As we begin our exploration of the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple, I’d like to read to you Clarence Jordan’s version of it from The Cotton Patch Gospel: “Well, it was about time for the annual convention, so Jesus went to Atlanta. At the convention headquarters at First Church he found preachers politicking, and business men wheeling and dealing, and exhibits all over the place. So he got a long-handled fly swatter and a broom and began clearing out the crowd and wrecking the merchandise booths. ‘Get out of here with all this stuff,’ he shouted. ‘Quit making a racket of my Father’s business.’ His students recalled the verse of Scripture: ‘I am eaten up with concern for my Father’s fellowship.'”
Today’s gospel lesson is one of those texts that shows us a side of Jesus we would like to pretend doesn’t exist. Rev. Barbara Lundblad, ELCA Pastor and professor at Union Theological Seminary, put it this way: “Many people seem to believe that Jesus is like a candy-coated Prozac. You take a weekly dose of him and it helps you feel better for a few days. To those people, Jesus is a comfortable, neighborly ‘guy’ that lifts our spirits and doesn’t cause a whole lot of controversy in our lives.
In this lesson we read about the ‘Other Jesus.’ He is not a comfortable guy. As soon as you think you have the ‘Other Jesus’ in a box, you find that you are like a man giving a bath to a bobcat in the kitchen sink. This is not the Tea-Party Jesus. He is not the Potluck Jesus; the Jesus who joins me in my pew singing praise songs louder than the band. Nor is he a Messiah who would want me to feel comfortable with a placid commitment to a ‘feel good’ religion.
This is the Jesus who comes to our church and asks why we have cushioned pews instead of mattresses for the homeless. This is the Jesus who interrupts worship and says; ‘Why are you singing happy songs in here when children in this very neighborhood went to bed hungry or abused last night?'”
WOW! Those are powerful words as we reflect on the Jesus who swung a bullwhip like Indiana Jones and drove the bad guys out of town. It’s a hard Jesus for many of us to wrap our brains around. So what do we do with our gospel lesson for today? How do we understand the meaning behind Jesus’ aggressive actions? Then, if we can understand the meaning, what does it tell us we should do as disciples of this “Indiana Jones” Christ?
Well, our gospel lesson is one of those texts where a little bit of historical information comes in handy. The Temple in Jerusalem during Jesus’ time was not like a church we have in modern times. It was a complex that was vast and ornate, with a system of walled courtyards that kept getting smaller and more exclusive until you reached the Holy of Holies.
The outermost courtyard of the Temple was known as the Court of the Gentiles. Everyone was allowed in this space. It was noisy and chaotic. The next area was the Court of the Women where only Jewish women were allowed. Inside of this was the Court of Men where only Jewish men were allowed. Inside of this was the Altar of Burnt Offerings where the sacrifices took place. Only Jewish men got to witness these. Inside of this was the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was placed. This space was believed to be God’s House, the very dwelling place of God. Only priests were allowed in this space and even their access was limited.
Therefore, we can think of the Temple as a giant Russian nesting doll. God lives in the teeny, tiny doll in the center. We have to work really hard at getting close to God. For some people it was nearly impossible, especially if we happened to be a Gentile or a woman. This describes the Temple in a nutshell.
Now I want us to focus our attention outward and go back of the Court of the Gentiles because this is where our gospel story takes place. During high holy days like Passover or Succoth, the Court of the Gentiles was primarily a bazaar with vendors selling souvenirs, sacrificial animals, and food. It also contained the moneychangers who exchanged Greek and Roman coins for Tyrian money since the Jews were not allowed to mint their own coins. They also viewed Roman and Greek currency as an abomination to God. This exchanged currency could then be used to purchase animals for sacrifice or any of the other items for sale in the Court of Gentiles.
John also tells us that this story happened during the celebration of Passover. This means there were approximately 300,000 to 400,000 Jews in the city, all clamoring to make a pilgrimage to the Temple.
I was trying to think of the modern equivalent of this, but nothing comes close to describing it. In some ways the Court of the Gentiles is the Jewish equivalent of a giant Christian bookstore where we could purchase lots of religious nicknacks with the added bonus of buying animals for sacrifice so that our sins could be forgiven and God would be happy with us.
In other ways the Court of the Gentiles is like a football game or a rock concert with everyone trying to get in the door but few actually permitted to see the main event. Lots of folks were stuck in the lobby with no hope of actually viewing what was going on inside.
