Jesus and the Exodus Life
David R. Weiss (March 21, 2003)
This is a narrative sermon I preached in March 2003. The assigned readings came from the lectionary for the previous Sunday and I was invited to select a fourth and non-canonical reading to use as well; I chose a series of excerpts from Nell Morton, a prominent early feminist theologian. Each text finds an echo in my narrative.
The lectionary texts were: Exodus 20:1-17 (The giving of the Ten Commandments); I Corinthians 1:22-25 (Neither signs nor wisdom, but Jesus, and him crucified); John 2:13-22 (The cleansing of the Temple).
And from Nell Morton, The Journey is Home, 1985:
From the time I experienced myself as woman and a stranger in a strange land or in exodus toward new time and new space, I came to know that home was not a place. Home is a movement, a quality of relationship, a state where people seek to be “ their own,” and increasingly responsible for the world. (xix)
Now, when along the way, I pause nostalgically before a large, closed-to-woman door of patriarchal religion with its unexamined symbols, something deep within me rises to cry out: “Keep traveling, Sister! Keep traveling! The road is far from finished.” (198)
I’m tired of militarized cultures, of mentalities which produce hunger, poverty, power over others. All I can say at this point is that what has brought me into the world and has sustained me thus far can be trusted. That which has given me a glimpse of love and a vision of justice is now giving me new hope and energy at this time ion my life and can be trusted—come what may. (225)
Maybe “journey” is not so much a journey ahead, or a journey into space, but a journey into presence. The farthest place on Earth is the journey into the presence of the nearest person to you. (227)
Just a couple introductory comments are needed. First, you should know that in Hebrew the verbs translated as a series of commands in our first text—as Ten Commandments—can just as legitimately be translated as future descriptions—as Ten Promises of what life will be like. Some biblical scholars argue that this is the best way to translate them, and I will follow their lead tonight. Second, John’s Gospel, for its own symbolic reasons plays with history in tonight’s text. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree that the Temple cleansing took place the day after Palm Sunday and just five days before the crucifixion. John, however, sets it as the inaugural act in Jesus’ public ministry. Since I’m not going to focus on the whole of John’s gospel—or the role this event plays in John’s symbolic universe—I will treat it as the event which brings Jesus’ ministry to its climatic head. Finally, if you listen, you’ll hear each of our four texts echoed in my story, which is pure fiction. But then, fiction is often the closest we can come to the Truth. We begin, appropriately during the Lenten season, on the way to Jerusalem.
* * *
It was Lent and Jesus, along with his band of disciples and the other assorted folks who kept his company, were walking to Jerusalem. They didn’t consider it Lent, of course. That tradition wouldn’t come into being for decades yet, but it was spring, so the days were “lenting”—lengthening—and these people were going home.
Home. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but for him, as for most Jews, Jerusalem was home. It was here that the Temple stood. It was here that the boundary between heaven and earth grew thinnest. And during the season of lengthening days Passover loomed alongside the sinking sun on the late afternoon horizon. And at Passover, every Jew longed to go home.
So Jesus was walking home, dust caked between his sandaled toes, salty streaks gleaming on his brow, and an uneasy heart carried heavy inside him. For while his feet carried him one way, his dreams took him another. Each night since the last Sabbath, sleep has carried him away from Jerusalem and across the sand to the foothills of the mountain called Sinai.
Most unnerving, in his dreams he was no longer himself. Sand whirled past like centuries in the wind and somehow he knew, when he found himself making his way up along the base of the mountain, that these were Moses’ feet moving beneath him. Now he also knew—he was not deaf or blind—that the people often referred to him as “the prophet.” He knew that occasionally someone whispered the word “messiah” behind his back. He didn’t dwell on titles. He was a child of God, doing his work, and that was enough for him. So he found it a bit presumptuous on his part to discover that he was daily dreaming himself into Moses’ mind.
