Updated: Mar 24, 2021
A few years ago, I saw a magic show by Penn and Teller, live and in-person. It was a great show! Penn and Teller have been around for a good while now and have delighted the crowds with their magic tricks for years.
To this day, as far as I know, Penn Jillette is a self-proclaimed atheist. By his own admission, he says he doesn’t believe in God, and has been outspoken about that. Nevertheless, about a decade ago, he said something quite insightful regarding faith that I could strongly agree with.
After a certain show, when he was signing autographs, someone who had seen the show the night before had given him a gift. Now, Penn believed that that man knew that he was an atheist. The gift he gave him was a New Testament with Psalms. You can still find Penn’s account of this meeting on YouTube.
On camera, he says: “I always said I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize”. I’ll say that again—By the way, proselytizing means trying to convert someone from one belief or religion to another; in this case, trying to convert someone to Christianity—Again, Penn Jillette was an atheist, at least at the time of the video. He didn't believe in God, but he said: “I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize; I don’t respect that at all…
“If you believe,” he said, “that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell—or not getting eternal life, or whatever—and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this, because it would make it socially awkward… how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?
And he continues: “I mean, if I believed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you and you didn’t believe it—that truck was bearing down on you—there’s a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that…
“This guy was a really good guy”. He was speaking about the guy who gave him a New Testament. “He was polite and honest and sane and he cared enough about me to proselytize.”
It’s an insightful remark. It demands authenticity—for congruity between belief and action; action that logically flows from belief. If I believed that your life was in danger—and I could do something about it, but didn’t—what does that say about me? How much do I have to hate you to not save you, if given the chance? And we’re talking about something even more important than life; we’re speaking of eternal life.
Or imagine a mother who saw her child in danger from an oncoming vehicle. She will yell, scream, frantically run and do anything to save her child—even if her actions scare her neighbors, hurts her child’s feelings, or makes things socially awkward later. Her child’s life at that moment outweighs any other consideration.
That’s the scene in our gospel passage today. Jesus is seeing Penn’s metaphorical truck bearing down on the entire people. Jesus immediately understands the danger. And he holds nothing back in alerting them to the spiritual suicide they’re committing by turning the Father’s house into a marketplace.
As we heard: He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.
That’s all very dramatic. But we can understand it, because we understand the threat. The Temple was meant to be the place where the Covenant between Yahweh and Israel was consummated, where the people of the Covenant were to be redeemed from their sins. But they turned the Temple into a convenience store.
Now, it might seem disconcerting that Jesus, the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God, is at the same time, this physically violent figure who attacks people with a whip, throws over tables, and scatters the coins of cashiers.
There’s an immediate dissonance in our minds, between this forceful Jesus as we see him here, and the domesticated Jesus that we might imagine him to be. We can be tempted to minimize or dismiss his outburst as a symbolic gesture; as something inoffensive and non-confrontational, spoken from a place of total calm, in a very non-zealous way.
But that’s not how the disciples who were eyewitnesses understood the scene: Zeal for your house will consume me, they recalled the prophecy immediately. When I try to explain away Jesus’ zeal as something very reasonable, or try to gloss over his frenzy, I’m shamefully dismissing his urgent and intense and passionate appeal to a change of heart.
Again, it was an insightful question asked by Penn: “How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
A final consideration. Implicit in Penn’s question is also the invitation to discern where you and I stand in our actual faith. If I don’t hate anyone—if hate isn’t the reason I don’t proselytize, with urgency—then there seems to be only one other possibility to account for my lack of preaching the gospel.
And that reason could be: my lack of belief in it. That’s a scary thought; that the reason I don’t preach eternal life isn’t because I hate anyone, but because deep down, maybe I don’t actually believe it myself. That’s the truth behind inaction. Conviction leads to action. Lack of conviction leads nowhere.
Where do we stand in our faith? Your urgency and mine in proclaiming Jesus directly speaks to the conviction of our beliefs, and the love we have for our neighbor. May God, through the grace of the Mass, grant us both.
Christ driving the Money Changers out of the Temple, by Valentin de Boulogne, [Wikipedia]