LENT 3 | STUMPING EVIL | Ex 02:1-17; 1 Cor 1:18-25; Jn 2:13-22
In C.S. Lewis’ epistolary novel The Screwtape Letters, the main character—and the supposed author of the majority of the text—is a demon, specifically, a “senior temptor” by the name of Screwtape, writing letters to his “nephew,” a lesser demon by the name of Wormwood.
In the course of their correspondence, Screwtape lets Wormwood in on a little secret, one that actually gets Screwtape into a good bit of trouble. The secret is that demons are profoundly flummoxed by God’s motivation. They believe that “the whole concept of ‘love’ is a cover story for something more selfish and nefarious.”[i]
The demons are always wondering what God is really up to, and, in fact, we are told that there is an entire research department in Hell whose job it is to figure this out. Getting a job in this department is the infernal equivalent of being demoted to the mail room. As Screwtape himself writes, “[God] cannot love: nobody can: it doesn’t make sense” (101).
Lewis seemed to be saying, in a subversive, underhanded way, “God’s ways are not our ways,” and indeed, our ways are usually bound up with an overarching concern for the self. Even our altruism is self-interested. Our cultural watchword seems to be, “what’s in it for me?” The idea that a person might do something out of simple uncomplicated love is completely counterintuitive. Screwtape cannot comprehend it. I think there are a lot of people in our society who have a similar difficulty.
Today’s readings are full of just this sort of confounding wisdom. How is it that Law can bring freedom? The ten commandments given to Moses in our first reading are not given to meet God’s needs, but ours. It seems like a contradiction—why should we bind ourselves to this very limiting set of behaviors? Why should we curtail our life and liberty? Because by doing so, a far greater number of people are granted life and liberty. But why should I limit my rights just so that others—weaker, less deserving people, naturally—can have rights? Again, to evil, this kind of self-giving simply makes no sense. The “What’s in it for me?” factor just doesn’t measure up.
And how about Jesus driving out the money-changers? Now, granted, this is not Jesus’ finest moment. Theologians have always tried to justify such bad behavior by appealing to “righteous indignation,” which seems like a bit of a cop-out to me. I think his response is a terribly human one. He, quite frankly, loses his temper.
Was he right to do so? Probably not. The goings-on in the temple had to be well-known at the time, it couldn’t have been a surprise. Was it a sinful act? Well, you know, if I hated alcohol and went into a bar with a baseball bat and busted the place up, I’d probably be brought up on charges, and would be right to feel a little shame about the incident. So, no, I don’t think Jesus is in the clear in this one.
But here’s what I DO think was right about it: his anger was completely motivated on behalf of others. He saw poor people being exploited, and he went ballistic, completely disregarding the likely consequences to his own life and liberty. And this was not a negligible danger, either. While John places this incident near the beginning of his gospel, the other evangelists place it at the end—and, in fact, imply that it is this very action of Jesus’ that gets him killed.
There was no “what’s in it for me,” in Jesus’ actions, here. Abominable as they were, they were entirely motivated out of concern for others, completely disregarding concern for himself. Jesus’ recklessness makes no logical sense. But then again, this is why evil cannot comprehend good—love is not logical.
This is precisely what Paul is speaking about in his letter to the Corinthians when he writes, “the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Surely God is powerful—more powerful than any other being in the universe. Why should he consent to being over-powered? Surely God is the very source of life—why would he consent to being killed? Surely God could have come up with a better way to oppose the tyranny of the Empire—why would he submit to it? It was simply too costly to be handed over to torture and death—what was in it for him?
And the fact is, there was nothing in it for him, not really. God, if any being is, is self-sufficient. Jesus’ act was one of defiance, of solidarity with the oppressed, motivated entirely out of love for others, with no thought to his own welfare, or indeed, his very life. And that, my friends, is love. And it is not logical. And to many people in the world, it is incomprehensible.
Yet it is also the very definition of God. Martin Luther defined God as “self-giving love.” Luther says that when we are first converted, when we are “baby Christians,” we are still motivated by self-serving love, as most people are. But as we walk with Christ, as we learn from him, as we are united to him by faith, a change happens within us. Over the course of a lifetime, the work of Holy Spirit in us is a gradual conversion from self-serving love to self-giving love.
When we first become followers of Jesus, we are still asking “what’s in it for us?” Maybe we sign on for the community, or the music, or because doing service makes us feel good about ourselves, or maybe we just want to be sure we have our ticket to heaven. We may even have a grab bag of such reasons, but they are still self-motivated reasons.
But the action of the Holy Spirit is both subtle and relentless, because as we grow in Christ, God is transforming us INTO Christ. That IS the work of God in us. And as we grow INTO Christ, God’s will for us is that our self-serving love be transformed into self-giving love, that we gradually leave behind the “what’s in it for me” motivations, and begin to direct our actions more and more out of concern for others, and only for others.
From the perspective of finance, or security, or social standing, such a transformation makes absolutely no sense at all. The cross is the symbol of such self-giving love, because on it, Jesus gave everything, the cost to himself was total, and his personal gain from it was…nothing. It is, as Paul says, “a stumbling block” and “foolishness,” but for those who have the eyes to see it, it is the “power and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
To follow Jesus is to walk toward the Cross. The journey we willingly take as Christians is one from the self-serving love our culture understands and approves to a place ruled by self-giving love, which Jesus called the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is illogical. The Kingdom is foolishness. The Kingdom asks us for everything, and offers nothing in return.
And yet, that’s not true. The Kingdom offers love. Not love we earn, not love we buy, not love we have to angle for. Not love that in any way serves our self-interest or anyone else’s. The world, by which I mean our culture, by which I mean The System, cannot comprehend actual love. I think sometimes that even we, who intend to give our lives for love, do not comprehend love. But I know we want it. We desire it with all of our being. Not to possess it, but to be possessed by it. To be wanted and embraced and cherished by a power so far beyond us that it does not need us, whose very attention, whose gifts, and indeed whose sacrifices on our behalf are not motivated by any need of its own, but only by a DESIRE to save, to EMBRACE, indeed, to LOVE.
Let us not seek to understand love, but to be possessed by it, so utterly possessed that our motivations, our way of life, even our very identities are transformed. Church isn’t a safe place. God isn’t calling us to morality, or civic duty, or to fellowship for its own sake. God is calling us to the cross, and it is MADNESS to respond.
By the way, I’m going to the cross, so if you want to walk together, we can keep each other company. Let us pray…
We don’t pretend to understand you, God,
But then, we know that no one else does either.
We are flummoxed and humbled by your sacrifices for us
For all that you surrendered in order to seek us out and find us,
Us, whom you do not need; us, who do not really deserve such devotion
And yet, here you are, offering yourself to us willingly at this table
Week after week, year after year.
Help us to get a glimmer of what you are up to
Help us to become like you, to be transformed into you
To exchange our self-interest for self-giving
As our concerns transform into your concerns.
And when we choose the way of the cross,
Walk with us, Jesus, every step of the way.
For we ask this out of our need,
trusting in your goodness. Amen.