On a beautiful spring day in 1969, my friends Shannon and Dee Dee and I were thrilled to discover that all our parents were in good enough moods to say “Yes,” when we asked them if we could walk to the store by ourselves. We lived in a big neighborhood of townhouses on the east side of Indianapolis and walking to the store was no short trip for three second-graders. It was eight-tenths of a mile away, and it involved crossing busy 38th street.
We were so happy to be granted this freedom, however, that we skipped along easily, talking excitedly the whole way. I remember the moment when we stepped on the mat at Haag Drugs and the automatic door swung open. I wondered whether the lady behind the counter would think it was odd that three little girls were there alone, without adults around to double-check their choices.
In the candy aisle, we stood for a long moment, surveying all our delicious options. The shelves were taller than we were. But there—on the shelf right in front of us, within easy reach, was package of M&Ms that had been ripped open. Many of the colorful candies had spilled out onto the shelf.
Quickly and furtively, Shannon—she always was the adventurous one—grabbed several M&Ms and popped them into her mouth. She looked at us, “Take some,” she whispered. “They’re free.” Dee Dee looked up and down the aisle to see if any adults were near. Then she too grabbed several of the candies and ate them quickly, giggling the whole time. She and Shannon then looked at me. My hands were frozen at my sides. I looked at the candies and then back at the excited faces of my friends, and my stomach just sank. I knew I couldn’t do it. Shannon whispered, “Come on, take some. Nobody can buy them anyway. The package is ripped open. They’ll just have to throw them away.”
But I just couldn’t do it. And I really wanted to. The pressure to go along and just have fun with my friends was intense. I felt like such a square. What was the big deal, anyway? It was just a few pieces of candy that nobody would be able to buy. Ultimately my hands stayed at my sides. My cheeks burned as my friends teased me, calling me “chicken” and “goody two-shoes,” and telling me how good the M&Ms tasted. By the time we started walking home, though, all was forgotten, and back in our neighborhood, we sat together on a picnic table in the park, eating the candy we’d paid for and talking about nothing and everything.
Over the years I’ve thought back to that moment—about why I was just unable, physically, emotionally, and spiritually–to go along with something that was so small, but just didn’t feel right for me. It wasn’t that I was afraid of getting in trouble. It wasn’t that I thought we might lose the privilege of walking to the store alone again. It wasn’t that I thought it was a terrible thing they were doing. It had more to do with my expectations for myself, about my own behavior. Something inside said, “You don’t take what doesn’t belong to you,” and I just had to listen to that.
Some 35 years later, I was in my fifth year of a three-year seminary program (I’d taken time off for good behavior in the middle there), when I registered for a class on Christian Ethics. This was one of those have-to classes that everyone going to seminary must struggle through before graduating. I expected it to be boring, to include lots of ancient texts I thought would put me to sleep. But just the opposite happened. The subject actually fascinated me. I discovered that the study of ethics helps us think about what we value and then steer our actions by that value. Our own personal ethics, deep down, impact everything we do, and think, and say.
The book, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, written in 1990 by Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, taught me another fascinating thing about ethics: We don’t all value the same thing. When we ask the question, “What is the best good?” we might answer that in different ways. That to me explained something fundamental about why we can’t all just link arms and get on with the good work of healing our world.
MacIntyre says it’s hard for us to understand each other because at a deep level we are striving for different things we value as good. He identified three different ways of seeking what’s good. He calls them the encyclopedic, the genealogical, and the traditional views.
- First, a person with what MacIntyre calls the “encyclopedic” view values knowledge, believing that if we just know enough, good will be achieved. This view thinks there is a wholeness, an overall coherence that we will discover with enough knowledge. Ideas are very important, more important than the people who speak or write them.
- Next, a person with the “genealogical” view believes there may be many possible truths, a multiplicity of perspectives and they think in terms of power—both seen and unseen–in any given situation. The good is reached when power is in balance. A person with this view tends to challenge rules, break norms, and sometimes create chaos as a way to change existing power structures.
