March 11, 2012 - Third Sunday of Lent

Today's Readings

Zeal is the willingness to kill in order to force people to keep God’s law. In the time of Jesus, zealots were an established group of people who held to this willingness. They looked back to Phineas, the great-nephew of Moses, who stabbed a spear through a man and the woman he was breaking God’s law with. They looked back to Matthais Maccabbees who, when he saw a Jew about to sacrifice to a pagan god on the altar, killed that man on the altar instead. In the modern day we call zealots “terrorists” like those mobs of Muslims that killed and burned because a comic was drawn about the violence of Muslims and their founder Mohammad or because some copies of the Koran were accidentally burned.

In the Gospel today, Jesus is the one with zeal. “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Today, unlike any other Gospel reading, we see Jesus with a weapon in his hand. Consider what that looked like: Jesus turning over tables, whipping the sheep and the oxen and their owners, spilling coins all over. This was the Jesus that the zealots wanted. Here he is using violence to make sure that God’s commandments are obeyed.

That is of course the difficulty with commandments. It is difficult enough to obey them ourselves, but when we see someone else who not only fails to obey but actually does not intend to obey, there is a kind of crisis. Will we decide that we do not care? Then the commandments must not be so important after all, so why do we bother trying to obey them? Or we could use violence and threats of violence to oblige the others to keep the commandments, in which case we are a zealot.

Consider the issue of abortion. God says “Thou shalt not kill” but there is murder happening in our country with the permission of the government. A million babies every year are murdered, some of them just one block away from here. What options do we have? If we really believed that abortion is murder, would it not be correct to be violent? If I saw a small child being murdered, I would absolutely use violence to defend them. Yet I hear that murders are occurring every day, 2500 murders a day, and I do nothing. WWJD? Should we make a whip of cords and drive the evil out of our society? Perhaps we should be zealots, like Jesus.

There is another option though. We could turn the other cheek. We could choose to suffer the wrong that others do, never breaking our own commitment to the commandments. In fact, Jesus is showing us today about another way to be a zealot. “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Zeal for your house will destroy me. That is not the way that zeal is supposed to work. Zeal meant being willing to kill and use violence, but Jesus is saying that he is willing to be killed, to be consumed. “Destroy this temple”, he says, meaning the temple of his own body.

This is a different kind of zeal, one unknown to the terrorists and the zealots. Instead of inflicting suffering, it chooses to suffer. Jesus came to this earth because we were doing wrong things. He did not come with a sword to compel us to do what is right, though, as he demonstrates today, he could have. He came to die on the Cross.

If the commandments of God were merely arbitrary commands, there would be no way to enforce them except through violence. God is stronger than us, so he can force us to do as he chooses. But this is not how God acts. Indeed, the few times in the Old Testament that God uses violence to enforce his will (the destruction of Sodom, the death of Korah, etc.) only emphasize how rarely that is the case. Usually God does not send fire from heaven to punish the wicked. When Adam and Eve sinned, he made them leave his garden, but he gave them a field to live in. God does not treat us like his enemies; he treats us like his children. And if God will not send fire down to destroy every Planned Parenthood and every other den of evil in this world, he does not need us to do it for him.

No, the commandments of God are not arbitrary; they are for our own good, and disobedience of the commandments is its own punishment. I do not obey the command “Thou shalt not kill” because I am afraid of the legal consequences or because I am worried that God will smite me down. I obey that command because I do not want to be a murderer. I do not want to be a thief. I do not want to be an adulterer or idolater or filled with envy.

When I look at Jesus, I see that he was a great man, and I wish that I could be more like him, not in the miracles he could work or in the following he had but in the way that he could keep the commandments. He lived his life like someone who knew the purpose of living. I wish I could be like that. He did not come to this earth to force me to be like him. He does not have to. I want to be like him, though I am too weak to be very much like him.

Once upon a time the sun and the wind got into an argument about who was stronger. They decided to settle things with a test. “Let us see who can force that man over there to take off his coat”, said the wind. The sun agreed. So the wind blew with all its strength, but the harder the wind blew, the more the man held on to his coat. Then it was the sun’s turn. He shone down strong and soon it was very warm and the man removed his coat.

The Zealots had zeal but violence is not convincing. Jesus knew that if he suffered and died for my sins, I could not resist loving him. This is how the weakness of God is greater than the strength of the human. I do not need God to force me to keep his commandments, though I do need him to help me. If someone tried to violently force me to follow a religion, I would resist, but since someone loved me so much that he was willing to die to save me, I am very interested in learning more about that love.