But each night for the last several days he had climbed further up the mountain in his sleep, moving Moses’ feet, breathing Moses’ breath. And this night, as he slept weary but restless, the mountain wind whistled through his dream while Moses’ bushy hair blew wildly about and tickled his face. Despite the thick fog, he could tell by the thinning underbrush that he was higher on the mountain than ever before. The air was damp and thick with dread. Not the sort of dread that leaves you scared but the sort that pulls you wide awake—even inside a dream—and fills you with anticipation. And then, just miles outside of Jerusalem, some 1200 years after Moses stood on Sinai, Jesus dreamt himself there, and found himself listening to the voice of God.
How does God speak to a person? The Torah text tells it as though God borrows an audible voice and sends sound waves bumping against eardrums like any other sound. But Jesus heard God’s thunderous, tender, playful words sound deep in his soul, drumming far beyond his (or Moses’) ears.
“Listen,” God said. “Listen to me, my child. All these people gathered around you, what do they seek? More, much more, than an escape from Egypt. More, much more, than an oasis rich with dates and cool water. I did not call them out of slavery for this, but for Freedom. For life rooted in my love for them and their love for me.”
Jesus listened to these words, and in his dream, as in the Passover meal that he would eat next week, he was himself a slave just set free—and thus barely able to imagine life without a taskmaster, except to know that unlike yesterday, today there is a future.
God continued, speaking into the depths of Moses’ heart where Jesus stood, both sound asleep in body and wide awake in mind, “This is the dream I have for our life together. I will be your first love, for all the days of your life, and your desire for me shall not wane. I will be for you ever fresh, outstripping any fixed images, ever surprising you with the newness of my love. And because my very name—Yahweh—is bound up with the promise of freedom, you will never invoke it to oppress others or to curse them. To do so would render me a stranger to you.
“Every seventh day you will rejoice in the bounty of our life together. We will rest and renew ourselves side by side on the Sabbath. Strengthened and steadied by this rest, parents will be honored by their children just as surely as children shall be wrapped well in the love of their parents.
“Although you lived daily with death in Egypt, killing shall no longer be known among you; life will be treasured and honored as the gift it is. And in honoring life, you will discover the deep joy of intimacy in your unions, learning that such joy is best savored in fidelity, where the fragile yet precious treasures of your souls are safely shared.
“Although in Egypt your labor and your goods were stolen from you, now theft will be unknown among you, for where justice prevails the property of each will be respected by all. You will not speak falsely of your neighbor, for honor will be the commonwealth of my people. And you will not find your lives distorted by envy, for you will shape your lives by simplicity and generosity, and you will discover in this way a life brimming with abundance.
“Mark these words well,” God … cooed—Jesus smiled in his sleep at the thought of Yahweh, holy and mighty, cooing gently to Moses on Mount Sinai, but there was no other word for it. All that God had said—this was the language of a wedding night, not a legal contract. Here on Sinai God was courting these rag-tag slaves-no-longer, hoping to lure them into a deep and lasting love with these words describing a future they could barely conceive of after their generations in Egypt.
“Mark these words well, my servant, and carry them to my children, for you have just left Egypt, and it will take more than the exuberance of your Exodus to shake off the shackles of oppression in your life together. Freedom is not the absence of a whip raised behind you, it is the presence of compassion in your midst as you move forward. The journey to freedom crosses a wilderness unmarked by clear signposts—and this journey’s end is not indicated by the soil you have finally put beneath your feet. No, your arrival is not a matter of geography but a matter … of ethics. You will have arrived when my words are true.”
“Yes, Papa, Amen, may it be so.” Jesus murmured in his sleep, and suddenly the breath was his own again, and he was awake with the dark night’s stillness all around him.
Thinking about the promised life together, he knew that, like every people, his own people, Israel, had often given in to the temptation to presume their journey was over. With the crossing of the Jordan and the fall of Jericho, or with the rise of the tribal federation under David, or the building of the Temple under Solomon. Always there was the temptation to say “we’ve arrived!” And he smiled ruefully at the legacy of the prophets—his own legacy—those unsettled souls who say to a settled people, “Don’t be fooled; we’re still on the way.”
