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God with a Human Face by John C. Purdy


John C. Purdy is a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), which he served for 26 years as an editor of curriculum resource. He is also the author of Parables at Work (Westminster) and God with a Human Face (Westminster/Knox). God with a Human Face was published by Westminster/John Knox in l993 and is used by permission of the author, who also prepared the text for Religion Online.


Chapter 8: God Allows All Prayers (Mark 11:15-18)


Following the swift victory of the allied armies in the Persian Gulf, the allied commander was interviewed on television. "Do you think that God was on your side?" General H. Norman Schwarzkopf was asked. He paused a moment and then said, "When you look at the results, how can you think otherwise?"

Abraham Lincoln was not so certain of divine favor as was the general. In the closing months of the Civil War, he said in his second inaugural address: "Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained ....Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully."

Does God take sides in violent encounters? We asked ourselves that during the civil rights movement; it is asked in South Africa today. It is a question raised by the Gospel story of the cleansing of the temple, in which Jesus uses strong-arm tactics on merchants and money changers. On the face of it, the answer supplied by that narrative would seem to be affirmative. But let the question hang in the air while we examine Mark 11: 15-18 in some detail.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, "Is it not written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
But you have made it a den of robbers."

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. (Mark 11:15-18)

Literary critics say of a narrative that it works at several levels. Stories are like an archaeological dig: You remove one layer of meaning and find another layer underneath. The account of Jesus’ temple tantrum is like that, except that it is more helpful to think upward rather than downward. The progression of discovery is like a mountain ascent: Each new version of the story invites us to take a few steps further, and the terrain changes markedly as we progress - just as one passes through several climatic zones in climbing a mountain. And when we reach our goal, the view is panoramic.

Reaching the City

The cleansing of the temple can be told as a tale of the small-town boy come to the city. After a ministry among the villages in Galilee, Jesus comes to his nation’s capital. Nazareth and Capernaum give way to Jerusalem. Mr. Smith goes to Washington, the Maid of Orleans goes to Paris. What began in a regional theater now opens on Broadway. Jesus has moved not only to Judea’s capital, but to the heart and soul of Judaism - to the temple.

There he causes a ruckus. He is outraged by what he finds - commercial transactions, including the changing of money and the selling of birds, and the use of the temple grounds as a shortcut. He turns over tables, scattering money and birds, and chases out those who are involved in exchange. In the temple scene in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ Jesus smashes through the crowd like a linebacker knocking aside blockers, trying to get at the quarterback.

And when he has wreaked all that havoc, Jesus holds a teach-in. He scolds his fellow citizens for corrupting divine worship: You have turned God’s house of prayer into a den of robbers, he tells them. This invites the wrath and resolve of the religious authorities. When they see how popular Jesus is with the crowd, they take counsel with one another as to how to do him in - before he can do any more damage.

Internal Rot

What a wonderfully dramatic moment this is: the rough-handed rustic delivering a solid punch to the flabby body politic. There is something soul-satisfying about the temple cleansing; we like to see reformers go after corruption. Why should it be necessary for Jesus, as soon as he gets to Jerusalem, to go to the Temple Mount and start trouble? Because even the finest human institutions have a way of rotting from within. As Jesus teaches the crowd, the temple is intended as a house of prayer, but it has been turned into a den of robbers. Instead of a place of prayer and devotion, it is now devoted to profits. Instead of nourishing piety, it is being milked for money.

What happened to the temple has happened to every human institution, no matter how useful or inspired. If you visit our universities, you will find styles of architecture that are outright copies of Roman and Greek temples. The more-than-subtle suggestion is that they house sacred texts, that the chief priests and scribes of the nation are its professors, scientists, and archivists, and that students are worshipers at a shrine. But will anyone deny that many of these temples of learning have been corrupted by politics? Or that the primary business of higher education is now business? Ask students why they are in college and most of them will say that their education is a good investment; they are paying the extravagant tuition and other costs in order to make a good living when they graduate.

