A.J. Thomas is the Founder of Joyful Giving Group, whose mission is to cultivate a culture of generosity.
A.J. is a practiced believer in the power of generosity to transform individual lives, congregations, and entire communities.
A.J. is an ordained United Methodist pastor with over a decade of leadership experience in the local church. He is appointed to Joyful Giving Group as an extension ministry of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
I hate clutter. Can’t stand it! People assume it’s because I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, although I would prefer to re-arrange the letters to CDO so they’re in alphabetical order.
Have you ever watched that television show Hoarders? Oh my gosh - that is like the most stressful thing on TV for me to watch! My blood pressure goes up just in seeing how some of these folks live - their homes piled high with clutter and stuff, room after room packed floor to ceiling so that you can’t see what color the carpet might be, what color the walls are, or what furniture is under all the stuff. There are often narrow canyons through the piles that look like they could collapse with the slightest disturbance and literally bury the person alive.
On the show, they operate from the premise that the only way for a person to get their life back is to slowly, painfully, and deliberately strip away the layers of clutter, the years of accumulation, all the stuff that has piled up. It involves some sorting, some cleaning, some decisions about what is important enough to keep, and the harder decision of what to throw away.
You know, the same can be true of our faith, sometimes, too. We can accumulate all sorts of clutter - beliefs and practices and activities and stuff that really have nothing to do with the faith we profess, and can actually sometimes be barriers to faithfully living as God’s covenant people in the world. Periodically, we need to strip away those layers of clutter and those years of accumulation in order to get back to the essence of the faith God calls us to practice, and in today’s Scripture lesson of Jesus cleansing the temple, that’s sort of what happened. May we pray.
The story of Jesus cleansing the temple - driving out the animals and overturning the tables of the money-changers - is found in all four Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke place it close to the end of the story - Jesus’ last Passover in Jerusalem, the final week before his crucifixion, and each of them paint this incident in the temple as one of the straws that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, and led the religious authorities to press for a solution to the Jesus problem, as they understood it.
However, whereas the other Gospels have this incident depicted at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, John puts it in chapter 2 - page 3 of John’s Gospel in my Bible - right up toward the beginning. John puts it in such a radically-different place because, as he tells the story, he is less interested in chronological accuracy than in making a theological point about who Jesus is, and what he is on earth to accomplish. He is painting a picture of Jesus, a portrait of God with a human face, the Word-made-flesh. John wants his readers to have an accurate image of Jesus in their minds.
The image we have of Jesus makes a huge difference. In fact, I’ll bet I can read your minds this morning. I’ll bet I know what Jesus looks like when you picture him in your mind. Let’s try it out. Everyone, close your eyes. Now, I want you to picture Jesus in your mind. Everyone see him? OK, open your eyes. Now, raise your hand if the Jesus in your mind looked something like this (show Warner Sallman’s The Head of Christ; 1940).
Chances are, if you are American, Protestant, and white, you might very well visualize this guy when you think of Jesus. This painting was done in 1940 by Warner Sallman, and it’s estimated that it’s been reproduced over 500 million times. This is the Jesus who looked over my grandmother’s living room in Virginia, this is the Jesus most likely to be in a Sunday School classroom. We all know this Jesus, and we all love this Jesus.
Now, how do we know this is Jesus? We just do. This is how we picture Jesus because this is how we’ve always pictured Jesus. Often, our image of Jesus is informed more by art in paintings and stained glass than it is by Scripture. Just look at this image of Jesus - clean, passive, safe, silent - it’s hard to fathom why such a harmless and respectable looking citizen would ever cause a scene in the temple; this guy wouldn’t even hurt a flea!
This painting illustrates a larger point - how we so often and too easily domesticate the deity, creating Jesus in our own image so that we can then co-opt him for our purposes. Thankfully, the reading today from John’s Gospel challenges our self-serving projections of Jesus. The story of Jesus “cleansing the temple,” a delicate little euphemism that covers up the fact that Jesus plain lost it, it’s the only story recorded in the Gospels where Jesus is both angry and violent, so it might behoove us to see what made him react the way he did.
First, a little context. You have to understand that for Jews in Jesus’ day, the temple in Jerusalem was the house of God. It was the place where the presence of God dwelt most fully. Think about how different that is from our understanding. We not only believe that we encounter the presence of God here at church, but everywhere we go. Further, while this church is a special place to us, we also recognize that there is nothing inherently holy about the bricks, or the carpet, or the arrangement of the furniture, or the dirt around us that makes this place particularly and uniquely sacred. It’s a special place among many special places, a church among many churches, a place where we gather and focus on Christ and magnify joy, but by no means is this the only place where that happens.
But for 1st Century Jews, the situation was different. The temple in Jerusalem was special and unique. It was the house of God. Several times a year, Jews from all over the known world would come to Jerusalem for the high and holy festivals, and Passover was the biggest celebration of them all. By some estimates, between 2 and 2.5 million people would come through Jerusalem during Passover.
