black and Mark Sims headed out to a Ft. Lauderdale park that day in November 2014, they knew they risked angering Caesar with what they did.

One of the men arrested told a local TV station that one of the police officers said to him, “Drop that plate right now” – “as if I were carrying a weapon,” he said.[2]  The police officer must himself have been carrying a weapon, yet somehow it was the man brandishing a plate, used for feeding the hungry, who was seen as a threat to the values of the city.  Kind of like the man riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Like I said, living out the Gospel subversively isn’t all protest signs and revolution.  It doesn’t even necessarily mean breaking the law, and “Caesar” doesn’t have to be the government.  Sometimes the powers that be are other powerful institutions.  Sometimes they are our prevailing cultural norms. When Jesus encountered those powers, he didn’t fight them; instead, he said “Here is my parallel witness.” Sometimes just living out the values of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdoms of this world can be enough to call out those values of this world.

When Caesar says the homeless are an eyesore, we can say “Here’s a sandwich.”

When Caesar makes immigrants our enemies, we can say “You are part of our community.”

When Caesar demands that we devote our lives to work and be on call 24-7, we can observe Sabbath.

When Caesar says salvation lies in acquiring more stuff, we can give our money away.

Our lives, lived in light of the Gospel and according to the values of the Kingdom of God, can quietly call into question the values of the world around us.

I do think we need to be a little careful here, because if all of a sudden we’re living just to make a point about how much better we are than everyone, then we’ve colossally missed the point.  The point is that our lives are a witness – and in the end, we can call Caesar Lord, or we can call Jesus Lord.  We can join Caesar’s parade, or we can join the Palm Sunday procession.  But if we join Jesus’ parade, it ends up exposing the other for what it really is.

I have to admit that I struggled for a while with all of this in light of this week’s school shooting.  In our culture where mass violence has come to be practically expected, where we mourn and then do nothing and wait for the next time, where we throw up our hands and say “Well, you can’t stop evil,” and where what does it mean to live by the values of the Kingdom of God rather than the Kingdom of Caesar?

A lot of my friends talked angrily this week about the need for more gun control.  I agree with them, though some of you may not.  And I pondered whether being faithful to the Gospel meant that I should stand here and say so, even if that came across as “too political.”  But I think if I did that, I would win points with some of you who agree with me, while others would go home angry and more convinced of their own views than ever before.  To tell you the truth, I’m not sure that yelling louder is actively creating a safer and less violent world.  And I am sure that the roots of our problem here in America go much deeper than our access to guns.  There was a story going around this week about a principal who took it upon himself to visit the homes of children at his school who were the most isolated and angry, to show them he cared and intended to be personally involved in their lives.  He assigned them mentors to check in on them when they didn’t seem to be doing well, and to ask how they could help.  By the end of the year, supposedly, the attitude and behavior of many of these children had improved.

I’m not saying that replaces the actual structural, systemic, even legal changes needed, but maybe our witness to the Gospel begins with intentionally extending love to those who are isolated and angry.

There was also the story of a man who owned multiple guns, including an AR-15, the kind that was used in this shooting and in many other recent mass shootings, who surrendered the gun to the Broward County sheriff’s office this week.  “I enjoyed shooting this gun,” he said, “but I don’t need it.  There’s no one who needs it.”[3]

Maybe our witness to the Gospel begins with our own sacrifices that, instead of holding on to that which is our right, instead proclaims “I come in peace.”

If this all sounds jumbled and kind of like I’m thinking aloud, that’s because I am.  I don’t know for sure that my convictions are right, and I don’t know all of what needs to change so that I don’t have to fear for my daughter’s life every time she leaves for school in a couple years, and I don’t for sure know my part in it all, though I repent of the many times I have done nothing.  It sounds great and bold to say that the Gospel is political, but in the end, it’s not always clear how our commitment to the values of God’s Kingdom play out in real life, or how they confront and critique the values of Caesar’s kingdom.

And maybe sometimes our witness begins in talking to each other and committing to find some solution together rather than simply yelling louder – even if we are right.  That would be countercultural, right?

Or, maybe our witness does mean peacefully holding our ground for what is right, while we strive to love our enemies and opponents at the same time.

I don’t know.  Sometimes I just ask the questions.  I think any one of these might be a way to choose Jesus’ kingdom over Caesar’s.

Here’s what I do know: that the Palm Sunday story isn’t just a story of a triumphant entrance.  It’s a story that casts its shadow over the week to come, when Jesus will much more directly and much less satirically come into conflict with the powers that be in Jerusalem, whether Jewish or Roman.  This is the subversive act that sets the stage for the rest.  Jesus didn’t die because he was a nice, loving guy.  He died because love breaks the rules, spoken and unspoken.  He died because love – quietly sometimes – speaks truth to power.  He died because love is subversive.  He died because love is political.

Here’s what else I do know: Caesar might have a big parade.  But his kingdom, in the end, cannot withstand the kingdom whose law is love.

So as we head into the season of Lent and into the unfolding events of Holy Week: whose kingdom is it going to be?