But education is too easy a whipping boy. Take another cherished American institution, major league baseball. Its claim as the Great American Pastime has rested on two pillars - tradition and sport. The true fan is horrified by innovation, just as the true patriot is appalled by suggested changes in the Bill of Rights. We like to think that when men in Civil War prisons played the game, it was very much like what we play today. And although major league baseball is professional, the game - the sport - is supposed to prevail over profits. When we were children, we used to argue about the comparative batting averages of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, of Joe Cronin and Jimmy Foxx. Sure, we knew the players made a good living. By Depression standards, some made a very good living. But we also knew in our hearts that the money was incidental. Today two things have changed: Tradition takes a back seat to profit, and so does sport. Heresies like the designated hitter have been introduced to lure more paying customers into the parks. What gets talked about in the "Hot Stove League" - during the winter months when there is no baseball - is whether or not a superstar is really worth $5,000,000 a year. Can anyone seriously argue that baseball deserves the worshipful reverence once afforded it?

Lest someone object that profits ought not always be blamed for social decay, then what of the downfall of the socialist regimes of Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990? Because profits were subordinated to ideological purity, those political institutions folded under the pressures of technological culture. A perverse piety can be as corrosive as the love of money.

Perestroika, Anyone?

The state of universities and the plight of baseball may lead some to propose reforms for both institutions. Perestroika - that’s the answer. Bring in a zealous reformer to cleanse the temple. But there is yet another story to be recited - that of the tragic fate that awaits any reformer who sets out to cleanse a great human institution. Remember, when the chief priests and scribes saw what Jesus had done, they looked for ways to kill him. And that is what is going to happen to any young, zealous reformer - no matter how right her cause or pure his motives.

In December of 1990 a thirty-seven-year-old Roman Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected president of Haiti. He was an outspoken foe of corruption and tyranny, who had been removed from his parish by his superiors for his activism in social affairs. When the newspapers reported his election, one was put in mind of a young rabbi come to clean up the temple in Jerusalem. God knows it needed housecleaning, just as Haiti needs reform and renewal. But there was an element of sadness in the election of Aristide. Old and wise observers saw the first act of a tragedy, which had been played out so many times before. For every successful reformer there have been dozens who blazed like Roman candles - and then fizzled out. Some, like Castro in Cuba, were victims of their own success. Some, like Martin Luther King, Jr., were shot down in their prime. Some, like whistle-blowers in the Pentagon, were summarily dismissed.

The public does not love reformers. Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People is a modern version of the temple story. Dr. Thomas Stockmann is the medical officer of the baths in a southern Norwegian town. He discovers that the baths are being dangerously polluted by water from a tannery. He tells the mayor and the newspaper editor that it may take thousands of dollars and several years of work to replace the conduit. They tell him that the news of the pollution and the proposed repairs might well ruin the town’s economy. And they set out to quash his report. Eventually a public meeting is called, at which the doctor is unanimously voted to be an enemy of the people.

Someone coming fresh to the cleansing of the temple can feel only pity, knowing that fierce opposition - and probable defeat - wait for Jesus. A reader who did not know the Gospels might surmise that Jesus would quickly pass from the scene and be forgotten.

Journalist Thomas Friedman quotes a shrewd observer

"[T]here are basically two political types in Middle East history: the messiah and the merchant. The messiahs, or mahdis, as they are known in Arabic, come and go with the political seasons. One season it is Gamal Abdel Nasser selling Arab nationalism, another season it is Ayatollah Khomeini selling Islamic fundamentalism. But after a while, the messiahs always pass on, like hurricanes which, after stirring up the landscape, sooner or later move out to sea, leaving behind what was always there: the grocer, whose ancient and familiar culture does not come and go with the seasons but is rooted in the earth. (From Beirut to Jerusalem, 1989, p. 502)

Streams in the Desert

Friedman’s friend suggests to us a fourth way to read the narrative of the temple cleansing - as the inevitable flowing together in the Middle East of piety, profit, and politics. They are like three streams running downhill, each seeking its own level, yet certain to combine into one larger stream at some point in their descent. There is no easy separation of church and state, statecraft and business, business and religion. They are co-mingled, as the following incident makes plain.

On October 8, 1990, a huge crowd gathered on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It had been rumored that radical Jews were going to use that holy day to establish a religious presence within the confines of a Moslem shrine. Thousands of Arabs gathered in protest. Stones were thrown at Jews who came to pray at the Western Wall at the base of the Mount. Israeli border police fired into the crowd; twenty-one Palestinian Arabs were killed. What might seem a local scuffle landed in the lap of the United Nations. Not incidental to the incident is the $3 billion annually contributed by the United States to support Israel - and the greater billions at stake in Arab oil. In the Middle East one cannot separate prayer, politics, and profits any more than one can separate the interests of Jew, Christian, and Moslem in the city of Jerusalem. And that is what the story of Jesus’ temple tantrum is also about - the necessary interweaving of piety, politics, and economics.

