Just when Jesus finally has me convinced that he’s preaching something I think I can get behind he starts acting like a fool. In today’s Gospel story I am (perhaps, unsurprisingly) sympathetic with the priests. Perhaps one of them has just been in the midst of some solemnity. Perhaps he had been secluded in some inner realm of the sanctuary quietly preparing himself to make one perfect offering to God. Then, the sound of crashing tables. He walks out to find chaos in full effect, crowds running, a mad man fuming, a mess of upturned baskets and wandering livestock. His heart starts to pound. His first thoughts might go to danger, is everyone OK? Does this guy have a weapon? Is the trouble-maker some kind of zealot? A terrorist? It’s easy for me to imagine hearing Jesus through the ears of this priest. It’s easy to hear Jesus sounding like just another harmless rambler. It’s easy for me to imagine the priest feeling anger and resentment. Someone was going to have to clean up this mess, after all, and it was probably going to be him. I can imagine him feeling like all this foolishness was taking him away from something which was much more important.
When I see Jesus overturning tables, when I see him making a mess, I also think of my first year as a lead teacher in a preschool classroom. It’s open house at the beginning of the school year and I have spent an entire week meticulously perfecting every shelf and corner of my classroom. The children begin arriving with their parents. Most are shy at first, perhaps one or two find a book or toy that they’re curious about and cautiously remove it from the shelf to take it to a table. Then, a little boy whom I’ll call Jeremy enters the room. He darts in before his mother can catch up with him, she comes rushing in after, but before she does, he’s already cleared an entire bookshelf of its contents. He proceeds to do this with another shelf, hurling all of the carefully placed materials onto the floor with a single swift sweep with his arms. I’m horrified for a moment, then spring into action, desperately trying to pick up the pieces behind him. His mother tries to stop him but he’s already moved onto the next shelf, and then next. In a matter of minutes, he had turned my entire meticulously prepared classroom upside down, his mother was exasperated, and I was ready to cry. What I didn’t understand in that moment was how differently Jeremy experienced the world from me. Jeremy had been diagnosed as being somewhere along the autism spectrum. He would be the first of many, many students to come through my classroom with autism, but at the time, I had no idea what I was doing. Jeremy helped teach me what to do. So did his mother and his therapists. Over the course of that first year each of them helped me learn how to prepare a classroom environment which was more appropriate for the way Jeremy interacted with the world. They helped me see that my own idea of what was going to work might not necessarily fit the mold for everyone I was called to care for. Jeremy helped me see the world from his vantage point, he showed me what was too overwhelming or too loud, he helped me understand what it took for him to hear, and see, and feel. What began as a seeming disaster ended in the harmony of new growth for both of us.
In my story with Jeremy, I was very tempted to turn my way of doing things into an idol. My true purpose in that job was to create a space where all the children in my care could learn and grow. Already uncertain of how to best do this, I wanted very much to cling to the few ideas I had, the few things I knew I could do right. Jeremy made that clinging impossible, and I’m glad for it, his presence was the work of God in that time. Through Jeremy and his parents and teachers, God helped dismantle many of the big preconceptions I had about being in the world as a teacher, and helped me settle into the authentic, adaptable presence which really mattered most.
How often is God trying to do the same with us now? How often does God come tumbling through our lives, unable to fit inside the careful spaces we have crafted for him, knocking over all the perfectly arranged pieces on his way to greet us? What foolishness is God using to disassemble the wisdom we have prepared for ourselves? For the priests and teachers of Jesus’ time, what sounded like foolishness was really just a lack of understanding. Here was a flustered zealot who had knocked a few tables around claiming that the whole temple would be destroyed. They probably laughed. But he was speaking of the temple of his body. Even when he was explicit in speaking about the destruction of his body with his disciples, it seemed preposterous. Just last week we heard Peter rebuke his teacher for such foolish talk. Yet it wasn’t foolish. It was simply a way of embracing the world’s deep malice and pain that Peter was not prepared to even imagine. It was a lack of understanding. In his letter to the Corinthians we hear Paul say that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Later on in the letter Paul also says, “no one can know the thoughts of God.” Perhaps our own knowledge of God can only begin where our human understanding begins to fall apart.
I want this to be a relief for you. I want it to be good news. Most of us are likely prone to recoiling away from foolishness and weakness as some sign of a larger failure, some portent of impending doom. It may, in fact, be a sign portending God. You may not be a first-year teacher whose classroom has just been upended by a child with autism. You may not be a money-changer in 1st century Palestine. But perhaps there is something in your life falling apart. Perhaps there is someone whom for all your greatest efforts you simply cannot understand. Is there, behind the resistance, some kind of idol waiting to be toppled down? Is there some obstacle to living more fully in the heart of God? After all the dust and shock and flustered anger settle out, you may find the most unexpected things making perfect sense. Amid some foolishness, God’s wisdom is waiting.