Even Jesus has his limits

Mark 11: 15-17

A few months ago, Kimberly and I attended a clergy luncheon at the

Parkview Mirro center. Parkview Health and Associated Churches have been co-

sponsoring these sessions quarterly, and they generally have been good efforts to

build greater relationship among faith leaders in northeast IN. I have been

appreciative that these luncheons have invited and included local leaders of other

faith traditions, including Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Sikh.

At this particular luncheon, the question was asked of how we engage in

conversation with people with whom we disagree and find ways to build bridges

and common ground with one another. The broader question was how we as

faith leaders can be a positive influence of breaking through our often polarized

culture to have real dialogue that is at a person level, not an issue level. In their

own way, the leaders of the session were trying to focus on some of the same

themes studied in the ‘Bigger table’ book we’ve been studying in the Beacon

Heights Connects classes.

Back to the luncheon – our table had a pastor who seemed to have a pretty

high opinion of himself. It was clear that he was not used to actual dialogue, to

listening to others. He spoke often, always the first when a new question was

asked, with assumed authority, and also assumed that we all held the same

opinions and views that he did. Whether that was because he assumed we were

all Christians or all clergy or that anyone of faith would believe as he did was

unclear. What was clear was that his demeanor bordered on arrogance, which I

immediately found troubling.

At the point when we were asked the question about how we find common

ground with people who hold different views, he immediately launched into his

response – about his relationship with his neighbor, who holds very different

views than him, but they were able to be in dialogue anyway. On the surface, that

sounds fine doesn’t it? The problem was the way that he characterized his

neighbor and the neighbor’s positions. His characterizations and side comments

were demeaning, with no real understanding that his neighbor’s convictions were

as strong, reasonable, or well discerned as his own.

It was clear that he had no real respect for his neighbor’s views or possibly

even for his neighbor himself. And I had had enough. I was already frustrated

listening to him try to dominate every question. But that he had taken a question

about respectful dialogue and listening to another in order to find common

ground and shared an answer where he really did the exact opposite was a bit too

far for me.

So with as much restraint as I could muster, I responded to him that it really

didn’t feel like he was listening to or respecting his neighbor, that I in turn

disagree with 75% of what he had already said, but that the point was we were

tasked to be pastoral and try to find common ground. When I finished, he looked

stunned. He didn’t seem to know how to respond. And didn’t really talk much

during the rest of the lunch. Part of me felt guilty about that. Part of me didn’t. It

wasn’t my intention to shut him down, but his sharing was often toxic and made

sharing by others difficult. I did not follow up with him afterwards, either to

apologize or to explain my response to him. Perhaps I should have. But there was

part of me that felt it best to let him reflect for himself about what he had said

and why it was offensive, if he chose. We all left the luncheon.

It was clear that I had reached my limit in that table conversation. We all

have our limits, whatever they are. Sometimes they are strong personal

preferences on admittedly minor things, like the ways we set the table or fold

laundry. Sometimes, they are deeply held beliefs, passions, or ways of being. I’ve

known that hypocrisy, especially among pastors, is one of mine. I think the

challenge of our limits is both in knowing what they are and also responding as

clearly and respectfully as possible once they have been reached. And that was

what I struggled with at that luncheon.

It is also clear that Jesus has his limits. We don’t often read about them in

the Gospels. But they are there, in his frustrations with the disciples, especially

Peter, at various points or in selected encounters with the Pharisees. Today’s text

is probably the best known about Jesus reaching his limits. But before we explore

that text, I want to highlight the verses right before it – verses 12-14.

In that text, Jesus appears to be ‘hangry’ – anger as a result of being

hungry. He and the disciples are leaving Bethany, near Jerusalem and Jesus sees a

fig tree in the distance. He goes to the tree, hoping it held fruit to eat, but found

none because it was not the season for figs. Instead of accepting and

understanding that, Jesus offers a seemingly petulant response – ‘May no one

ever eat fruit from you again.’ Wow. That’s pretty harsh and certainly not what

we expect of Jesus. But it also gives us a clue about how Jesus is feeling and what

happens next in Mark’s gospel.

I don’t think it is coincidental that the fig tree text is next to the cleansing

the temple text. On one level, there is symbolism in a barren fig tree and a temple

filled with money changers, but empty of actual spirituality and faith. When Jesus

and the disciples return the next day to find the fig tree withered and die, it’s

intended to suggest the Temple will suffer a similar fate. It no longer fulfills the

purpose for which God intended it and would eventually fall.

At another level, it is likely Mark is setting a progression of Jesus’ humanity

in this final week of his life – that Jesus enters into what we know as Holy Week

willingly, but also with some degree of anxiety, even fear. The text does not tell us

that explicitly, but we infer his anxiety from our own emotional experiences. Our

limits, our outbursts of anger or frustration happen most often when we are

physically worn down, emotionally feel overwhelmed, or find our deeply held

beliefs pushed or challenged.

In this text, Jesus probably feels all of the above. He had been traveling for

days from Galilee to Jerusalem and he had some awareness of the events that

would be unfolding in his last days. So when he encountered the temple and

witnessed the chaotic scene before him, he snapped. Why? Devout Hebrew

peoples came from all over the region to the Jerusalem Temple several times per

year. When they came, they needed to fulfill the ritual animal sacrifice they

believed that God commanded from the Torah.

It was impractical to travel with animals to sacrifice, so vendors sold them

to travelers who arrived. It was also forbidden for coins bearing pagan deities, like

Greek or Roman gods, to be used to purchase the animals for the ritual. So before

they could buy the animals, they had to exchange money. It’s a logical result of a

religious need. But Jesus is offended. On the surface, he’s offended by the

exchange of money in the holy temple. Beneath the surface, he is likely frustrated

by the act itself. Repeatedly, Jesus is most frustrated with tangible religious acts

that serve the religious establishment and not the people. Feeding his disciples or

healing on the Sabbath and getting confronted by the priests, for example. Seeing

this display of commerce in the Temple pushed Jesus over the edge. He had

reached his limit. And he responded forcefully.

This text opens an opportunity for us that churches don’t often take – an

opportunity for us to reflect on our own limits, our own biases, our own pet

peeves, our own deeply held beliefs. We each have them. We know that. We each

have our limits. We know that too. Personally, I’m relieved to know that Jesus

also had his limits, his breaking points. It makes the human side of him more

human.

We are often fearful of reflecting on our limits, almost as if we believe

having them makes us less perfect, less acceptable to others, perhaps even less

acceptable to God. That’s another gift of this text – for if Jesus has his limits, then

it’s okay for us to have ours too. It’s what we learn about ourselves when we

reach those limits that is important. It’s also that we learn more about what those

limits are and how we choose to respond when they are reached that is equally

important. So often, our culture seems to teach us to either run away from

exploring our limits or to explode with righteous indignation when they are

reached. Neither response is effective or necessarily helpful. Just as at its core, it’s

unclear how helpful Jesus cleansing the temple turned out to be in that moment,

other than providing an object lesson for us to consider later in our faith lives.

And that’s ok. Because part of what it means to be human is to grow and

learn about ourselves and about God in those moments when we have reached

our limits, when we are not always at our best. God loves us in those moments

too, and encourages our growth in compassion and empathy, for ourselves and

for others, when our limits are reached. Thanks be to God for God’s presence with

us, wherever we find ourselves on the journey. Amen.