Zeal Consumes Me (April 2000)

April 2000

Zeal Consumes Me ©

The gospel of John is often regarded as the most spiritually profound of the four official accounts of the life of Jesus and opens, after the prologue, with what is sometimes called the “book of signs”. This section moves through seven episodes or stories that point out deep theological truths.

In the second such episode, there is a disturbing scene in which Jesus revolts against the presence of moneychangers and those selling oxen, sheep and doves for sacrifice in the temple. It is particularly disturbing because, minus the furry and feathered menagerie, it raises questions about the ways in which we worship our Lord, even to this day.

Evidently Jesus is displeased by current practices, and because of his outrage, he overturns tables and flails away using an improvised rope whip. Coins fly through the air; animals and their handlers disperse frantically.

Jesus takes special aim at those selling doves: “To those who sold doves he said Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” This is because doves were the offerings of the poor and the poor were particularly susceptible and were those least able to pay to the so-called money-changers the half-shekel coin levied by the temple from every male Jew more than 19 years of age.

In the middle of the text that describes this episode, we find a four-letter word that cuts to the heart of Jesus’ wrath. The word is zeal. It is a word, borrowed from an ancient text, which tells us much about the need for redemption.

I am scorned…

By saying that these people are tuning his Father’s house into a marketplace, Jesus reminds his disciples of verse 10 in Psalm 69 that reads: Zeal for your house consumes me; I am scorned by those who scorn you. What does this verse mean?

In fact, the expression can be taken in opposite ways. It is typically understood to signify a love for the temple that grips the speaker with overwhelming intensity: The psalmist, who is crying in anguish in great distress, is thought to be saying that his commitment to God’s cause brings only opposition and scorn.

Then again, it could also point to an excess that destroys the zealous person or those standing nearby. As we spend time reflecting upon the central message of the gospels, we find a rather constant consideration of the merits and hazards of obedience to the letter of the law rather than to its spirit. By extension, we may conclude that there is a danger that the very fact of tightly focusing on the letter of the law can blind a person to its spirit. The adherent begins, as it were, to lose the ability to see the forest for the trees – the temple being the forest and the people of God being the trees.

Blind dedication, taken to extreme lengths, can harm not only the zealous person, but also those harshly condemned by that zeal. Indeed, in Jesus’ day persons called zealots were militant Jews who sought the forcible expulsion of Romans, thought to be enemies of God.

Ultimately, their rebellion caused the destruction of the great temple in Jerusalem at the hands of Roman authorities. In this case, their zeal caused the consumption or destruction of the temple, in the sense that we would use the transitional verb pejoratively to signify “wasted with disease”.

Destroy this temple…

Zeal for the temple and the common practices of the day consumed Jesus, because his radical (a word derived from the Latin word radix, meaning root) message was viewed as blasphemy. In reality, we can say that Jesus and the Jews who condemned him were in violent agreement about the importance of the Law of God, but they differed in their understanding of the Spirit of that Law – its purpose and the fact that all of its clauses are subject to the primacy of one pivotal law, phrased in two parts, namely the imperative to love God unconditionally and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Certainly the Oxford dictionary defines zealot, aside from membership in a Jewish sect opposed to Roman rule, as someone carried away by excess or fanatical enthusiasm.

Can one be excessive or fanatical in the love of God? I don’t think so. But one can most assuredly become excessive and fanatical about the manner in which one expresses that love. The Evil One has always stood behind wrong-minded devotees who behave in ways we call self-righteous. In their feigned indignation, such people can do real harm, harm that undermines the love professed for God. Such a contradiction is what we call hypocrisy, the living lie that Jesus berated so systematically during his public ministry.

In Psalm 19, we find a verse that states categorically that The law of the Lord is perfect. No doubt it is: The law, in itself is perfect, reviving the soul. The decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes…The ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. If this is so, how can we go wrong by following the precepts of the Lord?

The danger is not in our eagerness to follow a precept of the Lord; it is in the haste with which we might sometimes follow it with the sole use of our own intellect and understanding. When we presume to know what the precept means, without prayerfully and humbly invoking the light of the Holy Spirit of Love, we run the risk of misinterpreting the precept, applying it foolishly and closing our mind and heart under the intoxication of spiritual vanity.

