Sunday, March 11, 2012

Jesus Temple Rage

This morning’s Gospel narrates a critical event in the life of Jesus:  his overturning the money tables and speaking out against the great Temple of Jerusalem.
The lectionary sets the stage with the reading from Exodus 20:1-17.  This is to help us in the 21st century see the historical basis for the practice of 1st century Judaism:  a particular way of living that sought relationship with God (and, it’s worth noting, a way of living that was fully embraced by Jesus the 1st century Jew).  It is not meant to be critique of what was practiced, and it is not raised to debate the theological implications found in Exodus, but is the necessary backdrop we need if we are to understand what happened concerning Jesus.
Dom Helder Camara once said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
Christian social justice advocate Jim Wallis similarly likes to say, “You can’t just keep pulling people’s bodies out of the river without sending somebody upstream to see what or who is throwing them in.”
Jesus’ act is filled with righteous anger:  overturning the temples and driving out the money changers was a radical act of defiance.
Jesus had been in the Temple before, but his earlier visits did not include overturning the tables.  What drove him to this act of civil disobedience, or what Carl Gregg calls “holy obedience”?  
In the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, it was the informed place of recognizing abuse.  “You’re robbing the people” is what Jesus essentially says.  It is not an indictment of the historical Jewish process of relationship with God, which in the first century required a sacrifice of unblemished animals, provided by the temple itself for convenience.  Instead, it is a realization that the Temple leaders, along with the Romans, were financially abusing the people:  obtaining huge sums of money through the process.

(I tried to illustrate this last time I preached on the text, in a sermon called "Angry Jesus")
Jesus was executed precisely when he moved against the system. In John Dominic Crossan’s words, “Those who live by compassion are often canonized. Those who live by justice are often crucified.” 
(again, cited by Gregg)
Matthew, Mark, Luke each have Jesus saying that the leaders have turned the Temple into a “den of thieves.” 
It is fascinating to note that that The Gospel of John, instead, has Jesus say “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” (John 2:16)  (Thanks to David Lose for this observation...)
John additionally moves the event to early in the Gospel (Chapter two), rather than near the end of the narrative like the other Gospels.
John’s change is theological nature, rather than historical.  It is not to highlight an abuse by those who run the Temple, but rather a profound new reality.
John's Gospel was written well after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans.  The Temple had been understood to be the place where God dwelled.  But now it was no longer in existence.  So, in the Gospel of John, Jesus himself becomes the place where God dwells.  And by the our call to “love one another as I have loved you”...WE are called to be the place where God dwells.
When you combine these two ideas, you get this:
If the church ceases to be what it is meant to be, then, Jesus says, I can raise up a new community. In just three days time (mirroring the 3 days in the grave), I’ll have a new community of people that more reflects the vision God has for the world!
It clearly says that we (the church) are not as important as we think we are:  meaning that our buildings, our customs, our particular word choices and so on are not as critical to God’s (or our own) well being as we like to think. We aren’t entitled to anything simply because we’re the church. And we are certainly not called to protect God from those who are pursing truth and justice.  Rather, the reverse is true.
We the Church are called to live passionately in what it means to dwell in God:  a community centered on what is just and good, welcoming everyone who comes searching for the holy in their lives, and recognizing where it is at work throughout the world.
Thanks be to God.


Eric Funston said...

Good note, Kurt! I used the temple cleansing to preach on social justice.

Eliyahu said...

Next time preach on, "Real Men Have Bones," like the ones found in Talpiot.