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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Turning the Tables OR Remember that Time Jesus Lost It? (John 2:13-22)


13 It was nearly time for the Jewish Passover, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 He found in the temple those who were selling cattle, sheep, and doves, as well as those involved in exchanging currency sitting there. 15 He made a whip from ropes and chased them all out of the temple, including the cattle and the sheep. He scattered the coins and overturned the tables of those who exchanged currency. 16 He said to the dove sellers, “Get these things out of here! Don’t make my Father’s house a place of business.” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written, Passion for your house consumes me.

18 Then the Jewish leaders asked him, “By what authority are you doing these things? What miraculous sign will you show us?”

19 Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.”

20 The Jewish leaders replied, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” 21 But the temple Jesus was talking about was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered what he had said, and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

 

If you pay too much attention to Jesus, he will speak hard words that make you rethink your priorities.  Our purpose as a church is to love people into God’s family, and if we pay attention to Jesus today, we have the opportunity to love people for who they are, not for what they can do for us.

 

Now, you’ve shown up on a Sunday during Lent, when everything is draped in purple as a reminder that we are moving toward the cross, and that something within each of us needs to die so we can experience new life in Christ.  Indeed, any time you show up and see purple, get ready to ponder hard words about hard things; Jesus might make you angry enough to go Hulk and start turning over some tables yourself.

 

For those who grew up singing, “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” you may treat the incident we read about in today’s Scripture as an anomaly in the life of Jesus – that “one time” when an otherwise polite and quiet person just snapped and lost it – going into the temple and turning over tables and driving out those who were buying and selling.  How out of character for gentle Jesus to show both such white hot anger and brute force – he must have been under tremendous stress to act out in such a way.  Jesus is perfect, after all, and this behavior is not how good boys and girls resolve their differences, and so for centuries, preachers and teachers have tried to rationalize and smooth over the implications of an angry Jesus turning over tables in the temple.

 

What I would like you to consider today is that this incident is actually quite consistent with Jesus’ character, not the anomaly we might suggest.  For one thing, this is not an isolated incident.  This is not the only place where Jesus shows some anger or aggression, though it is perhaps the most memorable display of both.  To be sure, Jesus will say and do plenty that will anger the religious establishment, the political establishment, the rich, and generally upset the status quo.

 

For another thing, this is not an accidental incident.  All four Gospel writers include some version of Jesus getting angry and turning over tables in the temple, and driving away buyers and sellers.  They all found it important to let us know that Jesus got angry, so what exactly is Jesus so angry about? 

 

During the time of Jesus, the temple was the hub of religious activity for the Jewish people.  It is the second temple, the first having been built by Solomon, and this one having been built by King Herod The Great.    Herod built the temple, not because he was a particularly religious man – he wasn’t – but because he was a smart politician.  He built the temple to keep the religious Jews happy, to curry their favor and support.

 

The temple was the center of worship for the Jewish people.  Now, when we think of worship, we think of certain acts like singing and praying and reading and preaching.  All of that took place at the temple, but the central act of worship was sacrifice – the giving of valuable animals to be slaughtered and burned as an offering to God.

 

The altar was the place of sacrifice.  Sometimes, we refer to the table or the kneeling area in our worship space as “the altar.”  But, the activities around the altar are more like what would take place in a slaughterhouse than a quiet place to pray.

 

The Law required Jews to pilgrimage to the temple for at least one of three major festivals each year.  When they came, they were required to pay their temple tax and offer a sacrifice.

 

At the time of the festivals, the temple buzzed with activity 24-7.  It took a small army of priests constantly on duty to facilitate those sacrifices and continually offer prayers.  Don’t forget priests who were constantly burning incense through the whole thing – more for practical reasons than theological ones – after you’ve burned a few thousand animal sacrifices, see if the stench doesn’t encourage you to light some incense or spray a can of Febreeze.

 

That’s worship at the temple, folks.

