SERMON NOTES, LENT 3, YEAR B (Preached at St. Luke’s/Manchester, March 8, 2015) John 2:13-22
If you have ever labored under the misconception that Jesus was just a very holy, very nice guy, then today’s gospel reading is for you.
A thorough reading of the gospels reveals to us just how multifaceted Jesus was. There is the teacher, dispensing wisdom, and making people think with his parables and sayings. There is the miracle-worker, healing the lame and making the blind see.
There is the prophet, proclaiming the good news of the Reign of God. Occasionally, we even get to see the very human Cranky Jesus cursing a fig tree, or getting snarky with a Gentile woman who wants his help.
In today’s gospel reading, we see Jesus taking on the roles of judge and enforcer, going on the warpath in the Temple, upsetting the tables of the moneychangers, to say nothing of the status quo, and scandalizing the (easily scandalized) priestly class. It’s not a side of his character that we frequently see, but it’s an important one.
A version of this episode appears in all four gospels, but with some important differences. The three Synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – all put the cleansing of the Temple into what we know as Holy Week, after the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. In those accounts, it’s one of the last things Jesus does as a free man. It’s also one of the immediate causes of his arrest, trial, and execution.
The gospel of John, which draws on a different early tradition, places it near the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. In fact, it comes right after the wedding at Cana, when Jesus changed water into wine, performing his initial public miracle.
Both put it right before the Passover, but at different times. John’s narrative shows Jesus’s public ministry taking place over the course of three years, with multiple trips to Jerusalem. In the Synoptics, it’s all compressed into a single year, with his time in Jerusalem coming only at the end.
The animal sellers and money changers were performing an important and officially sanctioned function. All the rules for what they’re described as doing are set forth in the book of Leviticus, the work of an early bureaucracy that was focused on centering all worship at the temple. Sacrifices were made by the priests on behalf of the people, for the forgiveness of sins, or for thanksgiving and celebration. These rules are major additions to the Ten Commandments, as we heard them read in the first lesson this morning, but it is in human – and, especially, bureaucratic – nature to expand on and further embroider existing regulations.
Since the animals were being sacrificed to God, they had to be absolutely perfect, with no blemishes. You couldn’t just bring in a dove off the streets and offer it for sacrifice, or lead in a lamb from your farm. It had to be certified and sold by an approved merchant, rather as our Cardinals team regalia has to be approved by Major League Baseball.
In the same way, the moneychangers made the use of coinage acceptable in the sacred precincts of the Temple. A Roman or other coin, bearing the image of an emperor or foreign god, was unclean for sacrificial purposes; it had to be traded in for a coin that had no pagan taint. The bankers at the Temple exchanged pure money for the impure.
Of course, everyone involved in this business did well while doing good. The Temple authorities got a cut of everything that went on there. The priests ate most of the sacrifices of grain and animal offerings. The money changers made a tidy profit, as did the animal sellers. Given human nature, it’s likely that there was some quiet price-fixing going on, and not in the consumer’s favor.
It all took place in the Temple’s outer court, the Court of the Gentiles, and it must have been a mess. There were the animal sellers, with their cattle, sheep and doves, all bellowing, baa-ing and cooing. There were the money-changers at their tables. There were even souvenirs for sale to those Jews who traveled from around the Mediterranean world in order to worship at the Temple.
We can be sure that there was plenty of huckstering going on, with all those wares and services being loudly advertised. We can be equally sure that it was not a scene to lift one’s thoughts to the beauty of holiness.
This wasn’t the first time Jesus had been to the Temple. This wasn’t the first time he’d made his way through the holy hucksters who hawked their wares. But this was the first time he reacted so passionately to what he witnessed.
Except for Mark, the Synoptics give the incident a set of fairly cursory paragraphs. Luke puts it this way: “Then he went to the Temple and began driving out the traders, with these words: ‘Scripture says, “My house shall be a house of prayer,” but you have made it a den of thieves.'”
Compare that to the level of detail we’ve just heard from John. Jesus went to the Temple, saw – and heard, and smelled – the market, and saw red. He made a whip out of cords and drove out the dealers and their herds. He overturned the moneychangers’ tables and set their stacks of coins bouncing and spinning across the pavement. He ordered the pigeon-mongers to take their cages full of birds and leave.
Jesus was like a one-man riot squad. The salesmen must have been stunned by his actions, because there’s no record that they resisted.
The Temple authorities weren’t so easily cowed. They ordered Jesus to justify himself.
He answered with a response that must have seemed absurd on its face: “Destroy this temple,” he said, “and in three days I will raise it up again.”
Literal-minded men, they assumed that he was talking about Herod’s Temple, which, as they pointed out, had been under construction for 46 years. But Jesus was talking about his own body. Jesus was talking about his own eventual death and resurrection.
So what does this mean?
First, Jesus is making a clear connection between himself and God, very early in this gospel. The message is that he himself is God’s dwelling place.
Second, as we see time after time in the gospels, Jesus was an observant Jew. He had come to the Temple in preparation for the Passover, after all. He did not, however, have a lot of patience with human regulations and additions to the law. Jesus had a common-sense gift for cutting through to the basics. That’s true whether he’s healing someone on the Sabbath, or reminding us that God’s House is there for worship, and not for the benefit of those who make their livings from it.
What does this mean for us today?
As Jesus makes clear, he was the Temple, God’s dwelling-place on Earth. After his resurrection and ascension, however, the Church became the Body of Christ. As the Temple had to be made pure and returned to its purpose, so, too must we, the people who are the Church, look carefully at ourselves.
Have we, like the Temple authorities, become too rigid and self-involved? Has the process become more important than the purpose?
Do we follow the first and great commandment, and love the Lord with all our hearts and souls and minds, or have we invented little gods of our own design that we follow in God’s place?
Do we really think about Christ’s second great commandment, and love our neighbors as ourselves? Do we think about what that means, or do we just give lip service to the Golden Rule while doing pretty much what pleases us?
Do we reach out to those in need – the hungry, the oppressed, the sick – and strive to help them? Or do we just read along on the prayers in church and figure that should cover it?
If you’re anything like me, you’re probably aware that you fall short in at least some of these basics. The fact is that we all fall short, each in our own way.
Fortunately, this is an excellent time to consider what we have done and left undone. The season of Lent gives us the opportunity, the liturgical space, to think about what God really wants from us and how to do a better job of living up to that standard.
On the second Sunday in Lent, we still have time to cleanse our hearts, to put ourselves on a better, straighter path, to make ourselves ready before the joy of resurrection and Easter Day.
Thanks be to God.
– Sarah Bryan Miller