Exodus 14:19-31, Psalm 114, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35 For the past couple of weeks I’ve enjoyed showing people a new picture in my office. Technically it’s not a piece of fine art, but it’s a pretty good reproduction of an Italian masterpiece (consider it this priest’s version of a knockoff Rolex). The original was painted in 1305 by an Italian master named Giotto. He was one of the first Italian painters to break with Byzantine tradition and to fill his paintings with raw, human emotion.
So there’s plenty of reason to value and admire Giotto’s style and technique - but there’s really just one reason I like his work. It’s because he’s the only painter I’ve ever seen who painted a picture where Jesus literally has his arm drawn back, his fist cocked, and he’s leaning forward about to punch someone in the face.
This is Giotto’s painting of Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple. You know the story. It’s the week before Easter when Jesus rides into Jerusalem for Passover. He goes to visit the Temple, and when he sees all of the merchants doing their usual business right there in the outer courtyard of the Temple he goes ballistic. He quotes the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, telling those merchants: “My house shall be a house of prayer; but you have made it a den of robbers” (Luk. 19.45; cf. Mark 11.17, Matt. 21.13). In the words of one Gospel, he tells them, “you’ve made it an Emporium” (Jn. 2.16) - more like going to the mall, than going to church.
And all four of the Gospels tell us that Jesus “drove out” those who were selling and those who were buying in the Temple, and the way the Gospels describe it is the exact same way they describe Jesus "driving out" or "casting out" demons. Jesus is treating these merchants just like a bunch of demons. It’s violent. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus even made a whip that he used to drive out the people and the animals. This is a Jesus that sounds more like Indiana Jones, than Mr. Rogers or Dr. Phil.
It’s a shocking episode and, really, it’s the beginning of Jesus’ execution. This is what causes the priests and the authorities to fix him in their sights and to chase him down. They try trapping him in his words, but he’s too clever, so they just send a gang of thugs with torches and clubs to kidnap him in the middle of the night. And the charges they bring against him are that: “This man said he would destroy the Temple, and then rebuild it in three days.”
What did Jesus think he was doing? And even more troubling, how does this face-punching, whip-wielding Jesus have anything to do with the Jesus who said, “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5.)? How does he have anything to do with the Jesus we hear in today’s Gospel (Matt. 18.21-35)? When Peter asks him, “Lord, how often should I forgive - up to 7 times?” (a complete cycle, like the 7 days of creation). And Jesus answers, “Not just 7 times, Peter, but I tell you, 70 times 7” (Matt. 18.22). In other words not just a full amount, but a never-ending cycle of forgiveness.
How do we hold these pictures of Jesus, together? The friendly, forgiving Jesus we hear today, and the violent, confrontational Jesus that got himself killed? Because it's not just a question about how we think of Jesus. It’s also a question about how we think of ourselves. It’s a question about how we balance our desires; our sometimes conflicting desires for justice and peace.
As we prayed at the beginning of our service, today marks this nation’s 10th anniversary of the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. Attacks that claimed nearly 3,000 lives in a matter of moments. Attacks that shook our national identity, our sense of security, and even some of our hope for the future. Over the past decade, these same attacks have triggered ongoing wars against terror that have claimed another 6,000 lives. That's almost 10,000 lives in 10 years.
If you’ve been watching, and listening, and reading the news this week, then you know that one of the questions our nation is wrestling with on this anniversary is: how do we balance justice with peace? How do we balance forgiveness and vengeance? How do we seek the safety of our homeland, without being consumed by anger and violence, without becoming the very thing that we’re fighting against? How much is enough, and how will we know when we’ve won?
It’s almost like we’re wrestling with a split personality in our national psyche, just like these opposing pictures of Jesus: Indiana Jones, or Mr. Rogers? On the one hand, it seems like all the surveillance, and cameras, and soldiers, and checkpoints are helping because there’ve been no major attacks on American soil since 9.11. But how much safer do we really feel? Because during this same period, we’ve started fighting with each other more than ever. In the 10 years since the attacks we’ve become more likely to solve our problems by going to war - and I'm not even talking about military battle overseas. I'm talking about right here at home. You may have noticed recently that our politics have grown a bit more confrontational. Our political debates with each other now commonly use the language of battle and war. There's less compromise, less crossing the aisle, less respect. And that’s just politics. I won’t even mention the church (!). But, what else are we supposed to do?