Indeed, it is what all human history is about. No one of the three interests can be pursued without involving the other two. This is one of the reasons why Ken Burns’ television series about the Civil War so gripped the imaginations of many of us in the fall of 1990. A war that was fought for economic and political reasons was led by men and women whose words and deeds were almost biblical. Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln were the Fathers, whose respective houses needed to be purified. Grant and Lee were the temple-cleansers: One would rid the land of rebellion and slavery, the other would purge the South of the corrupt Yankee invaders.

The Civil War was a brutal, bloody affair. Novelist and historian Shelby Foote calls the battle of Shiloh "a murderous fist fight." The whole war could be called a murderous family fist fight - brother attacking brother in uncontrollable fury. How can one possibly think that God countenanced such unrestrained violence? Was not the very face of God turned away in pity and disgust? Our forebears did not think so. General Thomas Jackson, a devout Presbyterian, said, "It is a man’s entire duty to pray and to fight." Julia Ward Howe sang, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He has loosed the fearful lightning of his terrible swift sword." Lincoln wrote, "In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party; and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect his purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true; that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet" (A Meditation on the Divine Will). In his farewell speech to the U.S. Senate, .Jefferson Davis said: "We will invoke the God of our fathers, who delivered them from the power of the lion [England], to protect us from the ravages of the bear [the Union]; and thus, putting our trust in God and in our own firm hearts and strong arms, we will vindicate the right as best we may." Ex-slave Frederick Douglass urged Lincoln to accept blacks into the Union army, so that they might fight for the freedom of their race.

Ask these our forebears if God countenances violence; surely they will counter with the question: How can human institutions be cleansed except by violence?

A House for All

But surely the story of the cleansing of the temple is more than a case study in the use of violence. The ultimate meaning of the narrative is revealed in the words by which Jesus justified his action. "[God’s] house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations." The words "a house for all nations" might well be inscribed on every public building. They might well be displayed on every stadium, bank, theater, locker room, library, house of congress, factory, lecture hall, or temple. No human institution can survive that serves the piety, profits, or politics of one people, one sex, one tribe, or one region only.

The cleansing of the temple is the story of a God who will be known and worshiped by all people - Israelis, Iraqis, Kurds, Palestinians, Americans, Arabs, Egyptians, Russians, Northerners, and Southerners. God’s house is large enough for all; Emmanuel is the savior of all. God allows the prayers of all.

It is a short step from "God allows the prayers of all" to "God allows all prayers," be they voiced by Christians, Jews, Moslems, Baptists, Mormons, or citizens of the New Age. And from there it is another short step to "God allows all kinds of prayers" - for victory in battle, for the defeat of enemies, for the smashing of a corrupt political regime, for the removal of a hated social or economic system. What else are we to understand by "My house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations"?

Although Abraham Lincoln, while president, attended worship at a Presbyterian church, it was said by some that he had no religion. Writing in response to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, Lord Charnwood wrote:

"When old acquaintances said that he had no religion they based their opinion on such remarks as that the God, of whom he had just been speaking solemnly, 'was not a person.' It would be unprofitable to inquire what he, and many others, meant by this expression, but, later at any rate, this 'impersonal' power was one with which he could hold commune. His robust intellect, impatient of unproved assertion, was unlikely to rest in the common assumption that things dimly seen may be treated as not being there. So humorous a man was also unlikely to be too conceited to say his prayers. At any rate he said them; said them intently; valued the fact that others prayed for him and for the nation; and, as in official proclamations (concerning days of national religious observance) he could wield, like no other modern writer, the language of the Prayer Book, so he would speak of prayer without the smallest embarrassment in talk with a general or a statesman. . . This man had stood alone in the dark. He had done justice; he had loved mercy; he had walked humbly with his God." (Paul M. Angle, ed., The Lincoln Reader, 1947, pp. 494 - 495)

Do you suppose that Lincoln prayed fervently for the success of the Union cause? Is there any prayer, from anyone, for anything, that God will not allow?

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