Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Temple, Mountain and Fig

Tuesday, December 4, 2007 -- Week of 1 Advent (Year 2)
(John of Damascus, priest, c. 760)

"Morning Reflections" is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at www.missionstclare.com
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site www.ExploreFaith.org at this location -- http://explorefaith.org/prayer/fixed/index.html

Audio Podcasts of today's "Morning Reflection" and those from the past week are available from http://www.stpaulsfay.org/id244.html (go to St. Paul's Home Page www.stpaulsfay.org and click "Morning Reflection podcast")

Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p 937)
Psalms 5, 6 (morning) 10, 11 (evening)
Amos 3:1-11
2 Peter 1:12-21
Matthew 21:12-22

Biblical language is powerfully symbolic and often full of cryptic and hidden meaning. We feel that especially in the apocalyptic genres like the book of Revelation. But the gospels are full of metaphoric imagery as well. Sometimes a gospel writer will elaborate a story that has an historical core and give it expanded meaning through numerology or symbol. Sometimes a symbolic story will illustrate the meaning of an event.

There is almost certainly an historical event behind the stories we've received about Jesus' attack on the Temple's sacrificial commerce. We have several versions of that event. Commentators find an array of possible motivations. It may have been Jesus' complete condemnation of the temple monopoly on forgiveness, a sign of his teaching that forgiveness from God is freely available to all without intermediary. It may have been an attack on the predatory economics of a system that charges poor peasants a fee to change their money from Roman to Temple currency and then rejects their home-grown animals as blemished in order to exact more money for an animal that is certified as clean, and expensive.

What does it mean when Jesus describes the Temple as a den of robbers? The reference is to Jeremiah 7, where the prophet condemns the injustice of those who "oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood" and who "go after other gods." Despite their actions, these are the people who come to the Temple to worship, and because of their religious observations believe "We are safe!" If Jesus is making the same accusation as Jeremiah, he is indicting the Temple as a haven for those who sin elsewhere and overturning the process by which they receive forgiveness through sacrifice.

For Matthew, Jesus is the new Temple of God's presence. So, inside the Temple, Jesus heals the blind and the lame, manifesting the true signs of God's presence. The children get it. "Hosanna to the Son of David," they cry out. The authorities are offended. They are more concerned with the possible blasphemy than the acts of compassion and justice.

Matthew concludes the lesson with a symbolic story. Jesus is hungry. (Hunger has both a physical and a spiritual meaning.) He sees a fig tree by the side of the road. It has nothing but leaves, no fruit or flowers that would become fruit. Jesus speaks, "'May no fruit ever come from you again!' And the fig tree withered at once." In Matthew's context, the fig tree is probably a symbol for Israel, Jerusalem, and/or the Temple. Fruit is a traditional metaphor for good actions. (Ironically, the older Jewish tradition used the fig tree as a metaphor for the Messianic hope when speaking openly of the Messiah was the dangerous language of insurrection.)

Then Matthew has Jesus offer an interpretation. Have faith and do not doubt. If you say to this mountain, "Be lifted up and thrown into the sea," it will be done. Archeologist Charles Page notes that there is a mountain that dominates the landscape on the road from Bethany to Jerusalem where Matthew says this takes place. It is Herodium, a man-made mountain fortress-palace-administrative office built by Herod the Great within the memory of some of Jesus' contemporaries. Shovel by shovel, disciplined workers had built a mountain for the King of the Jews. What would it mean to have faith enough to remove that mountain? This may have been revolutionary talk. It may have been a metaphor for perseverance. Matthew interprets it to be an encouragement for prayer: "Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive."

There is a lot to chew on in these brief passages. They have provided insight and debate for scholars, and inspiration and wonder for readers for centuries, and will continue to do so. Shovel by shovel, we read and study and pray. Mountains can be moved and Temples can be cleansed.


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The Rev. Lowell Grisham
Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, AR

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

See our Web site at www.stpaulsfay.org

Our Rule of Life:
We aspire to...
worship weekly
pray daily
learn constantly
serve joyfully
live generously.


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