• Craig Mueller

The Art of the Deal

Making deals is not one of my strengths. If you see me come up to you with a sheepish smile, I might ask you to serve on the church council. Or tell you that the Holy Spirit revealed to me that you should chair the fundraising committee.

OK, I’ve been here long enough to have fun trying to sweeten a deal, and am more than okay with a “no.” But negotiating the price of a car with a dealer—I’d rather eat worms! Just tell me the price of the car and I’ll either buy it—or not! But that’s not the way deals work. And, well, I didn’t write The Art of the Deal. And I’m not the president of the United States.

There’s some temple deal-making going on in today's gospel. Animals were sold for the temple sacrifice. Think of it as a currency exchange. Roman money was changed into Jewish money to pay the temple tax. It was a transaction. Yet to Jesus it was a raucous marketplace in the house of God! And he gets peeved. The scene has led some churches to question whether they allow bingo, raffles, rummage sales, and I suppose we should add, selling fair trade coffee!

That may be beside the point, but those of us with righteous anger these days love this Jesus who isn’t meek and mild. It fuels our fire for justice on behalf of the poor and oppressed. Especially if Jesus is angry at raw deals made by the money changers that cheat the needy.

Yet things become interesting when Jesus starts comparing the temple to his body. “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days.” For John’s gospel, at the end of the first century, Jesus is the real deal. The locus of the “holy of holies” has moved from a holy place to a holy person. And Jesus is now the temple, the presence of God dwelling among the people.

All well and good. Jesus is good news for the world. No need for the temple anymore. No more cutting a deal with God. No more quid-pro-quo. That’s the old way, right? The Old Testament. The old covenant. The old sealing-a-deal through works righteousness.

Yet, as enlightened and progressive as we may think we are, many of us grew up with sermons and Sunday School lessons that were anti-Jewish, even if not intended and subtle. I remember discussing other religions with an open-minded young man several years ago. He mentioned that he was glad we had the New Testament. After all, the “God of the Old Testament is a jerk”, he said.

Yikes! A proposed ELCA statement on our inter-religious commitments names the complex relationship we have with our closest neighbors in the faith: Jews and Muslims. That means we have a particular responsibility to overcome inaccurate stereotypes and misunderstandings.

The big word in today’s sermon is “supersessionism.” It’s the belief that because of Jesus, Christianity is now the new, improved version of Judaism. Even better than 2.0. That leads to dialectics like: the Old Testament is the law, and we have the gospel. The Old Testament God is one of anger and violence, the New Testament God is one of love. Before Jesus people made deals with God by keeping the commandments, Paul and Luther boldly proclaimed we are freed from the law, and thank goodness for that.

And you can see how the cleansing of the temple could reinforce that thinking. Jesus is the table-turning prophet who is against the legalistic deal-making of Judaism and supersedes the old ways of worship and believing. Oh, if only it were that simple. After all, the prophets in Israel railed against temple worship that ignored widows and orphans.

Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine does a great service to Christians in her books and lectures when she discusses the lazy and anti-Semitic stereotypes that we pass on, rather unknowingly, from generation to generation. For example, in recent decades Christians have preached as if Jesus was only feminist rabbi of his time to recognize women. Or that the entire Jewish system was corrupt and backwards. Or that Pharisees were 100% misguided. Sometimes Lutherans speak as if we are the only “grace place” in town.

When Levine addressed a bunch of Lutherans in Billings, Montana she suggested that Jesus’ fury in the temple wasn’t at the greedy merchants. Rather, she wondered if Jesus was upset by people who had spent their week sinning and then came to the temple, offered a sacrifice, and thought everything was OK. Is that any different today from the inside trader or loan shark during the week who comes to church, puts $50 in the plate, and thinks everything is keen between them and God.

Which leads us to the ten commandments in our first reading. Maybe you memorized them in Confirmation. Maybe not. Okay, I won’t call on you to recite them!

So, let’s talk about the law, the Torah. Lutherans speak about law and gospel in a unique way. The law reveals our sin or our need or even God’s demands. The law is bad news, the gospel is good news. But that dialectic leads us to say things like, “that sermon was all law, no gospel.” Yet for Jews, the Law is more gift than demand.

So the psalmist exclaims, “Oh, how I love your Law (Torah). And the psalm refrain for today: “The commandments of the Lord give light to the eyes.”

The first commandment for Jews is actually not a commandment, but a word. It is grace. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This isn’t “let’s make a deal” with God. Obeying the commandments flows from a relationship with God. The law begins with grace. What follows is our response. And that’s the way we talk about baptismal grace leading to the way we live our lives!

So today I ask you to lay down the law. That is, negative language about the law, as heard through the ears of our Jewish siblings. And disparaging rhetoric about the so-called Old Testament, and subtle language about the superiority of our faith.

No big deal, you may say. We are a progressive congregation and we welcome all people and honor all religions. But that is the reason we need to reexamine some of our language and assumptions, things we don’t even realize we are saying.

Ultimately, it doesn’t come down to the art of the deal. It is about covenant. There are significant differences between Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Yet we are all people of the covenant. And we all trust in God’s mercy and faithfulness from generation to generation.

Even as Jesus cleanses the temple, this is the time for Lenten spring housecleaning. Perhaps our fasting, prayers, and works of love, will lead us to learn from people of other religions, even while growing in our own.

After all, we live from grace, we live from mercy, we live from the covenant. And with Jesus, we can burn with zeal not only for the house of God, but for Jews, Muslims, and indeed, for all people created in the image of God. What a great deal!

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© 2017 Craig Mueller