The Defects of Jesus, VI: Short Fuse

HomeThe Defects of Jesus, VI: Short Fuse
April 5, 2020

The Defects of Jesus, VI: Short Fuse

Passage: Luke 19:28–40, 45–48

Click here to listen to this sermon.

‘My house shall be a house of prayer’;
    but you have made it a den of robbers.”—Luke 19:46

A bunch of us have visited The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Legend has it that the Church is built on the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection—Golgotha and Garden. Constantine’s mother Helena located the site and built the original church in 326, which means that parts of the Church, including the wooden entrance doors, are 1,694 years old.

Ordinarily teeming with Christian pilgrims from every nation all the time, the Church today is silent as a tomb; forgive the pun. Do you know the last time the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was closed indefinitely? The year 1349, because of the Black Plague.[1]

Jerusalem was a very different place when Jesus entered the Holy City on the first Palm Sunday. The whole city would have been crawling with Jewish pilgrims from the surrounding countryside and from the far-flung Diaspora, Spain to Damascus. What’s the opposite of social distancing? Jerusalem at Passover.

For months now, this modest peasant from Nazareth has been energizing the disconsolate Jewish imagination.  He feeds the hungry masses from his own meager store. There are rumors that at his touch blind men see and lame beggars walk. Even the unspeakable demons of the deranged flee in terror at his approach. And Jerusalem begins to whisper to itself, “Maybe he is The One, The Messiah, who will set us free and make us whole.”

And so they throw him the first-century version of a ticker-tape parade, like Michigan Avenue on November 4, 2016. Well, maybe on a smaller scale than the Cubs Victory Parade, but the same idea. “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” they shout. “Peace in heaven, and glory in highest heaven,” they sing, echoing the canticle the angels sang in shepherd’s fields early in this Gospel.

“Blessed is the King!” they shout. And he is King. But only for a day. Five days later they will execute him for treason and blasphemy.

Of course, it was his own damn fault. The other day, I gave a you a little Holy Week quiz: What’s the first thing Jesus does when he enters the Holy City? If you saw the splendid production of Jesus Christ Superstar at New Trier High School a couple of weeks ago, you know the answer.

The first thing he does is he rampages through the Temple like a maniac with a menacing, knotted rope, overturning cash registers and making a mess of the inventory at an innocent, convenient, helpful, and ancient farmer’s market that had spontaneously popped up on holy days in the outer courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem for hundreds of years.

They sold doves and lambs for the Passover sacrifices. There was a taco truck and a cotton candy stand and a souvenir stand where you could buy a little bronze replica of the Temple for your desk. Or whatever the first-century equivalent of a taco truck was. You get the point. And Jesus just crashes the whole party.

And this is the event that finally gets him arrested, tried, convicted, and executed. For the Jerusalem authorities, this is the last straw.

Is this not a bit of an overreaction? Will Willimon, once Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, says, “If all you know about Jesus is that he is kind to children and considers the lilies, you’ve got another thing coming.”[2]

Cardinal Francis-Xavier  Nguyễn Văn Thuận says that during his 13 years in a Vietnamese concentration camp he fell in love with Jesus’ Defects; not his virtues, but his character flaws. He had no common sense, he was bad at math, he took unnecessary risks, and followed impossible dreams.[3]

As you have just heard, he also had a very short fuse. Now, for most of us most of the time, a short fuse is unseemly and unvirtuous. In fact anger is one of the seven deadly sins.

But you can see why Cardinal Văn Thuận loves Jesus’ Defects, right? There is such a thing as righteous indignation.  Righteous indignation is not a vice, but a virtue.

You can see why Jesus gets so angry at the Temple on Monday of Holy Week, right?  It’s because he deplores the profanation of sacred spaces and the defilement of holy objects. He doesn’t want Mardi Gras going on next to the Holy of Holies. No shabby beads and plastic necklaces here, he wants to say with his menacing, knotted rope.

There is such a thing as righteous indignation, or virtuous anger. Marriage therapists, after all, frequently point out that the opposite of love is not anger; the opposite of love is indifference.