Jesus, like he so often does, tells a story. He says, “It’s like THIS, in the kingdom of heaven…” (Matt. 18.23). A king goes collecting some really big debts, and one loser owes him a zillion dollars. A debt that could never be paid, not even touched. To make matters worse, this loser also insults the king by telling him a bald-faced lie. He says, “O great king, don’t worry, I’ll pay it back - the entire amount.” No he won’t, it’s an amount of money greater than the national treasury. But this king, shockingly and perhaps foolishly, gives this two-faced loser a shot at new life. He gives him a chance to do something with his life. And the guy throws it away. So what happens? Swift, harsh justice. It's violent.
And if you’re anything like me, it’s tempting to hear ourselves as the king in that story. After all, I've just told you what kind of paintings I like. And I hate to burst our bubble, but that’s not the way this story works. In this story, we’re not playing the role of the king. In this story, Jesus puts all of us in the role of that two-faced, loser. In this story we’re the ones who owe a zillion dollars and try to lie and cheat our way out of it.
And here’s the main point: Jesus is giving us a new question. Rather than acting like Peter and saying, “how do we balance justice and peace?” - Jesus says, “let me give you a new question.” The question is this: what are we going to do when we’re given a fresh start? Are we going to go charging off pretending like we’re judge and king? Or are we going to live our lives as a gift?
Among the many stories in this week's news, there was one about the first body released from Ground Zero on 9.11. It was the body of Father Mychal Judge. Fr. Mike was “a Franciscan friar and a chaplain to the New York City Fire Department.” He was a true New Yorker. Born in Brooklyn, he seemed to know everyone in the city, from the homeless to the mayor.
“On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Father Mychal arrived at the World Trade Center shortly after the first plane hit. And as [first responders] ran into the North Tower, he went with them.”
“Bill Cosgrove, a police lieutenant, was also there. When the [first] Tower collapsed, it sent debris flying into the neighboring building. When the dust cleared, Mychal Judge was dead. [Moments later, in the dust and darkness, Lt. Cosgrove literally stumbled over Fr. Mike’s body.] Then, Cosgrove and a group of firefighters emerged from the rubble, carrying Father Mychal's body.” The photograph of their escape is one of the truly iconic images of that day.
And here’s what Lt. Cosgrove has to say about those moments today:
"[Fr. Mike has] always been on my mind ever since then, because it's my firm belief that the only reason I'm here today is because of him. I know that sounds weird, but everybody [who carried him out] was saved. And I'm sure had he not been there, I would have been trying to look for other people. And when that North Tower fell, I would have been right in the middle of it, just like the rest of the firemen were, and some of my cops. But nothing was going to happen that day. At least, not to me."
In the most tragic and unexpected way, Fr. Mychal’s death was the gift of life for these five men. And Lt. Cosgrove is telling people that he now sees every day as a gift. Jesus is trying to tell the church something similar about our lives: they're a gift. And 10 years after 9.11 maybe that’s one of the clues to help us figure out what’s next. It’s a new question for a new road ahead. As we continue wrestling with serious, important questions about peace and security, how can we also show the world that we understand our lives are a gift?
Yes, Jesus took a whip (and the Gospels never say that he actually punched someone in the face, but Giotto's image makes the point). Jesus used violence, but only to make a point - not to try and win a victory. He was announcing God’s judgment on the Temple, and he did it by causing a stir. His action was more like a flash-mob doing a dance, and less like an actual assault.
Because look at what he does next. As soon as he lays down that whip, he marches right back to the Temple - to lay down his life. He not only goes willingly - after telling Peter to lay down his sword - but the entire time he’s also telling people that he’s giving his life as a gift. Somehow, he’s putting himself in a place where we surely would have, or should have, found ourselves if he had not gone there instead. And as our nation still struggles to escape the emotional rubble and debris of 9.11, let’s hear this new question from Jesus today: How can we show people in our words and deeds that our lives - and their lives - are purely a gift? Amen.