With a shiver, his thoughts turned to the Temple, just another day’s journey away. Perhaps no symbol in Israel’s life was more prone to abuse than the Temple. From kings to priests to public folk, the Temple seemed to say, “Yes, of course we’re home. Look, right over there is our Temple.” But again and again the prophets—Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the others—had reminded them that the courtship imagined at Sinai was not about building a Temple of stones but rather about building a community fashioned on love. “It isn’t the edifice, you fools, it’s the ethic,” he mused, echoing the sentiments of voices raised long before him.
With the first dawn only an hour away, Jesus rolled over, wrapped himself in sleep, and slipped into a deep rest, the gift of a God who gave him so much to do and seemingly so little time in which to do it. When the sky welcomed the rising sun for another lengthening day Jesus woke, rested but uneasy. Last night he had dreamed enough to know what came next.
* * *
Fast forward two days. The jubilant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is over. The public is beside itself with a sort of off balance joy, because a prophet will be in their midst this Passover. The priests, meanwhile, are also beside themselves—but with a sort of off balance displeasure—because those who are happily settled have no use for a prophet in their midst at Passover.
Jesus entered the Temple with Exodus on his mind. His dream from the other night was no major revelation for him. It was in many ways a vivid review of his own ministry. He had devoted himself to fashioning a community shaped by the graciousness of God’s abundant love for them. A community without outcasts. A community where healing happened and feasting unfolded and forgiveness came like deep drawn breaths to restore relationships. He had told stories to turn lives upside-down. Prizing the least. Humbling the proud. Welcoming everyone into the swirling grace of God that filled his own soul. He had lived the Exodus life—and now, striding into the Temple like a householder returning after a long journey to find his home in dismal disrepair, now he exploded.
His eyes alone could have cleared the courtyard, but the image of Moses raising two stone tablets above his head and dashing them to the ground blazed in his mind, and the fury of his eyes spilled out into his limbs. He grabbed a pile of loose cords leftover from sheep or cattle now sold for slaughter and used it as a whip to drive the remaining animals outside. Whether or not they knew the fate that awaited them at the altar, they eagerly joined in his holy pandemonium, ironically playing out the psalmist’s vision of animals leaping in joy at the coming of the Lord.
With the animals unleashed and their sellers scurrying off to round them up, he turned to the startled money changers. Roman coins, which bore the idolatrous images of Roman rulers, were not accepted here, and these money changers made a fine profit for turning such coins into Jewish tender fit for Temple offerings. But in their twin piles of money he saw no difference. One seemed like so much jewelry discarded by those early escaped slaves and laid at the feet of Aaron. And the other pile—the pile of Jewish coin—seemed to be nothing more than a golden calf raised up by Israel’s first errant priest who told them at the foot of Sinai “Here, O Israel, in this gold is the purchase of your freedom.”
Had he not already dashed the tablets to the ground in his mind he would’ve thrown them at the tables. As it was, he grabbed one table after another, adrenaline reducing their massive weight to mere sticks, and turned them over, spilling coins, splintering wood, and scattering people.
Having cleared the courtyard in just a few frenzied moments a pregnant stillness fell upon the Temple area. The animal sellers and the money changers recovered quickly from their shock and glared at Jesus uneasily. They didn’t dare openly challenge this prophet, but they saw the priests murmuring in the distance behind the Temple pillars and they knew the day’s deed had changed everything. This prophet, like so many before him, had not known where to stop. Now he had crossed a line and even the crowds, who had welcomed him with wild abandon just yesterday, realized that prophets are the least tame and the least predictable of all persons. And more than a few now hoped silently that the chair reserved at every Passover table for the prophet Elijah, should he choose to come this year, would remain empty, at least in their household.
Jesus then seized all that was left, which was the silence, and he stepped into that as well. “My parents home—your parents’ home,” he bellowed the words ripe with equal measures of anguish and anger, “was never meant to be a marketplace. The graciousness of God cannot be bought or sold. This building is either a free invitation to Life or it stands as an insult to the One who freely gives life. These columns frame the sanctuary of compassion or they cannot bear the weight of heaven. This whole Temple is either the doorway to freedom for every corner of creation, or it is a trap leading back to Egypt. Zeal for this house—for this promise—consumes me.”