The same may be said of the house of the Lord. The temple is sacred, but like the Sabbath, it was made for man and not man made for the temple. It is a gift from God to provide a useful means by which we can communicate with God intimately and efficaciously.

When we lose sight of this perspective, we forget the obligation contained in God’s first commandment: You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath. You shall not bow down and worship them.

I believe our Lord is telling us that we must resist all temptation to confuse the temple or any other symbol of the Lord’s presence with the Lord himself. Jesus told us time and again that rigid rules about the practice of worship must never interfere with the free flow of God’s love for his people.

…and I will raise it up

What is reassuring for us as followers of Christ is that whatever destruction might occur is not permanent. Indeed, Jesus figuratively says that the temple that is destroyed will be rebuilt in three days, referring both to his own Resurrection and to the capacity of the Holy Spirit to impart Life-giving energy in the midst of destruction.

As Ezekiel pointed out, God will give you a new spirit within you. Therefore, as “fresh wineskins” that are meant to carry “living wine” to those who thirst for God’s Truth and Love, we must be open to the reality that when the Spirit of God raises something from the dead, it is to some degree metamorphosed. The new temple was different from the one recently destroyed – the new temple is the human and mystical body of Christ.

As we walk timidly into the new millennium, might it not profit us to see the call of the Holy Spirit as an invitation to open the doors and windows of the Church of Christ onto those who thirst but no longer come to his holy alter for nourishment; to those who gather elsewhere in his name; and to modern-day Samaritans, outcasts who lie on the side of life’s main roads, suffering from the bitter blows of a materialistic world.

Worship that opens onto exclusion is a very risky business. One cannot help but recall the perils of exclusion as manifested by the Pharisees.

The story of Jesus’ Passion, in some ways, recalls the story of Job. In less than a week, Jesus went from adulation to scorn and because of his faithfulness to the Father, his glory was affirmed. We too have our hope in the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Truth and Love that can surmount the most daunting obstacles, that can raise us from our descent into soul-crushing sin.

The story of Jesus’ Passion also recalls how fickle are those who profess to follow him. The zeal of those who shouted “Hosanna” is matched by their zeal in shouting “Crucify him”. It is the heart of zeal that makes the difference: It blesses or it condemns, depending on whether it is based in Truth or illusion, Love or fear.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us that the law of Jesus’ cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. He adds that the people of his day demand signs or wisdom and see Christ crucified as a stumbling block…and foolishness. Finally, he concludes God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

When I read these lines, I see a warning. I see a warning against triumphalism in spirituality. I see an admonition against confidence in signs (particularly those selectively chosen to make a particular point) and human wisdom (particularly when it is meant to set aside the more disturbing parts of Jesus’ teachings). I hear here a call to follow my Saviour to Gethsemane, and onto Golgotha, so that I may be transformed by his Resurrection – to die to those things that stand in the way of true worship, so that I may be raised in a new Spirit to love God in the ways that his Law demands.

I feel emanating from these verses a force that propels me beyond signs, rituals, traditions, and illusion draped in human wisdom into the realm of pure love, which is the true temple where God resides; and that I cannot travel this distance without the spiritual companionship of my brothers and sisters in Christ that I am compelled to love as I love myself, for Christ’s sake as well as my own.

Is this a call to abandon the signs, rituals, traditions and habitual conventions of my Church? In some cases, perhaps. But in most cases, it is rather a call to a deeper understanding of their intended meaning and a renewed application of their utility to the divine purposes for which they were designed.

The prolific American Benedictine writer Thomas Merton once commented on the value of symbolism, which encompasses the language, images, rituals and traditions we use to relate to God: “One cannot apprehend a symbol unless one is able to awaken, in one’s own being, the spiritual resonance which respond to the symbol not only as sign but as sacrament and presence.

The challenge is to constantly reinvent and refresh symbols in order that they may remain bearers, and not simply indicators, of the meaning of Life itself, of reality as it emanates from God’s being, and of full communion between the lover, the loved and their love.