I’m still thinking about the musical Into the Woods and just how much it resonates with Lent—a time when Christians are supposed to look deeply at themselves, venture into the wilderness, and then emerge as changed people. The fairytale characters of Into the Woods all have issues to deal with. Said issues can only be worked on if they go into the woods. Of course, going into the woods for each one of them does not mean that their problems are solved. Neither does it mean that they all find the happiness or prosperity they were looking for.
In fact, it’s safe to say that none of them find what they set out to obtain. In the woods they were surprised, challenged, frustrated, scared, and disappointed. Things were not what they seemed. The world changed around them.
And they changed.
But the “good” [and not “happy”] ending of Into the Woods is that all the characters discover something true about themselves, about others, and about the world. They notice something they didn’t see before. they all changed their minds about what was important. Their focus shifted.
Much of the Gospel stories about Jesus of Nazareth share the same motif. Jesus’ followers [and Jesus himself] have to journey into the woods. They have to leave their places of comfort; they have to leave behind their narrow perspectives; they have to change.
In this case, we’re looking at John’s Gospel, the last one written and the Gospel most-influenced by the early church, as we call it. John has the luxury of knowing about Mark, Matthew, and Luke and the book of Acts, and Paul’s letters. So this Gospel is not really worried about giving us a history lesson.
This is interpretation of the older stories in light of near-second century contexts.
So the story goes that Jesus and his followers went to Jerusalem for Passover. John has Jesus go to Jerusalem quite early in the story [chapter 2], while Mark, Matthew, and Luke have Jesus go to Jerusalem at the end of their story.
Passover, of course, was a big party. The city would have been packed. But in John’s story, Jesus doesn’t seem to be interested in the partying. He goes straight to the temple. There he finds all sorts of animals and moneychangers.
But let’s get something straight. This “temple” was not Solomon’s temple. It was Herod’s temple, or as some refer to it: the 2nd temple. Here’s a model of what it may have looked like:
Of course, the 2nd temple didn’t last long. After Herod’s death, the Romans came about 70 CE and destroyed the temple. There were Roman religious altars built on site.
Then, around 614, the Persians invaded Jerusalem and then Arab Muslims. The Dome of the Rock was built on the same site where the 2nd temple stood. Pieces of the 2nd temple make up a walkway to the Dome of the Rock.
I probably don’t have to mention that since 614, there has been even more warring and fighting over this site. It remains a Muslim site today, but people of both Jewish and Christian faith still visit; and lots of others, too.
Context is important so that’s why I bring all this up.
Jesus, in John’s story, would have been at Herod’s Temple.
But by the time John’s Gospel was written, the Romans had already destroyed that.
Now you see where I’m going with this?
John’s author knows what’s going to happen.
Therefore, everything in the moneychangers scene is an interpretation of past events in light of present-day knowledge. Hindsight really IS 20/20…
So just who were these temple moneychangers? Um, they were people who changed money. This was pure business. The temple authorities made deals with rich bankers and such. You see, in the temple, Roman coins were forbidden. So people needed to change their Roman money for temple money. Of course, the moneychangers charged them a fee for the exchange.
Can you imagine how good of a business this would have been?
Jerusalem full of people for Passover, tons of religious pilgrims going to the temple and needing temple money—this was a huge scam!
There were also dudes who sold birds [doves, specifically]. They sold the birds to poorer people who could not afford to make expensive temple sacrifices. Doves were cheap. But again, the birdmen marked up the price of the doves; another scam.
So the story tells us that Jesus then became the Incredible Hulk [Jesus MAAAAAD]
And apparently, Jesus also became MacGyver, because he fashioned his own weapon out of a whip of chords and then somehow was able to clear out all the people, animals, and things out of the temple.
Now seriously, it would have been impossible for this to happen. Herod’s temple was massive—about the size of twenty football fields. So unless Jesus also became the Flash, I’m not taking this literally.
So let’s read John more plausibly. It’s a metaphor.
Jesus, in the story, takes on the religious power in Jerusalem, and he does so by attacking the center of their finances. Most likely, he did it with words and not with a whip.
“Get these things out of here!” he says.
“Don’t make the house of my father a house of merchandise.”
The Judeans responded: Show us a sign that you can do this.
They called Jesus’ bluff.
And then we get the climatic statement:
Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.
The Judeans don’t get it; neither do Jesus’ followers.
Jesus is speaking on one level, but people understand things on another level, which usually means that they take it too literally.
I mean, even if they did think Jesus was the Incredible Hulk, MacGyver and Flash, it would still be pretty hard to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days!
Unless Jesus had a hot tub time machine.
But thankfully, John’ s author spells it out for us.
No, Jesus isn’t really saying that he’ll tear down Herod’s temple and then rebuild it. He’s talking about his own temple—his body.
Now do we get it?
The people think that Jesus is talking about buildings.
But Jesus is really talking about bodies.
And even though Jesus was indeed a carpenter, he wasn’t talking about raising up pillars or walls of a building.
He was talking about resurrection.
So if John’s Gospel does anything right, it most certainly gets us thinking on another level. So let’s do that.
Church buildings. Bodies. Resurrection.
Into the woods we go…
Most churches are obsessed or at least partially in love with their buildings. In fact, people call the building “church” and also refer to any activity at said building [whether worship or education or a Halloween party] as “church.” So it follows that for most traditional Christians, church and building are one and the same.
I get it–I really do, because institutions are like that. I, for example, went to graduate school at Princeton. Now, since then, I have taken continuing ed classes that were given by Princeton but not on Princeton’s campus. Truthfully, in my mind, these classes were not Princeton. The campus in Princeton, NJ is Princeton to me. So anything not on that campus just isn’t Princeton. So I get it.
But in faith and spirituality, buildings matter only insofar as they provide a space or a medium for the practice of faith and spirituality.
In short, the building means nothing if it is empty.
People [bodies] give the building its meaning.
And the flipside is that without buildings, there is just as much meaning. In fact, more often than not there is more spirituality and faith practice outside of buildings than there is inside them.
I do think that we have to think on another level—not the traditional one.
We need to stop thinking so much about buildings.
We need to think more about bodies.
Because bodies are people!
They live and breathe and work and play and cry and laugh and wonder and question.
And only if we focus more on bodies and less on buildings will we catch a glimpse of resurrection.
Resurrection, new life, is not a magical, miracle, supernatural-type thing reserved for Messiahs and gods and legends.
Resurrection is about people [bodies] finding new life even in the mundane, normal, ho-hum moments and even during times of sadness and confusion. Resurrection is tangible and real—but only if we decide to think on another level.
I wonder, if we weren’t so in love with our buildings and more in love with our bodies and the bodies of others—people—I wonder if what we call “church” wouldn’t be a resurrected, full-of-life community that positively impacted the world.
Institutions come and go, they rise and fall.
People matter most.
New life is possible.
Every day of the journey into the woods.