He draw a long gaze across the circle of dropped jaws from left to right and then continued, “You want a sign? You want some clear unambiguous revelation of the Truth. You won’t get it. What you get is the ambiguity of my life, the image of me walking roughshod over the letters of the law in order to fulfill the spirit of the law, which is love.
“You want wisdom? You want a reasonable, moderate, sophisticated Truth to fashion your lives around? Well, guess what, you won’t get that either. What you get is my life, lived without moderation or sophistication, lived unreasonably committed to the messy truth of compassion.
“What you finally get is neither a clear sign nor a prudent wisdom; you get me—rejected, despised, condemned.
“But know this, you stubborn people, you who can sense that you are lost but who remain unwilling to ask for directions, you were made for an Exodus Life, you were called by God to a Life shaped by a Love and Compassion and Justice—not one framed on all sides by the demands of ritual, law, and sacrifice. Think of your most intimate loves, for God’s sake! Think of how deep desire makes attending to the hopes of another a joy rich with energy and full of honor. Let there be pattern to your life. Let there be ritual to your worship. But let them be ever shaped by the passion of your God. And your God, our God, moves with passion that is ever fresh. Ever seeking those pushed to the margins, ever welcoming those cast out from the center, ever lifting up those whose backs so many others walk upon. Exodus is the song of this God throughout all of history. Joy is the gift of this God who brings Justice to the earth.”
He’d lost them. He could see it in their eyes. Some glared with contempt; most stared with confusion. And Jesus, exhausted by it all, retreated to the Mount of Olives where he wept. Long and hard.
Hours later, with the afternoon sun unrelenting in its efforts to stretch daylight into evening, Mary, the audacious sister of Lazarus and Martha, approached Jesus on the hillside. Of all those good persons to whom Jesus was known, to Mary was he least a stranger. Mary was blessed with such imagination and wisdom that by herself she explained why Hebrew poets personified God’s wisdom as a woman. Sitting near him hours at a time, listening—and truly hearing—Mary kept pace with Jesus’ vision when others found it simply too much to take in. And because she alone could keep pace with him, on this afternoon, she alone dared to keep company with him.
Jesus looked up as her shadow blended into his own. The grace of Mary’s company was measured by the gentle depth of her silence, her willingness to wait for Jesus to speak.
Finally, he spoke. “I grew up regarding Jerusalem as my true home,” he said, wistful and aching for a memory no longer there. “But it isn’t. Somehow you must help them see that. We were freed not for a land but for a life, an Exodus life. We were freed to set out upon a journey into the promise of joy and justice. But that journey, so at odds with this world’s lust for power, may lead us—may lead me very soon, Mary—into the very shadow of death. I’m no fool. My days are numbered now. My hours are being sold for silver like the sheep I set free this morning.” And he hung his head in sorrow.
And this was Mary’s other grace: that her silence could be matched with words. “Jesus,” she said, “I am still listening. And this is part of what I am hearing. Listen now to me. My whole life as a woman, I have been only half a Jew. I have known myself as a stranger in a strange land. But in your company, in the graciousness of your God, whom you helped me to see was my God, too, I began an exodus of my own. I came to know that home was not a place. Home is a movement, it is the quality of our relationship, it is the time when and the space where we can be ourselves—and from the depth of our identity begin to take responsibility for the world in which we live.
“After this morning, I know that whenever I am tempted to limit the doorway to heaven to the gate of the Temple I will hear your voice reminding me, “Keep traveling, Sister! Keep traveling! The road is far from finished.”
“And I know that life at your side, with all its risks—and with all its promise—is true to the Truth at Sinai. It has given me a glimpse of love and a vision of justice, a new hope and a new energy. And it can be trusted—come what may.”
Jesus looked up at her. She was truly the wisdom of God at his side. She spoke once more, “So we have been walking home, my friend. But it has been all along not so much a journey from there to here, but a journey into presence. The farthest place on earth is the journey into the presence of the nearest person to you. And right now, Jesus, I am here.”
And there, on a hill outside Jerusalem, five days before his death, thankful for the warm lengthening days of a Lent not yet officially declared, Jesus rested his head in Mary’s lap and knew for a long moment that—come what may—he had come home.
* * *