First-Century Insults

Monday, August 19, 2013 — Week of Proper 15, Year One

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 980)

Psalms 106:1-18 (morning) // 106:19-48 (evening)

2 Samuel 17:24-18:8

Acts 22:30-23:11

Mark 11:12-26

The worst thing I’ve heard the elders in my family call someone else is a turkey. For example: “What a turkey,” “He’s being a turkey,” or “That turkey!” Today, this insult sounds rather mild, but I know people used it with genuine frustration or anger. It’s just hard to feel the full force of insults from previous generations. Paul’s insult to the high priest Ananias in our second reading also loses some of its force in translation from language to language, culture to culture, and century to century: “you whitewashed wall!”

“Whitewashed wall”? What exactly is so insulting about that? Well, the prophet Ezekiel accused false prophets of acting like “whitewash” (more like mud plaster), covering a weak wall instead of actually repairing it (Ezekiel 13:1-16). Jesus also accused the religious leaders in his day of being whitewashed: “For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth” (Matthew 23:27-28).

Calling someone “a whitewashed wall” in Paul’s culture was a sharp insult aimed at religious leaders for putting purity and a false sense of security ahead of authenticity and vision. By calling him a whitewashed wall, Paul accuses Ananias of emphasizing a veneer of righteousness rather than a foundation of faith.

How ironic, then, that our readings today tempt us to whitewash our own leaders, Paul and Jesus.

The author of Acts immediately tries to cover up Paul’s bold insult. According to this passage, when bystanders ask Paul how he dares “to insult god’s high priest,” Paul claims that he didn’t realize who Ananias was. If Paul had recognized Ananias, he would have followed the law: “You shall not speak evil of a leader of your people” (citing Exodus 22:28). But commentators are very suspicious that Paul would not have recognized Ananias. It seems that the author is trying to record a great story about Paul’s audacity but also to preserve Paul’s reputation for being a perfect rule-follower. Break out the whitewash!

Many of us make a similar move with today’s gospel reading. We use the story of Jesus and the money changers to illustrate Jesus’ perfectly justifiable and righteous anger. But what about Jesus’ anger in the first verses of this passage? Why is he so angry at the poor fig tree? There is a very simple, human answer: “Jesus was hungry.” In his hunger, Jesus makes unreasonable demands on the fig tree, searching for fruit even though “it was not the season for figs.” In his anger at the tree, Jesus curses it. Like many of us right before supper or before our morning coffee, Jesus may have been irrationally angry.

Let’s not whitewash Jesus’ angry curse by trying to justify or ignore it. And let’s not whitewash Paul’s bold insult by trying to clean it up. We don’t want whitewashed walls for our leaders. Let’s look instead to what Jesus teaches about the power of our curses, our prayers, and our mercy: “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” We can experience forgiveness and a clean slate not by behaving perfectly, but by extending forgiveness.

We need religious leaders who clean their hearts not by whitewashing their lives, but by forgiving others. We need leaders who are not like walls plastered over or whitewashed, but rebuilt by forgiveness and mercy. Let’s not insult their grit with an application of plaster.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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