 

To be sure, the giving of things of value as a sacrifice to God is still an important part of our worship.  Only, for practical reasons, we don’t offer animals, but offer things that have value to us in our context – we offer gifts of our time, our talent, and our treasure.  One key difference between the sacrifice and generosity of our worship and that of the temple worship is that what we offer is voluntary, whereas what was offered at the temple was required by law.  We teach generosity, our leaders model generosity by giving 10% of their income as a tithe to God through the church, we encourage and expect that kind of generosity from every single one of our members, but we don’t go as far to legalistically require it – because what anyone gives should always be voluntary, given freely and without compulsion, given because it’s what you want to give, not what anyone tells you have to give.

 

Further, we encourage it as a way of growing as disciples – we are made in the image of a generous God, and when we give generously, we reflect God’s image and grow in God’s likeness, and so we encourage generosity for your own benefit and growth as a follower of Jesus.

 

But at the temple, you were required under penalty of law to give, and the temple officials told you what you were expected to give.  It was a sliding scale based on your income – a pair of bulls or oxen if you were wealthy, a pair of doves if you weren’t.

 

When the sacrificial system was established, you raised your own animal for sacrifice.  But by the time of Jesus, you could purchase your sacrifice when you got to Jerusalem.  The whole system of buying and selling at the temple developed for very practical reasons – if you’ve travelled hundreds of miles on foot to make your sacrifice during the festival, you can see how expensive and cumbersome it would be to bring your bulls or your oxen with you – cleaning up after them, feeding them along the way, ensuring that they arrive at the temple unblemished after such a long and difficult journey, why it would be near impossible!

 

And so, the whole system of buying and selling at the temple developed out of a real need, and a sense of convenience to facilitate everyone’s sacrificing.  Now, convenience is never free.  When we go to the beach for a week, we do our grocery shopping once we get there, knowing that we’re going to pay a little more in the grocery store there than we do here.  We willingly pay the price for the convenience, however, of not having to pack our milk, eggs, and meat in ice to make the journey down.  Convenience and location always has a price – buy a hot dog in the stadium, and it will cost you twice what it costs from a vendor outside, and it’s more than a whole case of hot dogs will cost you in the store.  But again, we pay a premium for convenience.

 

It was the same situation at the temple.  For the convenience of purchasing your animal sacrifice right there instead of having to bring it several hundred miles, you paid a little more.  Honestly, it wasn’t the buying and selling itself that caused the issue – it was the predatory abuse of the system, that made dishonest profit off those who were there to worship God, that was the problem.

 

Imagine this scenario: you are a poor farmer, just arrived in Jerusalem to make your sacrifice.  You are devout, you genuinely love God and want to please God, whether the law says you have to or not.  Outside the temple, you purchase two unblemished doves to offer as sacrifice. They would cost you $5 at home, but here in the big city, you pay $10.  You go through the temple gates into the outer court, and get in line to see the priest who is inspecting the sacrifices, who happens to be a buddy of the guy who sold you the doves outside.  The inspecting priest finds a defect on the doves you just bought – even then, everything depreciates the moment you drive it off the lot – and so they are unsuitable for you to offer.

 

Fortunately for you, right over here, inside the courts of the temple, the priest’s cousin is selling pre-inspected doves, but again, location and convenience has its price, and these doves will cost you $100, and to you, they look just like the doves you paid $10 for 10 minutes ago.  But, what choice do you have – you have to make the sacrifice, you fork over the $100, and the guy says, “If you want, I’ll give you $5 for those defective doves [the ones you just paid $10 for] just to take them off your hands.”

 

Disgusted, and pretty sure you’ve just been had, you walk around the corner, and the dove seller in the temple walks over to the priest and gives him $30, and then goes and gives the dove seller outside $30 as well as the defective doves to sell to the next unsuspecting worshiper, which will start the whole scenario over again.  Repeat that a few hundred times, and imagine the piles of money that have been made by the sellers, and the inspecting priest, all at the expense of those who have come, as required by law, to worship God.

