The Economic Crisis as Cross
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Holy Week has come early this year. We’re just in the middle of Lent, and already Jesus has entered the temple in Jerusalem, driven out the moneychangers, and set things in motion for his crucifixion. Today Paul speaks to us of the cross, its foolishness to the world and its wisdom to the faithful.
For a moment I’m going to ask you to try to put aside a traditional interpretation of these things: namely, that Jesus was crucified because God sent him to be a sacrifice for our sins. I’d like to approach it from a different point of view.
All along, Jesus had been teaching a way of life that directly challenged the dominant religious, military, and economic powers of his day. He promoted friendship with those who were considered unclean by the purity codes of the priesthood. He healed people, even on the Sabbath, even though he was not authorized to do so by the religious hierarchy. He told subversive parables that exposed the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy. He belittled the kingdom of Caesar by promoting ultimate loyalty to a spiritual realm instead, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven.
And when Jesus came into Jerusalem, it all came to a head. Jerusalem was the center of temple and Roman life, where the hierarchies of both systems collaborated to keep themselves in power. Of course, power takes money, and both the temple and Rome extracted vast sums of money from the working poor through a complex system of taxes. If you couldn’t pay the property tax, your ancestral lands were taken away. If you couldn’t pay the temple tax and make expensive sacrifices, you were told that you were unable to be in a right relationship with God.
The people of Israel had been overtaken by a kind of idolatry. Those primary guidelines for Jewish holiness and morality which were recited in our first lesson today – the 10 commandments – had all been violated. Instead of worshiping the God of love and justice, the people had made for themselves an idol of money, sacrifice, and power. God’s name had been taken in vain as the temple was corrupted. The Sabbath had become just another day for moneychangers to make a profit. Parents were dishonored as they lost their lands. Jewish leaders committed adultery with Rome. Theft, murder, and false witness were carried out by those in power. And everyone coveted the spoils of this way of life.
All of the injustice of this situation rose up in Jesus as he entered the temple. He cracked a homemade whip, drove out the animals intended for sacrifice, overturned tables, spilling money everywhere, yelling and making a scene. Jesus and his disciples knew how dangerous this political demonstration was, for as he did it they remembered the verse from Psalm 69: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” This is why Jesus was martyred. The Romans and the temple authorities collaborated to do away with this troublemaker once and for all. Or so they thought.
For the story doesn’t end with his martyrdom. He rose from the dead, becoming a force in the lives of his followers, who would continue to call people into the alternative kingdom of love, brotherhood, true devotion to God, and humility. It was foolishness to the world, but it is the wisdom of God.
Over the last 5 months, the tables of our moneychangers have been overturned, our coins and our stock certificates spilling all over the floor. Our powerful economic systems have been confronted. Our sacrifices have become worthless. Someone has entered our temple and turned everything upside down. Why is this taking place?
We naturally relate to events as they affect us personally. Many of you are justifiably worried about your security, your mortgage, your retirement, your healthcare. This economic crisis has hit many of you at a personal level, and it isn’t your fault. Forces beyond your control have been at work, and that’s part of the difficulty of this – the uncertainty that comes from not being able to control our own personal security. I pray with you that you might be spared any further anxiety or suffering, and I want to create, with you, through this community, ways of offering you spiritual, pastoral, and perhaps even concrete support in your struggles.
But today I want to look at this economic crisis at a national level, how we as a people got ourselves into this, and how we might head in a new direction. One way of interpreting what is happening on this level is to see it in light of today’s readings. Like Israel, we have violated the 10 commandments, and the chickens are coming home to roost.
We have worshiped the idol of prosperity and consumerism, even when it meant exploiting the third world, polluting the earth, and cheapening our own humanity. We have committed adultery against our own communities with the seductive lure of quick, selfish profit. We have abandoned the Sabbath and worked ourselves to death 7 days a week. We have allowed the moneychangers to bear false witness and steal because we thought they were growing capital for our economy. We have dishonored our mothers and fathers by allowing their pensions to disappear. We have even committed murder, causing hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis to be killed in our hope of gaining a friendly ally in the oil-rich Middle East.
Now our short-sightedness, our amoral policies and misplaced loyalties have caught up with us. Our glorious temple is laid waste. We walk the way of the cross. But this is not the end of the story. It is, in fact, the wisdom of God. It may be foolishness to the world, a stumbling block for many, but it is a humbling cross that could lead to resurrection. We are, in this economic crisis, in a time of great opportunity. Perhaps we will be desperate enough to change things that until now, we have not been willing to change.
Last fall in the presidential election millions of people in this country – indeed, all over the world - looked with hope towards a different kind of future. I believe that this current economic disaster, as frightening and painful as it is for so many, is the necessary first step towards the fulfillment of this hope. For sometimes new life doesn’t come gradually, rising up through the systems we already have in place. It sometimes comes as a result of crisis, like a quantum leap. Things have to be cast down before they can be raised up. My prayer is that we will be shocked into seeing ourselves as we have been and humbled enough to become different. My hope is that as everything breaks down, we will be desperate enough to try something new.
Keep in mind that resurrection is not resuscitation. It is new life. When Jesus rose from the dead, he was unrecognizable to his old friends. Paul said that what is sown is a physical body, and what is raised is a spiritual body. The Easter that will come out of our current Good Friday will not be a restoration of what has been; it will be new. We cannot go back to what we were. And we cannot foresee the world that is now in the process of becoming. All we can do is trust that everything works together for God’s purposes, and say “yes” to what God is doing in our lives, to what God may be trying to do with all of us at this time in history.
Perhaps we will learn to live more simply, working less frenetically, creating the space for our humanity, buying fewer things we don’t need, finding contentment with what we have. Perhaps we will become more generous, finding the will to care for the health and security of all our people, just because we are all brothers and sisters. Perhaps we will make our public schools for the masses as committed to excellence and creativity as any private school for the elite. Perhaps we will honor Mother Earth by becoming more faithful stewards of creation, the most abundant of God’s gifts. Perhaps we will be humble enough to see our country as just one among many equals in the family of nations, seeking above all else cooperation, understanding and the alleviation of suffering. Perhaps we will learn to respect the differences between us, even though we don’t understand them, abandon narrow self-interest, and look for a way forward that will serve the good of all.
Lent is a time for self-examination and repentance. This Lent, having been humbled by the economic crisis we suffer, we might examine how we have bought into the idolatry of our time, and how we might live more as God intends us to live.
As Bishop Mathes said in December, “a catastrophe is a terrible thing to waste.” My prayer is that we not waste this catastrophe we are in, that we use it to reform our lives. This reformation is not, however, the sole responsibility of our elected leaders. All of us created this idolatrous lifestyle that has turned out to be so destructive. Each of us can examine how we live; each of us can repent and turn towards a simpler, more humane, more common life.
Our grand and glorious temple has been laid bare, exposed to the judgment of God. The way of the cross that lies before us is foolishness to the world, but it is the wisdom of God. We pray for the grace to walk it in humility, so that out of this death, we might be raised to new life.