* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Mark 11: Cleansing our temples

After another healing story, in which a man's faith is reported to be what cures his blindness, the gospel of Mark moves into the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, often called the "triumphal entry." The other gospels echo and elaborate on the entry into Jerusalem as depicted in Mark, and this scene leads into the passion narrative, which culminates in the crucifixion scene (or the resurrection scene). While some have elevated the passion story above other teachings of Jesus as conveyed in the canonical gospels, these pseudo-historical events do not actually instruct anyone as to how people should live. They are largely constructed after the fact (at least 35 years after the fact) with the agenda of imposing Hebrew prophecies about a messiah (some of which weren't originally intended as prophecies about a messiah) onto the Jesus figure, in order to "prove" him as the Messiah. As such, the passion narratives serve primarily to bolster the faith of people who already believe in the divinity of Jesus and to portray what we already know about the power of fear.

The author of Mark has Jesus do a bit of teaching amidst the scenes of the passion narrative, however, and these teachings are of more potential use to those among us who are willing to recognize "divinity" as a human characteristic and those among us who see human beings as having inherent worth and dignity rather than seeing people as broken and in need of saving. Indeed, if Jesus' actions as stated in the passion stories really took care of "sin" once and for all, then there is nothing more for people to worry about on that front. We can all focus on the important work of building better relationships with one another, rather than judging ourselves and everyone around us and trying to determine eternal matters that no one can prove or know anything about anyway.

In Mark 11, Jesus does three things when he first enters the city of Jerusalem. First, he curses a fig tree for not having any figs, even though it isn't the season for figs. Petty, perhaps, but there it is. Next, he causes a scene at the temple by disrupting trade. This is worth a closer look. Then, he refuses to establish any outside authorization for his actions or teachings. This, as it turns out, is related to the incident with the fig tree. For now, we'll keep ourselves to the "cleansing" of the temple, a rare story in that all four gospels have a version of it. The version of this scene in the gospel of Luke is almost identical to the version in Mark. The gospel of Matthew expands it to indicate that people who had been prevented from access to the temple (people who were blind or lame) were able to approach Jesus there for healing. Placing this scene much earlier in the narrative, removed from the passion story, the gospel of John includes a prediction about Jesus' resurrection in the temple cleansing.

One must assume from the accusation against the people driven out of the temple that they were making a profit off of people coming to offer the sacrifices required of their faith. In changing coins from Roman currency (which depicted the emperor) to currency that had no hint of idolatry, it must be assumed that the moneychangers were charging a fee of some kind. In selling the sacrificial animals for people to offer in the required Jewish rites, merchants were essentially taking advantage of people's faith, making money because of the devout practices of others. The original idea behind the Jewish sacrificial system was that people would offer the best of what they had to Yahweh, but it was not intended to keep anyone from accessing Yahweh's grace and mercy. Jerusalem's temple had been turned into something even worse than a profit-making enterprise. People who were indigent or infirm were essentially unable to participate in Jewish ceremonies to the same extent as everyone else. Worship had become something for those who could afford it; God had become a commodity.

There are many who will proclaim how much good religion has done in the world, but one thing that religion seems to do very well is delineate who is in and who is out -- who belongs and who doesn't. It usually has nothing to do with any sort of god; it's more about who we're comfortable with and who makes us uncomfortable. At the temple in Jerusalem, the Jewish authorities had developed a system that helped to invite acceptable people into God's presence while keeping the unacceptable people on the fringes. The author of Mark, and perhaps a historical Jesus, had a serious problem with that system. Everybody in Jewish society was meant to have equal access to God. In fact, one of the main culminating points of the passion narrative is that the old priesthood is obsolete -- the old way of managing human access to God was eradicated. Which is a fine message, except that the church continued to find new ways to regulate access to God for centuries. In many ways, it still does.