 

 

[1] Borg and Crossan, The Last Week: What the Bible Really Teaches About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, p. 3

[2]     https://www.cbsnews.com/news/90-year-old-man-2-pastors-charged-with-feeding-homeless-in-florida/

[3]     https://www.facebook.com/ben.dickmann/posts/10155416664157362

The Crooked Wisdom of God

Scripture: Ecclesiastes 7:13-18

Last week I introduced you to a man called Qoheleth, the Teacher, the author and main character of the book of Ecclesiastes, and his strikingly modern search for the meaning of life.  If you remember, Qoheleth first decides that he is going to look for some meaning and purpose in life by trying to become as wise as he can, wiser than anyone else who came before or after him.  So he does, only to realize that there’s still something missing.  So, he decides to look for the meaning of life in pleasure, instead, and so makes sure all of his heart’s desires are fulfilled, but alas, the meaning of life is not found in fine wine and beautiful women; and then he builds vast gardens and parks that will be there as his legacy after he is gone, but as it turns out, he finds, the meaning of life is also not found in your accomplishments or the things you leave behind.

It’s all vanity, he concludes.  The Hebrew word is hebel, which means something like a puff of air, something you can’t quite grasp, something you keep chasing that is always just out of your reach.  Even if we attain these things, he says, none of them are lasting; all of them have their limits, we die and they come to an end, and nothing ever really changes.  I’ll remind you that I told you this is why we do not cross-stitch verses from Ecclesiastes onto pillows.

And if you remember, what Qoheleth concludes in light of all that is that the best thing we can do is enjoy the blessings of today, knowing that tomorrow everything might change, and to find enjoyment in whatever work we do.

Earlier this week I read an interview in Time Magazine with a woman named Kate Bowler, who is a Christian history professor at Duke Divinity School and who was diagnosed with stage-four cancer at age 35.   She’s the mother of a toddler.  She was working toward tenure.  She just wrote a memoir, and in the interview she talked whether it was silly to try to do something ambitious, like writing a book or still trying to get tenure – when she didn’t even know how much time she had left.  Hebel, right?

But then she also said, “When the world shuts down, then you realize, these are my plot points. This is my one job, this is the one man I love, this is my one kid. Infinite possibilities can be exciting, but sometimes even more beautiful is doubling down on the life that you have.”[1]

I thought there was a lot of Qoheleth in that.  As it turns out, there is joy to be found in accepting our own human limitations and even our mortality, and not always looking for something more.

But as I mentioned last week, it’s not only the hebel of his own life that bothers Qoheleth.  It’s also the hebel he sees in the world around him.

In the Bible, if you read wisdom literature like Proverbs, you learn a little bit about how the world is supposed to work.  If you work hard and you’re wise instead of foolish, you’re supposed to get ahead in life.  If you do the things God wants you to do, things will go well for you; that sort of thing.  To be fair, most proverbs aren’t meant to apply to every situation we might encounter.  But they’re good, solid, baseline wisdom; things that help guide us as we seek to live a good and faithful life.

Only Qoheleth doesn’t see things working that way.  Instead, he looks around him and he sees that “in the place of justice, wickedness [is] there” (3:16).  He looks around and he sees “all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun” (4:1).  He sees people who have had everything and lost it all at once (6:13-14).  He sees wicked people praised and righteous people slandered (8:14); wicked people who prosper and righteous people who never seem to reap any sort of reward for their righteousness (7:?).

As he writes in chapter 9, “I again I saw that under the sun, the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful: but time and chance happen to all of them.”

In other words: hebel.

And, just like I said last week – even if this isn’t how you feel about the world all the time, you do know the feeling, right?  The feeling that something about the world is fundamentally not as it should be?  That the bad people win and the good people come in last, and hard work isn’t rewarded, and you can do everything right and not get anywhere, and even pure evil is somehow allowed to flourish?

Unlike Job, Qoheleth’s fellow skeptic in the Hebrew wisdom tradition, Qoheleth hasn’t been the victim of any terrible tragedy or injustice himself, at least not that we know of.  He’s the richest, wisest man in the world, remember?  But he reads the news.  He knows people.  He knows things simply don’t always make sense.

I have to tell you that a lot of the time I feel like this is one of those cliché questions, why does God allow bad things to happen, and I can tell you all the possible big theological answers to this question.  But then once in a while it really hits home, even when it doesn’t directly involve me.  I read an article about migrants dying crossing the Mediterranean.  I see a homeless neighbor genuinely struggling to get ahead when the system seems to oppose them on all sides.  I’m not Kate Bowler, the Duke professor who is fighting cancer, but I can appreciate what it means to be a young woman facing the prospect of leaving your small child behind.  Why do we live in a world where this is a possibility?

If you’re Job, dealing with this question on a very personal level, you shout at God and you shake your fist and you say you wish someone else could be God instead, someone who would do it right.  But Qoheleth is more of a philosophical kind of guy.  He’s more at a distance just wondering what it all means.  Nothing that his wisdom has taught him really seems to hold.  How do we find the meaning of life in this world of hebel?

