U is for Upending (an alphabet for penitents)

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “ ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’” -Matthew 21:12-13

Until Jesus entered the temple courts he was hailed as Israel’s Messianic hope—the Anointed One who would return to save people from their oppression.  His first act after to riding into town, shouts of Hosanna still ringing in his ears, was to fashion a makeshift whip, overturn the tables of money changers in the temple courts.

The Passion Conference and Maranatha weren’t the first to turn worship into big business. In the 1st century, worshippers came to the temple and sacrificed animals to God. The offering of the poor was a dove. Doves were available to them if they would just pay a fee plus a surplus tax. Money changers exchanged the coins of diaspora Jews for the temple coin, the Tyrian shekel (a coin without a graven image on it). This exchange was not in their favor.

Temple economics were the antithesis of care for the poor, widowed, orphaned and foreigners (Zechariah 7:10). It was a system of exploitation and it made a mockery out of the worship of God that was supposed to be happening there. A den of robbers, not a house of prayer.

Overturning the tables (or destruction of property during a protest) did not and does not bring about immediate change. However, this wasn’t just a one-time thing. Jesus entire ministry involved upending our expectations and socio-political systems. In The Upside-Down Kingdom (Herald Press, Updated Edition, 2011), Donald Kraybill writes, “From beginning to end, from start to finish, the thread of inversion and irony weaves its ways through the gospel”(211).  He began his public ministry reading these words from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19; cf. Isaiah 61:1,2).

All throughout his ministry, Jesus challenged systems of oppression, spiritual elitism, gender roles, structures, and Empire. By the necessity, the Kingdom of God upends all other contenders to the throne and welcomes a new way of life where the poor, the prisoners, the blind and lame find love and welcome.  Yet it was Jesus’ symbolic act, upending of tables in the temple courts, which very well be the act which got him killed.

If you follow the story through, you know the upending was not done. Jesus would take a cross, the symbol of Roman dominance over any would-be revolutionary, and turned it into a symbol of how far God would go to welcome us home. The first witnesses to his resurrection (women) defied cultural expectations. And Jesus’ surprising upending still happens whenever people choose to live by the values of upside-down kingdom instead of the American dream.

A decade ago, a craze hit the Christian world—rubber bracelets stamped with the letters “WWJD?” There was other Kitsch as well: t-shirts, necklaces, hats, temporary tattoos, pencils, travel mugs, etc. The letters stood for “What Would Jesus Do?” and were drawn from the ninteenth century novel by Charles Sheldon, In His Steps. The idea behind the slogan (and the novel) was that as we go about our daily life, in whatever sphere we find ourselves, we ask “what would Jesus do right now if he were in our shoes?” My sarcastic reply whenever I saw WWJD bling on the wrist of a friend was, “Jesus wouldn’t buy that.” And it’s true because he already would know what he’d do.

We live in a world where the rich profit off the poor, “a livable wage” is fodder for political debate, bombing another country is framed as humanitarian relief, and refugees and immigrants are regarded with suspicion, minorities still suffer discrimination. I think it is  now time for us to stand with Jesus in the temple courts, fashion our makeshift whips and ask, “What Would Jesus Upend?”


I is for Iconoclasm (an alphabet for penitents)

Iconoclasm is the wrong word if by it, we mean the destruction of religious images of any kind. In the Christian tradition, icons were windows to heaven meant to bring a soul into an encounter with the invisible God. But iconoclasm also means, “the action of attacking or assertively rejecting cherished beliefs and institutions or established values and practices.”¹  Part of our spiritual journey involves a tearing down of unexamined beliefs, practices, and institutions. If not iconoclasm, perhaps idoloclasm. 

We each carry assumptions about the world and ourselves. We come by them honestly, we are born with our racial identity and into a socio-economic class. We imbibe the values of the wider culture, we all drink from the same the well. But the journey into the land of repentance forces us to confront our most cherished beliefs about our self, our world, God.

Think about those most honored in our culture: the rich, the powerful, the successful, the talented, the skilled, the beautiful, the proficient, and those famous for being famous. Who does Jesus give special honor to? The poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the marginalized, the peacemakers and the persecuted. Here are Jesus words from the Beatitudes in Luke:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
    for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
    when they exclude you and insult you
    and reject your name as evil,
        because of the Son of Man. 

 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

(Luke 6:20-23).

The poor, the hungry, the mourning, and the hated. These are the folks most of us, most of the time try not to see. Oh, we care about the poor, in the abstract, but we are careful to not make eye contact with the homeless man on the freeway on ramp. We believe in feeding the hungry but most of us live, lives insulated from those in dire need. We want to comfort the mourners who are weeping, but it is too hard to sit in their pain. We instead distract them (and ourselves) with Netflix and retail therapy. We know bullying is wrong and want to stand with the hated and persecuted but we feel threatened by their religion, ethnic origin, and gender identity.  A culture that values the rich, the successful and the beautiful, has difficulty including the marginalized.

And yet following Jesus demands that we embody something else. Jesus confronts our cultural values. Listen to his warning for us:

“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
    for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
    for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:24-26).

Jesus warns the wealthy, the well fed, the perpetually entertained and the respectable. The people our culture honors most—the wealthy, the successful, the positive, the popular—are the folks that Jesus has his harshest words for. You have your comfort already. You will go hungry. You will mourn and weep. Your behavior is exactly how your ancestors treated false prophets. 

The axe is at the root of the tree. Our societal values are called into question. Jesus the iconoclast, comes to dismantle the personal and institutional value we place on the rich, powerful and the popular. He challenges us to enter into the pain of the invisible. Spirituality that does this is prophetic because it calls into question the idols of wealth, power, happiness, success and strength. The Beatitudes remind us that if the good news doesn’t include those on the margins, it is not good news but a mirror held up to our souls. Tear it down.