If a married couple comes to me for help with their troubled relationship and they are seething at each other, I’m always a little relieved, because it means there’s still hope. Anger is a passion, after all. Anger means you care. Anger means you hope. If you’ve never been angry, maybe it’s because you’ve never cared about anything or anyone.

So maybe Jesus’ short fuse is not a character defect but a virtue. We should all, always, be angry when sacred things are profaned.

In Syracuse, N.Y., a 30-year-old Asian-American was standing in the checkout line at a grocery store when the man ahead of him shouted at him, “It’s you people who brought this disease.”

But maybe the worst part of that incident was that not one other customer leapt to his defense. Just silence. They all stared at him or looked away in embarrassment.[4]

In that situation, the character flaw is not anger but its absence. Why would those witnesses not be visibly outraged by this vicious, racist slander? They were not sufficiently offended by the profanation of the sacred. You remember what C. S. Lewis said, right? “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”[5] That insult was a defilement of a holy thing.

Well, I could go on and on about the fitting place of virtuous anger in the Christian life, but we need to hear about other virtues just now.

We need the courage of our doctors and nurses who receive ambulance after ambulance after ambulance and treat the ill with deft dexterity and gentle touch and reassuring voice, at great risk to themselves.

We need the selfless loyalty of the folks from Amazon and UPS and Jewel and Fresh Direct and Walgreens, who keep the world spinning while the rest of us are sheltering in place.

We need the thoughtfulness of that high school kid next door who brings provisions to your front porch so that you don’t have to venture out when your own health is compromised. You never even see him. He just materializes out of thin air like a ghost. He’s like a porch pirate in reverse.

We need the reasoned, commanding authority of Governor Pritzker and Mayor Lightfoot.

We need the generosity of the federal government who will lift up the penniless and the unemployed and the nearly homeless who don’t have the funds to pay the rent.

We need the love of a partner or a father or a child who will never abandon us to loneliness through the long, sleepless night.

We need the wise counsel of our aged matriarchs and patriarchs who lived through this before in the 1930's. We have all that we need.

It’s not going to be easy. Kathy and I like to walk the dog in Ravinia, that charming town a couple of miles north of here. We drive up there and park the car in the center of town and walk to the lake—about three miles round trip, just right for a puppy—and every time we do we walk a bridge across that splendid ravine separating the town from the beach, and we remember why they named it Ravinia.

And as we walk through town, we walk past all these useful little shops on the main drag. Mom and Pop shops, we used to call them.  Most them have fewer than ten employees.

There’s a barber shop and a hair salon and a brewery and a pub and a pizza place. There’s a Judaica store which would be crawling with families just now shopping for Seder plates and Passover accessories. There’s a clothing shop and a jewelry store and a bookstore and a therapist’s office.

They’re all closed just now and have been for weeks and will be for weeks to come. And it just breaks your heart, because you know that many of them will never open again. You wonder what will happen to all those small business owners and their tiny clusters of employees.

It’s not going to be easy. But, “we have all we need to come through. Against all odds, no matter what we’ve lost, no matter what messes we’ve made over time, no matter how dark the night, we offer and are offered kindness, soul, light, and food, which create breath and spaciousness, which create hope, sufficient unto the day.”[6]

[1]Steve Hendrix, “Not Since the Black Plague Have Jerusalem’s Holy Alleys Fallen So Silent,” The Washington Post, March 27, 2020.

[2]Slightly adapted from William H. Willimon, Sinning Like a Christian: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2005), p. 67.

[3]Francis-Xavier  Nguyễn Văn Thuận, Testimony of Hope, trans. Julia Mary Darrenkamp and Anne Eileen Heffernan (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2000), pp. 13–20.

[4]Sabrina Tavernise and Richard A. Oppel Jr., “Spit On, Yelled At, Attacked: Chinese-Americans Fear for Their Safety,” The New York Times, March 24, 2020.

[5]C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, (New York: MacMillan, 1949), p. 19.  Professor Lewis delivered this sermon at Oxford University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, on June 8, 1941.

[6]Anne Lamott, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope (New York: Riverhead Books, 2018), p. 189.