Still, in other ways, the Court of the Gentiles is like going to the movies. Once we pay for our admission ticket we are ushered into the next courtyard known as the “concession stand.” There we are offered the opportunity to exchange our “foreign money” for popcorn, drinks and the like. However, the exchange rate is not in our favor and we end up paying approximately $12.00 for a small popcorn and a drink because there are no other options. Once our wallets are emptied by the “priests of popcorn,” we finally get to enter into the “Court of Men” [Sorry, ladies!] and watch our movie.
Do you see where I’m going with all of this? The truth of the matter is that commerce in the Court of the Gentiles had gotten completely out of hand. Corruption and greed were rampant. It made the Jewish leaders very rich and set up a system where it became harder and harder to access God and receive forgiveness. If we happened to be rich and male, we had it made. But if we were anything else, Good luck!
Is it any wonder that when Jesus saw this chaotic mess he had what we Southerners call a “hissy fit”? Is it any wonder that he went all “Indiana Jones” on the moneychangers, grabbing a bullwhip, turning over tables, and sending doves and coins flying everywhere? Jesus was acting like Marin Luther before there was a Martin Luther. His actions in the Temple were his 95 Theses as he screamed “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
Mark’s version of this story has a slightly different spin on the words of our “Indiana Jones” Savior: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations; but you have made it a den of robbers!” [Mk 11:15] These words are significant. They tell us something about Jesus’ motivation.
The first part of the quote in Mark’s gospel is from Isaiah 56:7. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” This part of Jesus’ quote is often overlooked. What I think he is saying is that God’s House should be accessible to all people. It’s not an exclusive little club where only certain individuals can make it past the bouncer at the door. His removal of the moneychanger’s tables, and the goods and trinkets that surrounded them, was an indictment of the sacrificial system. According to Jesus, it was time for this system to come to an end.
Is it any wonder that he angered the Jewish leaders? Is it any wonder that they would plot to crucify him? Jesus was threatening their way of living and making money. He was serving them an eviction notice and they would have viewed him as a very dangerous man.
The second part of his quotation comes from Jeremiah 7:11. “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” If we look at this quote in its context, Jesus is doing more than protesting a “robbery” of commerce. This is more than a “We are the 99%” kind of thing. Jesus is crying out against those who commit injustice and think that, by preserving the outward symbols of religion, and particularly the worship of the Temple, they can escape the judgment of God.
Speaking on behalf of God, Jeremiah declares “For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.”
Jesus was making more than a political statement. He was trying to convey that God’s House is a place where all people should be able to worship without fear of being rejected, harassed or extorted. God’s House is a place where justice, mercy, love and forgiveness dwell. God’s House is a place of prayer for all people, where all truly means all.
Sound familiar? It should be. It’s something we’ve tried to embody as a church for several years now. We strive to be a house of prayer for all people. We are United in Christ. Welcoming All. Regardless of ability, age, ethnicity, gender identity, language, life circumstance, marital status, race of sexual orientation. This is the heart of the Reconciling in Christ process. Today, we have the opportunity to affirm that this is an accurate description of who we are as a congregation.
Furthermore, we affirm that the following Mission Statement accurately describes us as well: “We are a diverse church united by a deep love of Jesus and a heart for service in the community. We are dedicated to being a sanctuary (safe-haven) for all of God’s people.”
What we are doing these days as a congregation is at the heart of what I believe Jesus was trying to do as he overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. It was more than an act of political protest. It was statement about the nature and character of God. No longer would God dwell in the Temple, held hostage by religious leaders who extorted the Almighty in order to make a profit. God was breaking out of the box and would be seen fully in the person of Jesus. “Destroy this temple,” Jesus said later in our gospel lesson, “And in three days I will raise it up.” Later in the same gospel he would go on to proclaim that he and God were one. As he died on the cross, he offered the final sacrifice, giving his life for our sake. No other sacrifice was necessary. All walls and barriers between us and God had been demolished.
This is the faith we claim as our own. It’s the faith we claim as Lutherans and as a church. It’s the faith that holds us together in spite of our diversity and differences. Friends in Christ, while Jesus’ actions in our gospel lesson seem contrary to much of what we read elsewhere. His outrage in the Temple serves to remind us that we should never put barriers up between God and God’s people. We should never make judgements about who is worthy or unworthy to receive God’s grace and mercy.
My hope and prayer is that Abiding Savior will continue to be a house of prayer for all peoples. And that we will embody this inclusive welcome in the community at large. AMEN
Copyright ©2018 by David Eck