During Lent, many of us take up some form of spiritual housekeeping, like giving up coffee or chocolate, or adding something like reading the psalms every day. In this morning scripture, we find Jesus doing more than just a spiritual cleanup, he takes housekeeping to a new level.
Scripture text: John 2:13-22
This is one of those stories about Jesus that creates some inner turmoil for me, and it should produce a little bit of angst for you, too, as Jesus makes his whip and gets the coins a flying and the cattle bellowing as he drives them from the temple. Here is why we should have some tension with Jesus over the whole scene: Along side this surge of righteous adrenaline that is produced when Jesus shifts into his prophetic mode comes the sneaking fear that we might have more in common with the targets of his judgment than with the righteousness of his cause. Do we stand there cheering Jesus on as he goes about his good work of addressing a wrong, or is Jesus coming at us with his whip?
For many of us, we are drawn to Jesus in what he is doing. We want to be right there encouraging him as he confronts injustice, hypocrisy, and the misuse of God’s name. He slips into the role of an Old Testament prophet whose words thrill and empower us when we think about the weak exploited by the powerful. We have a desire to see wrongs righted, to see and experience God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. And here is Jesus addressing the wrongs! We have the temptation to take up a whip with him and denounce the principalities and the powers that bring about injustice in the world. You can almost hear the “superhero” music playing in the background. Duh, ta, ta, duh! Here is Jesus to save the day! We got your back!
Yet the targets of Jesus’ actions in the temple that day are not kings far away in remote palaces, or forces seen or unseen, or pagan priests who are making sacrifices that have never heard of the God of Israel. No, driven before him are the money changers, whose tables were tolerated, even encouraged, by the temple authorities. Just getting this little glimpse and we say, “They should have known better.”
But we forget the reasons all this had happened. Here was the temple, and back in the Holy of Holies, where the chief priest only went once a year was the place that held the 10 commandments, the words that spoke how to have a right relationship with God and neighbor. And for festivals and celebrations, Jews would make a pilgrimage from all over the world with Roman coins in their pockets and animals that were bruised and tired from their journey to celebrate at the temple in Jerusalem. You can imagine how this system of money changes and animals filling the outer courts of the temple happened. Well, those coins with the image of Caesar can’t come in here! They violate the law! And those weak and weary animals, they can’t be sacrifices! God only deserves the best! Let’s create temple money that doesn’t have any images on it so people can give in a way they don’t violate the law. Let’s have on hand animals without blemish that people can buy for their sacrifices.
It is highly doubtful that anyone had any intent on exploiting these pilgrims by the use of God’s good name when these systems were set up. Odds are all who were involved thought this arrangement was ideal to meet the requirements of the law. Everyone settled into comfortable behaviors that enabled them to meet personal and institutional goals. The temple wouldn’t be corrupted by idols and images of Caesar and the pilgrims could fulfill their religious duties. No one saw the corruption inherent in changing money, and if they did, they turned a blind eye. The rational behind creating this system became more important than the issues it created.
The condemnation Jesus serves up is not for obscure priests and powers abusing their authority in distant lands, but for people in their time and place who were doing no more than we do in our own time. Tempting as it might be to pass around a microphone and ask everyone what their favorite wrong they see and experience in the world and talk about how we can take up our own whip of cords and overturn the tables of those injustices, this text talks directly to us. It pushes us to imagine Jesus entering our own sanctuaries and homes, overturning our own cherished rationalizations and drive us out in the name of God. It forces us to be honest and acknowledge that we often put ourselves and our institutions at the service of powers that are decidedly less than God.
There is a tension here of being faithful to God’s calling in the world and what we can do in our lives and in our churches. We make compromises and we try to figure out what works best in our lives and the situations we face. But how we live in that tension is important. We must constantly be questioning, asking why, basically being a prophet to our own motivations. We must always be asking ourselves, the world, and yes, the church to do better than we currently do. If we lose that prophetic voice, we slide into, “but that’s the way we’ve always done it” and our lives can start mirroring the values of the prevailing culture or worse yet, co-opting to serve those things and powers it originally bore witness against.
The reason for keeping the idol of Caesar’s image out of the temple was a good one, but it lead to a system that benefited a few and left others poorer. How have the individual and family decisions, the lifestyle choices, and how we spend money been justified? How has what the church been doing in its outreach and programming come to benefit just a few, or benefit those doing that outreach? There is a tension created between what we think are good motivations and God’s call to love, mercy, and forgiveness.
One way to deal with the tension that we meet as we encounter Jesus in the temple would be to say, “Well, Jesus is criticizing a Jewish institution and practice that we as Christians have moved beyond. In Christ, we have moved beyond the temple.” And yes, John does write his whole gospel with the theological understanding that the actual physical temple would be replaced with the temple of Jesus’ body, a narrative foreshadowing Christ’s death and resurrection. But that doesn’t give us permission to settle too fast to celebrate the Jesus who criticizes someone other than us. We cannot assume that because Jesus is ‘our’ savior that he is perpetually well pleased with us.
If anything, these words of Jesus should make us take notice of every aspect of our lives to see where we need to hear his voice calling us to repent. He’s calling us to a type of housekeeping that goes beyond giving up chocolate or holding rummage sales. Jesus’ call on our lives is to tear down those things that are separating us from God and each other, even if we put them up thinking they would bring us closer to God and each other.
We are celebrating the third Sunday in Lent today. I’d invite you to spend some time this week doing some spiritual housekeeping with Jesus. Think about those things in your own life that maybe you have come to see as reasonable compromises in your life of faith, or even things in this church community that made good sense to do when they were started but now have become idols in their own way that keep us and others from fully experiencing the love God has to offer the world. And come tell us about them.
It is important for us to tolerate and explore through prayer and preparation the queasy anxiety of seeing Jesus with a whip of chords in his hands and hearing him with the righteous judgments of God on his lips—knowing that he speaks for us, yes, and with us, yes, but also to us and even against us at times. It might be hard to picture an angry Jesus lashing out at us. But Jesus came into the temple not to be destructive or disruptive, but to draw us back to the heart of God. Amen.