I believe that the cleansing of the temple suggests that all people matter -- that just because someone is poor or sick or inconvenient or unsightly or annoying or somehow not like me, it doesn't mean that they are worth any less than I am. Without any belief in an actual god, I assert that all people have inherent worth and dignity, and I am challenged by that when I encounter people who are in circumstances I wouldn't want to be in. We set up barriers within ourselves, protections that we thought necessary during times of vulnerability, and those protective barriers sometimes prevent us from recognizing the deep truth, beauty, and creativity within us. When we have trouble connecting with our authentic selves, we have trouble connecting meaningfully with other people. The temple cleansing may represent the kind of housecleaning we all need to do within ourselves to dismantle the barriers we've created around our deepest, most noble selves in some misguided attempt to protect ourselves.

I also believe that people will always be drawn to help those who are less fortunate because human beings are compassionate. I don't suggest that everyone is equally willing to respond to the compassion they feel, but I do believe that there is some part of every person that cares about people who are sick, injured, poor, malnourished, abused, or oppressed. Sometimes our fears get the best of us and override that compassion, but that doesn't mean that our feelings of compassion aren't there. I believe that we, as a species, are inherently compassionate toward those who have their homes destroyed in natural disasters or who lose loved ones to violence. We don't necessarily like feeling that tug of compassion, because there isn't always something obvious that we can do. We don't like feeling helpless.

Like the temple in Jerusalem, we might decide that some people are in the circumstances they're in because of some divine proclamation. "God is in control, so whatever happened to those people is his will." We are absolved from feeling inconvenient or uncomfortable compassion when we concoct a scenario by which things are the way they're "supposed" to be. Like the temple in Jerusalem, we might also develop systems by which we can outsource our compassion, which means that -- to a certain extent -- we can more or less ignore our feelings of both compassion and helplessness and move on. Whether we are religious or not, we have a tendency to invent systems to welcome desirable people into our lives and keep undesirable people at bay.

Sometimes, though, religion helps us outsource our compassion. We can pray for people without ever having to come into uncomfortable contact with them. We can write a check or hand over some cash to a non-profit organization, and while this actually sources a lot of good for people, our monetary contributions don't necessarily address our unwillingness to be with people we see as poor, sick, hungry, abused, oppressed, or inconvenient -- to look those people in the eye and say, "You matter." Religion sometimes serves as a buffer for us, but it doesn't have to. It's possible to contribute some money to a worthwhile organization, offer some prayers, and look people in the eye and say, "You are a human being, like me."

Even better, I think, would be to scrap the whole idea that a supernatural has any control over what people experience in life. Human beings created the problems that we experience in the world, and human beings can create solutions to those problems. If we abdicate responsibility by assuming that some higher power is in control, though, we won't necessarily feel any sense of personal attachment to the kind of world that we create. Compassion is a feature of being human. It isn't something to try to dismiss or protect ourselves from. Compassion isn't weakness. We feel helpless sometimes because the real work that needs to be done is on the level of systems and structures that go way beyond what any individual can control. 

Our sense of helplessness can feed into old lies we hold about ourselves and other people, vows that we have made about what we must be or do, and fears about being taken advantage of or being worthless -- our feelings of helplessness bump up against whatever barriers keep us from being the people we most want to be in the world. Like Jesus taking radical action in turning over tables, letting loose caged animals, and whipping the perpetrators of injustice, we sometimes have to take radical action within ourselves. We have to be more conscious of what keeps us from being honest about who we are. We have to be more conscious of what we do that keeps other people at arm's length. We have to be more conscious of how we respond to feelings of compassion. We have the capability to do something different, if we choose to. 

When we recognize the importance of living by the principle that every human being matters, we can start creating something better. When we refuse to outsource our compassion, even as we continue to fund organizations that are doing meaningful work in the world, that emotional fuel can ignite our creativity. When we accept that we need one another in order to build a better world, we can forge stronger relationships and find ways to confront the issues that keep people poor, sick, hungry, abused, and oppressed. Tough circumstances can prevent people from recognizing their own inherent worth and dignity. At the very least, we have the opportunity to help people see that circumstances do not define a person's value. If we commit to the work of breaking through some barricades within ourselves, we influence more lives than just our own. As we continually dismantle whatever fears make our compassion seem uncomfortable, people may stop seeming inconvenient, and might just start seeming like people. Like us.

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