The primary thing they were there to do was to worship by offering sacrifices at the temple, and this is where the merchants and money-changers come in. I really believe their practice of buying and selling and money-changing started innocently enough and with the best of intentions, but it quickly devolved into something less than godly. Here’s how.
I need a volunteer who can help me demonstrate this. Let’s assume that this person is a pilgrim who has travelled a long way, is very poor, and needs to buy 2 doves to make their sacrifice at the temple. They also need to pay their temple tax while they’re here. So, who would like to play the part of that traveler?
OK, I need some other actors - I need someone who can play the part of the money-changer, someone who can play the part of the dove seller, and someone who can play the part of the temple priest.
Traveler (to Dove Seller): I need to buy two doves.
Dove Seller: We’re so glad you’re here to worship! That’ll be a dollar each, so two dollars.
Traveler: Isn’t that a little steep? They’re two for a dollar back home.
Dove Seller: Yes, I’m sure a lot of things are cheaper back home, but here in the big city, that’s the price.
Traveler: Well, OK, I guess. (Traveler reaches for wallet, hands Dove Seller two dollars)
Dove Seller: Hold on a second, there. We don’t take that stuff here. We only take temple money. You need to go and exchange that with the Money Changer.
Traveler (to Money Changer): I need to exchange some money so I can buy my sacrifice.
Money Changer: We’re so glad you’re here to worship! What do you need to exchange?
Traveler: Two dollars. Here you go. (Hands Money Changer two dollars)
Money Changer: And here you go - one dollar and eighty cents in temple money. (hands money)
Traveler: One-eighty? How do you figure?
Money Changer: Ninety cents on the dollar is the exchange rate for your money into temple money.
Traveler: Well, OK. I’m not happy about it, but whatever. Here, exchange another dollar for me.
Money Changer: And here is another ninety cents in temple money. Have a blessed day!
Traveler: Um, thanks. (Goes to Dove Seller) OK, two dollars in temple money for the doves.
Dove Seller: Oh, I just sold the last of my dollar doves. But you can have these two for a dollar and ten cents each. So, that’ll be two dollars and twenty cents.
Traveler: Are you kidding me? I was just here and you said two for a dollar!
Dove Seller: But I told you, I just sold out of my dollar doves. Not my fault - supply and demand, kid!
Traveler: You know what? Fine. Whatever. Just give me two. Here, take your two-twenty.
Dove Seller: And here are your doves. You’ll need to take those to the priest to sacrifice for you. Thanks for your business, and have a blessed day!
Traveler (to Priest): Um, yeah, I need you to sacrifice these doves for me.
Priest: Of course! We’re so glad you’ve come to worship today! I’ll need the standard one dollar processing fee before I can precede with your sacrifice.
Traveler: One dollar? What’s that for?
Priest: Oh, you know - overhead, administrative costs, um, other “priestly things.”
Traveler: Fine, whatever. Here you go - one dollar (hands priest a dollar).
Priest: Ummmm, what do you want me to do with that? I can only take temple money.
Traveler: Are you kidding me? All right, hang on. Let me go get some temple money.
(to Money Changer): Yo, I need to exchange another dollar. (Hands Money Changer a dollar)
Money Changer: Of course! Here’s eighty-three cents of temple money. (Hands money back)
Traveler: Eighty-three cents? But earlier today it was ninety cents!
Money Changer: You are correct. Earlier today it was ninety cents. But that was then; this is now. And now, it’s eighty-three cents on the dollar.
Traveler: You’re just making it up as you go along, and I think you’re just making money off me.
Money Changer: Look, you do want to make your sacrifice, right? I mean, you do want to please God and keep God happy, right? You travelled all this way, it’d be a shame to have gone through all that trouble just to end up ticking God off because you got this far and didn’t make a sacrifice. I mean, it’s none of my business or anything, but if you want to get on God’s bad list, hey, that’s up to you.
Traveler: Fine. I’ll take my eighty-three cents and be on my way.
Money Changer: Thank you, come again, and have a blessed day!
Traveler (muttering): Yeah, I’ll show you a blessed day. (Counts out coins, hands them to the Priest). OK - here is one dollar in temple money - the administrative fee for making my sacrifice, unless it suddenly went up for whatever reason you’re going to make up and I won’t believe you.
Priest: Gone up? Why no - those prices are set by our central office. It’s still a dollar.
Traveler: Well that’s the first piece of good news I’ve had all day. So I guess we’re done here.
Priest: Not quite.
Traveler: Not quite?
Priest: Well, you still need to pay your temple tax. (Laughing:) This place didn’t just build itself, you know!
Traveler: Temple tax. Right. And just how much is that.
Priest: Five dollars, and that will cover you for the whole year.
Traveler: And let me guess - I have to pay that in temple money, right?
Priest: Well, I certainly don’t take American Express!
Traveler: All right, hang on, let me go get some more temple money.
Priest: (looking at watch) Ooh, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the money changers’ shift just wrapped up and they’re done for the day.
Traveler: Are you kidding me? Now what am I supposed to do?