 

It’s a similar scenario with the money-changers.  Again, people have come from all over the world, carrying their local currency.  Most of that money had inscriptions and images of the local leader, many ascribing qualities of divinity to these world leaders.  The temple treasury couldn’t be defiled with these graven, idolatrous image coins, but fortunately for you, you could exchange your money into a temple-approved local currency, and there just happened to be a currency exchange on site.

 

Those of you who’ve travelled internationally know the rule that you lose money every time you exchange currency – true today, true then.  A modest administrative fee for the troubles of the money changer, again, multiplied several thousand times, makes the money changer wealthy, off the backs of those who have come to worship God.

 

A whole economic system had developed around the temple.  It wasn’t bad in and of itself – it developed for very good reasons, convenience being one of them.  An economic system was necessary for the buying and selling that facilitated people being able to worship by offering sacrifices, and so it’s not the system itself that Jesus took issue with.  What got Jesus angry were the abuses in the system, as personal profit and gain were pursued at the expense of those who had come to worship.  Jesus loses it because a system for relating to God was now getting in the way of people actually relating to God, and so the whole business of buying and selling and money changing was counter-productive to the overall endeavor.

 

Barbara Ludbland, a Lutheran pastor, grew up in the Midwest at a time of great animosity between Protestants and Catholics.  She said they didn’t know much about Catholics, other than they played BINGO on Tuesday nights, and she and her friends were sure this passage was a condemnation of BINGO.  They expected Jesus to show up in the Social Hall some Tuesday night, turning over tables, sending cards flying, the cage crashing open, and little white balls in every direction over the tile floor.  His anger would be reserved exclusively for the Catholics; they were pretty sure that Jesus would be okay with their chili suppers and youth car washes and fall festivals, because the money went to missions.

 

But Jesus’ anger isn’t about BINGO or car washes or fall festivals or hot dogs, unless – and hear this carefully – we begin to value people primarily in terms of an economic transaction and not as precious children of God.

 

Jesus wouldn’t be down on fund-raisers, per se, but the Jesus who turns over tables would take great issue with interacting with our neighbors in a way that suggests our primary interest in them is for their money, or nickeling and diming people to death with one fund-raiser after another and sending the impression that the church’s hand is always open.  He would be angry with fund-raisers that take time, energy, and effort away from our core mission, as well as fund-raisers and events on Saturday that leave people too tired to come to worship on Sunday.  He would be appalled when a church’s motivation for reaching out and seeking new members is that they need their money to fund the budget, and I can’t see that he’d be pleased if we only offered our neighbors a snack, for a fee, while ignoring our call to offer them the Bread of Life or a drink from the streams of Living Water.

 

Jesus got angry, turned the tables, and cleansed the temple.  His anger burned because a house of worship was overshadowed by a marketplace, where dishonest dollars were made by means of buying and selling and money changing, where people’s value was calculated solely in terms of what could be taken from them and how those in power could benefit from the vulnerable.  Jesus was angry with a system that took advantage of the poor, the outsider, the marginalized, the widow, the orphan, the foreigner – all within sight of the altar, where the smoke from the sacrifices rose toward heaven, and the holy of holies, where the very presence of God was said to dwell.  When Jesus got angry in the temple, he was turning the tables on a corrupt, abusive, self-serving system that kept people from experiencing God.  He turned the tables on that whole system of encountering God.

 

With those with ears to hear, Jesus is still cleansing the temple.  But the temple is not a building.  We are the temple.  Jesus is still cleansing us – driving away self-interest and greed and dollars that can only be made by taking advantage of others, turning over our tendency to value people based on economic factors rather than as children of God.  What does it profit us to gain the whole world and lose our soul?  From a spiritual perspective, we can make a few bucks, but at what cost?  Jesus was angry because the price was too high.

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