- Finally, a person with what MacIntyre calls the “traditional” view values virtue, and the rational action leading to virtue, as the path to the best good. This person believes that if we do our best to use our rational minds to balance our passions and align our actions with what we value, we will eventually reach a greater good worth having.
Those ideas gave me a new way to think about why my hands were frozen at my sides that day, standing there in the candy aisle of the drug store. Maybe Shannon—who insisted that no one would care, no one was holding us back, no one would see—was thinking of the power in the situation, and so she felt free to eat the candy. Dee Dee might have been looking for knowledge: She glanced up and down the aisle to make sure no one was coming, then she too felt it was okay to act. And maybe I couldn’t act as they did because what was most important to me was that my behavior be consistent with the good I valued most, which was virtue.
In our New Testament reading today, we hear about a surprising and passionate act by normally mild-mannered and compassionate Jesus. It is near the time of Passover—the Jewish holiday when families celebrate God’s faithfulness and remember and honor their covenant with God.
As was his custom, Jesus had gone to Jerusalem for Passover and when he went into the temple—a respected and holy place he’d been many times before—he found a kind of carnival atmosphere.
Animals were there inside the temple, ready to be used as sacrifices—cattle and sheep for the wealthier families, doves for the poor–and the money changers had tables set up to take coins from those who came to pay rents for temple space and make payments of taxes and tolls. The priests had allowed this to go on in the temple, most likely because it was bringing in a steady stream of revenue.
It is interesting to note here that this temple activity wouldn’t have been new to Jesus on this particular day; he would have seen it at other times because unfortunately it had become the new normal for the temple space. The everyday, business world—the world of transactions, of buying and selling—had moved into the sacred space. Gone was the sense of reverence and peace. Even though Jesus had no doubt seen this before, on this day, at this time, prior to the holy holiday, enough was apparently enough.
Jesus didn’t have to address the issue the way he did: he could have chosen to bring the matter up with the temple priests or address it publicly in his teachings. But instead he responded emotionally, passionately, and immediately, scooping up cords from the ground to make a whip, driving out the livestock, overturning the tables, dumping the coins on the ground, and driving the merchants away.
As Jesus flips the tables, releases the animals, and chases those who are defaming his Father’s house out into the temple courtyard, he is acting like someone who not only has been consumed by zeal—as his disciples point out–but also like someone who has taken on, personally, the insults, the disrespect, the carelessness others have brought into their relationships with God. They have forgotten the preciousness of their covenant at precisely the time of year when it was their covenantal duty to respect and honor it. Instead they turned the temple—the sacred place they meet God–into a place of business, a market where they hope to get their needs met and their tolls paid. Suddenly the temple space was all about them and their needs. And the money that could be made there.
The actions of Jesus showed them in an instant that by filling that sacred space with lesser goods, they were missing out on the best good of all—the simple, sacred presence of God. Jesus needed to remind them—and continues to remind us—that the moments we can spend with God—whether they happen here, in our meetinghouse, or when we get a feeling of beauty or gratitude on a normal day—those moments are precious. They are gifts to us that are meant to be much more than marketplace transactions where we sacrifice time in return for blessings, or where we pay our dues in prayer, hoping that God will give us what we want.
We can bring our whole selves into that cleared temple space within and let ourselves rest with God, feeling accepted and known and loved. Then worship just bubbles up out of us naturally, expressions of love from deeply grateful children. Perhaps that could be our next “new normal.” When the chaos in our world is overwhelming, when our differences and divisions are too sharp, when we struggle to understand each other and worry about the future, perhaps we could ask Jesus to come and clear the space, drive out the distractions, turn the tables, and help us come back to what matters most.
That’s when we’ll experience the good life the Psalmist describes: “For the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever. They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord. Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes.”
And as far as our foes go, perhaps something from my old Christian Ethics class will help here. If we remember that different people value different things—and that’s okay–maybe we’ll get better at standing shoulder to shoulder without judging each other. The understanding that comes when we can be together in a sacred space—no matter what our differences—will dissolve what separates us and hold us, and gradually, our world, in the healing light of God’s love.