Priest: Oh, don’t worry about it. They’ll be back in tomorrow.
Traveler: (in disbelief) Tomorrow.
Priest: Yes, tomorrow. Come back tomorrow, and you can pick right up where you left off today. Does that sound good?
Traveler: (sarcastically) Oh, you have no idea.
Priest: (oblivious) Very good then. Come back tomorrow, and have a blessed day!
I don’t know about you, but it sorta felt like we were at the DMV for a minute. So, who profited in that situation? At whose expense? The whole thing - did it facilitate worshipping by making the sacrifice, or impede it? Now, take the transaction you just witnessed, and multiply it by the two million or so pilgrims who would have been in Jerusalem for the Passover.
People were coming from all over the known world to make animal sacrifices. They had one of two options - they could bring the animals with them from their home, or they could buy the animals for sacrifice when the arrived. Which do you think would have been easier and more convenient? For that convenience, you’d pay extra.
When you go to exchange money, is the exchange rate tilted in your favor or in favor of the money changer? It’s always tilted in favor of the money changer - it’s true today, and it was true in Jesus’ day. Everybody makes a fast buck - the money changer, the priest, the dove seller. They all make it the expense of the person who has travelled a long distance to make their sacrifice as an act of worship as they were commanded to do. The whole system was ripe for abuse. The money changer makes a profit. The merchant makes a profit. The priest and temple officials make a profit. All of them make a profit at the expense of the person who has come to worship.
Further, the holy name of God was dragged through all the corruption. Those who came to worship at the temple were sort of over a barrel - they were commanded to make their sacrifices, but in order to do so, they were at the mercy of the corrupt and exploitative system of buying and selling and money changing. The most damaging thing of all was that it was all done in the name of God, perhaps the greatest and most horrific example of taking the Lord’s name in vain we might ever think of. It was this abuse that most angered Jesus and caused him to react with such violence - abuse and exploitation of God’s name, abuse and exploitation of God’s house, and abuse and exploitation of God’s people.
Jesus is clearing away layers of clutter, years of accumulated practices that have served to frustrate and impede worship rather than facilitate it, things that were done in the name of God that did not serve God but only served selfish ambition. The temple - a place of worship, a house of prayer, a connection point between our humanity and God’s divinity - it had become impossible to see or participate in any of those things because of all the clutter. And so along comes Jesus, consumed with a zeal for his Father’s house, and he begins to clear all that away. Only when the clutter is gone do we even have a chance of seeing things as God intended them to be seen.
And what does that have to do with us today? Friends, this text serves as a strong warning against using, abusing, or exploiting the name of God, the house of God, or the people of God for our own purposes. I have seen, and I know you have seen, people use the name of God and the name of the Church for all sorts of things that have nothing to do with God. We have seen people exploit the name of God and the name of the Church for their own profit, their own power, and their own prestige, despite the fact that we already know how Jesus feels about that! Do so at your own risk and peril, with the full knowledge that that’s the kind of thing that makes Jesus very angry, and don’t be surprised if he shows up and starts turning over some tables.
In this text, Jesus also redefines the temple, and we would be wise not to miss this point. From this point on, any reference to the temple is actually a reference to Jesus’ body. He is the place where God’s divinity meets our humanity. No longer do we think of the temple as a building, but as a person - the temple is now the body of Jesus.
Further, the followers of Jesus came to understand themselves as members of the body of Christ. And so if the temple is no longer a building but the body of Jesus, and if we are members of the body of Christ, then we are the temple. And the same zeal and passion that consumed Jesus for the temple building, he is consumed with the same zeal and passion for us.
In the temple that day, there were all sorts of things taking place that impeded people’s ability to commune with God. As he looked over the merchants and money-changers in the temple and saw God’s name taken in vain to advance their own greed and selfishness, he drove all of that out. So too, when Jesus looks at our hearts and sees that they are filled with all manner of things that serve our own purposes, even when they are falsely done in the name of God, his desire is to drive those things out. So polluted was that temple of self-interest, Jesus had no choice but to tear it down and build anew.
Jesus came to not just destroy the temples we build for ourselves but to raise up a new temple for us, a temple in which we can truly be reconciled to God. Every temple made with human hands, every system we attempt to construct, will end up only serving ourselves. In Jesus, God offers us a temple where we can receive the forgiveness of sin without cost, where we can be reconciled to God without trying to make a buck, where we can worship the one true God and be free from our bondage to greed and self-service. In our baptism, we enter this temple, becoming one with the body of Christ, living in the temple of God’s forgiveness forever.
When all the clutter is cleared away, some things become abundantly clear. God wants us to serve God alone, and not serve ourselves. God wants us to dwell in the temple of his love and forgiveness, not lost in the clutter and junk of our own making. Jesus invites us out from under the piles of our sin and guilt and confusion, to abide with him in the temple of his body which he offers for us on the cross, a body to which we are joined in our baptism, a body in which we, by the grace of God, will dwell forever.
 The Rev. Dr. Peter Samuelson. “Reflections from the Woodshed,” Day One: March 15, 2009