THE AUTHORITY OF THE GOVERNMENT OF GOD
Sermon delivered on the Third Sunday in Lent, the 4th March 2018 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.
Scriptures: Exodus 20: 1-17 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25 S. John 2: 13-22
S. John 2: 15 “Making a whip of cords, Jesus drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and He poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And He told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father's house a house of trade.”
THE SAME JESUS
Someone might ask: Is this really the same Jesus that in the Sermon on the Mount in S. Matthew 5:39 taught, “Do not resist one who is evil. If any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”? The answer, of course, is that it is indeed the same Jesus. If we find it difficult to reconcile Jesus' actions in the Temple with His Sermon on the Mount teaching, it should be taken as an invitation to us to stand back and give a closer examination both to the action in the Temple and to the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, and the context of each one. Our apprehension of the Person of Jesus as the Son of God, and certainly the evidence of the total record of His words and actions that we have, leave little or no room for us to judge that His actions and His words might be in the slightest way inconsistent.
ETHICS OF VIOLENCE
In ways of thinking that are prevalent in modern times violence of any sort is often considered to be something wrong or bad in itself, and no doubt there are many who would see Jesus’ actions in the temple as evidence that He too could sometimes have a bad day. Activist groups consider it is wrong for countries to maintain legally that parents may smack their children, even though corporal punishment within the school system may legally be forbidden. About that there is probably a range of opinion among us here. I see in a recent local newspaper that a man was taken to court for chastising his young grandson after he repeatedly and contrary to direction threw stones at a neighbour's window. I am not making any comment about that here. Now Jesus is recorded in the Gospels to have employed in the Temple the threat, at least, according to S. John, of corporal punishment with a whip, and it must have taken quite a while for the temple chiefs to get things straightened out after the human whirlwind had gone through and upset everything. If violence were always to be deplored, then Jesus’ actions here would have to be deplored. As Christians then I consider we should stand back from such a general assessment about violence, and adopt an independent position, one that understands that there are circumstances that justify compulsion, as in fact carefully written Conventions and Bills of Rights also do, and sometimes even some form of force to ensure the compulsion. No doubt we would accept that in all such circumstances this should be justifiable and proportionate.
KILLING OR MURDERING
In the Ten Commandments, which comprised our Old Testament Lesson today, the sixth commandment is, “You shall not kill”. That is rendered both in the Prayer Book and in the late 19th century Revised Version of the Bible as “Thou shalt do no murder.” The Authorised Version, which the Prayer Book usually follows (though not in this case), sticks to the form “Thou shalt not kill.” So, the question arises, does the commandment refer to all killing, or are the Prayer Book and the Revised Version Bible correct in judging that the killing being prohibited is the crime of murder, and not killings such as the sanctions of capital punishment or the killings that military personnel are trained and authorized to carry out in the circumstances of war? It seems clear that the witness of the Old Testament comes down heavily on the side of the Revised Version Bible and the Prayer Book. For the Mosaic Law clearly prescribes and regulates capital punishment, and this regulated capital punishment could not therefore be understood to be prohibited by the very commandment that the Law and regulations seek to enforce. Similarly, there are many occasions in which the children of Israel are urged to war. The killing that this necessarily entails is never understood to infringe generally the Mosaic Law.
NEW TESTAMENT TEACHING
You might also ask, though, whether Jesus' own teaching might not supersede the Old Testament teaching and forbid absolutely all killing. In S. Matthew 5: 21-26, Jesus points out that the anger itself that gives rise to the personal killing of someone by his brother or neighbour, is under the judgment of God. By anger or insults against our brother or neighbour, we become murderers already in God's eyes. Yet Jesus is recorded as having conversations with authorities that had the power to petition for capital punishment, and with a Roman centurion who, no doubt, was trained to kill in time of war. Although it is dangerous to argue from a negative, it is true that nowhere does He convey the sense that their occupations are fundamentally wrong about this. From the earliest times the Christian church included those in soldierly service to the state. Other apostolic teaching in the New Testament specifically states, and this would be arguing from the positive, that the governing authorities, established by God, have the duty of bearing the sword and of using it for just purposes. In the New Testament as well as in the Old, therefore, there is a distinction drawn between personal killing, including in the New Testament personal character assassination, and the exercise by secular authority of its powers of just punishment even to the point of capital punishment, or of its rightful use of the sword of war, as the last two statements of our Article 37 of the Prayer Book Thirty-Nine Articles may serve to confirm. Modern social theory, on the other hand, usually regards capital punishment in peacetime as abhorrent on the grounds of being always cruel and unusual, or in other words as of a rather similar character to the very crime of murder for which the sentence is administered.
JESUS IN GOVERNMENT
Let us turn back now from these ethical issues to the meaning of Jesus' actions in driving out those who were profiting financially from the money exchange arrangements in place in the temple in Jerusalem, invalidly displacing the true place of prayer in its outer part, the Court of the Gentiles. We have seen that His words about not resisting one who is evil and turning the other cheek did not prevent Him from using force, albeit non-lethal force, in these circumstances. We can note first that this was not the action of someone who had been personally slighted or injured by anyone; rather, they were the actions of one who considered himself to hold rightful authority or government. It appears that He was putting into effect the will of His Father, and being His Father's Son He possessed the authority to do it. The principle was: “You shall not make My Father's house a house of merchandise”. He was exercising His Father's government in His Father's house, and this government, like all government, required some force.
AUTHORITY THROUGH SACRIFICE
Right government, however, requires a spirit of sacrifice from those in authority, perceived in the modern lexicon sometimes as “responsibility” or “duty”, and even in this short episode of the exercise of authority by Jesus, this also comes to light. For when He was asked for His credentials for taking the action He did, or as they said for a “sign” for doing it, He said “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” He was speaking enigmatically so that they could not understand that He was referring to His own body, and even the disciples did not understand what He had meant until the resurrection. His credentials for taking the action in the temple that He did would not become clear until, in the words of St. Paul, He was designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by His resurrection from the dead. Probably none of the temple authorities at the time would have accepted that He had any authority whatever to have taken the action there that He did. Only through the victory of His own sacrifice would it eventually become clear to anyone that He actually did have rightful authority, conferred upon Him, as He was all along implying, by His Father.
THE TRUE STRENGTH
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God,” says St. Paul. The apparent stumbling-block and folly of the Cross is in every age the key to exercising true authority. And that is nothing other than the authority that, through the dying and rising again in Christ, is conferred even upon us as members of the body of Christ, graciously from above. May we be diligent to employ it justly.
1. Give some examples of personal actions in our life demonstrating Jesus' teaching about “turning the other cheek”, and other examples (not personal) of actions that may demonstrate similarities to driving out the moneychangers from the Temple.