Qoheleth shrugs. “Who can make straight what God has made crooked?” he asks.

If you think about it, it’s kind of a shocking allegation, though, that the way God has made and ordered the world is fundamentally crooked.  That’s not the language we usually use for God’s ordering of things.  God, and God’s Messiah, is the one for whom we have to make our own paths straightWe’re the ones who have got things all crooked.

But that’s not what Qoheleth says.  So what do we make of a God like that?  How do we worship a God who’s made things crooked?

A lot of people have given up on faith with questions like that, but let me say how much I love the fact that the Bible itself voices these questions, which means that we can be faithful people and still ask them.  If you think about it, the Bible can sound a little irreverent at times, even as it sounds pious at others.  That’s because the Bible itself is a holy conversation, and Qoheleth’s part in the conversation is to say, yeah, this doesn’t all seem quite right.  So what now?

Anyone want to take a chance?  How would you respond to that?

As it turns out, the conclusion Qoheleth comes to is something like: fear God.

I don’t mean fear God like “be afraid, because this crooked God can do whatever he wants with you.”  But more like the fear of God Qoheleth describes in chapter 5: “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God…Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore, let your words be few.”

The response to a God whose ways we don’t understand is, for Qoheleth, humility and reverence.  Because in the end, who are we to really say what is straight and what is crooked?

I have to admit that I struggle a lot with this.  I’m afraid of saying this and seeming to justify things that should be roundly lamented and condemned.  Just because something is so, in our world, doesn’t mean that God has ordered it that way and called it good.  This isn’t Qoheleth’s way of saying that everything happens for a reason.  As far as he can tell, reason has nothing to do with it.  Sometimes people are terrible to each other.  Sometimes systems fail us.  Sometimes tragic things happen in a fallen and broken world.

And yet God is still God.

And I struggled because when we do see injustice in the world around us, I don’t think the answer we want to come to is to throw up our hands and say “Well, who really knows what is right?”  That’s not what we should do when faced with racism and xenophobia and a culture of sexual assault in our country.  That’s not what we should do when we decide how to faithfully respond to situations around the world like the conflict in Israel-Palestine.  I don’t think that’s what God wants.  As it says in Revelation, God doesn’t love it when people are lukewarm.  Sometimes we need to take a stand.

Again, it’s important to read Ecclesiastes as one possible faithful response to a world that doesn’t seem to work like it’s supposed to, because the Bible gives us others.  It tells us that God joins us in those places of pain rather than turning away.  It tells us to enter those spaces ourselves – to do something about it by feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger and taking care of the sick.  It tells us that even the worst things, no matter how they got that way, can be redeemed – that even Good Friday can lead to Easter Sunday.

But yet, even after all that, Qoheleth tells me I need to be reminded of how little I know about what is really, ultimately, good or bad or right or wrong.  And how easy it is for me to think that I can be the judge of those things.  And sometimes I need to be reminded is that I am not, in fact, God, and that I cannot, in fact, create God in my own image.

Have you ever been sure that something that happened to you was unfair and unjust, until looking back it turned out for the better?

Have you ever condemned another person just to find out you were wrong?

What if there’s more to all of it that we can’t see, but only God can?

I don’t think the answer is to just give up and say there is no truth, but simply to humbly, reverently hold open the possibility that there’s more that we can’t see.

Going back to the interview with Kate Bowler, the professor from Duke who was diagnosed with cancer, the last question the interviewer asked was, “Do you believe in miracles?”

“I do,” she said.  “I like to be equally open to lovely things happening as to bad things happening.”  But of course, that takes being open to the bad things happening too.

As Qoheleth said, “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider, God has made the one as well as the other.”

Fear God, says Qoheleth, and what he means is that we are not God.  In the end, the order of things is not for us to know.  And though surely God hasn’t totally left us without instruction, good and bad are also not ultimately for us to know.  This is never meant to be an easy, off-the-cuff answer that we use to dismiss pain or injustice.  This is never meant to be an excuse to do nothing, claiming we didn’t know what was right.  It’s not supposed to make us sound too pious: for Qoheleth, this realization is all mixed in with his questions and his skepticism.

But in the end, God is God, and we are not.  And whatever we do, we hold open room for the possibility that maybe God knows more than we do after all.

So what do we do, in this world of hebel?

We keep doing the best we can with what we believe to be good.  We hold fast to wisdom, as much as it keeps making sense. We keep pursuing justice and righteousness, and we change our course when we’re shown to be wrong.  We love our neighbors, knowing that the ones who are good maybe aren’t so good, and the ones who are bad maybe aren’t really so bad.  And neither are we.

And meanwhile, we give thanks for the blessings of today, and we remain open to both the good days and the bad.

And in all of it, we worship this mysterious, inscrutable God, whose ways are not our ways, but in the end, who we know to be love, and who in the end is God in the midst of it all.

 

[1]     http://time.com/5118044/kate-bowler-interview-cancer-faith/