In the Name...
A priest was walking down a quiet city street one night when a robber jumped out and pulled a gun on him. "I've only got a few dollars and a pack of cigarettes", the priest said. "Well, you can keep the cigarettes, Father," the thief replied, "I gave up smoking for Lent".
Our first lesson today reminded us of the Ten Commandments and for many of us the image of Charlton Heston, I mean Moses, majestically striding down the mountain with the stone tablets is firmly engrained in our minds. That's how we picture the event, thanks to Hollywood, and there's a certain comfort in a familiar image.
But, our Gospel this morning presents us with a very discomforting and unfamiliar image, that of an angry and violent Jesus. No sign here of "gentle Jesus, meek and mild". No turning the other cheek. And in stained glass windows the world over we will find Jesus praying, Jesus healing, Jesus surrounded by children or sheep, but, I've yet to see one of Jesus throwing a right hook.
And yet that's what we're told happened. He struck people, he destroyed property - the Greek word translated as "overturned" is "katastrophen" and there was definitely a catastrophe that day with coins and people flying in all directions, birds flapping, cattle stampeding. And if we're shocked, how do you think his disciples felt? They'd never seen anything like this before. Emotions of fear and expectation filled them. What was going to happen next?
A reporter once went to interview the coach of a famous Midwestern college football team and he said, "I understand you have a chaplain to pray for the team's success. Could I meet him?" "Of course," the coach replied, "would you like to meet the offensive or the defensive chaplain?"
The story of man trying to get God to play ball with us is as old as time itself. And the tragic irony of what was going on in the Temple that day when Jesus blew up is that they, the moneychangers and traders, thought they were pleasing God. That's right. They thought they were pleasing God.
You see, to the Jews, Jerusalem was the holiest place on earth. It had the one and only Temple. It was the one and only place where sacrifices to God could be made. So, if you lived in Rome or Antioch or even down the road in Bethlehem you had to go to Jerusalem. Now, travel was expensive and difficult enough for people. Imagine having to cart along livestock, as well, with all the risks of theft, injury, disease, etc. Remember that only healthy, unblemished animals were allowed to be sacrificed and by the time your animal arrived, if it arrived, it might not be acceptable.
So the Temple authorities solved the problem by providing on-site purchase of carefully raised, grade-A certified, sacrificial animals. That way, there was no risk of offending God by accident. No need to risk your own property.
And, since people coming from all over the world brought their local money with pagan symbols, such as Roman coins with their various gods and emperors, you could have these converted into kosher Jewish coins with religious symbols stamped on them, to pay your tithes. Again, the idea was to prevent sacrilege.
So, the moneychangers and traders were actually the guardians of Temple purity and they thought their security measures were for the greater honour of God. You can see their point. But, as noble as their intentions were, and human nature being what it is, it doesn't take much imagination to guess what was really going on. How much was that exchange rate? What was the mark-up on that bull?
The Gospel tells us Jesus walks into this, this well-protected Temple, and he sees the exchange bureaux, the animal pens. He hears the bargaining, the bragging, the bleating, the mooing, the cooing. And this is supposed to please him?
On the contrary. He's mad as Heaven and won't take it anymore.
But, wait. Freeze that frame. What's wrong with this picture? And, I don't mean Jesus getting mad, I mean Jesus using his fists. He's the Son of God. He could send a lightning bolt, or a thousand angels, to blast the place flat. But, he doesn't. He exercises incredible restraint when you think about it. He's an angry God. If you or I had that much power, and we were that mad, what would we do?
There's a story told about the Civil War General Jeb Stuart. As he sat in church one Sunday, the preacher was lamenting the human cost of the war and declaimed, "If all the soldiers who ever died in all the wars were to rise up and appear before us right now, what would we say to them?" And General Stuart blurted out, "Hell, I'd draft them."
Aggression is something deeply rooted in the human make-up. It's something we usually try to control. There is such a thing, however, as constructive aggression and that is what Jesus demonstrated in the Temple. He took action which included physical violence, but he did so for a limited purpose. Nobody was killed. The only casualties were displaced traders and roaming cattle. His point being that more people should have objected to what was going on. The good idea had become corrupt. Instead of focusing on the spiritual nature of the sacrifices, a visit to the Temple had become a trip to the mall.
The story is told about an old man who lay very ill. His pastor came to see him, and asked, "In your life, have you any regrets?" The old man reflected and said, "Well, when I was a boy, some friends and I once twisted some street signs so that the arms pointed in the wrong directions. Just today, for some reason, I've been wondering how many people took the wrong road because of me."
If our natural aggressive tendencies could be employed for God's work as readily as they are employed for Man's, then His Kingdom might be a more obvious domain. But, we hang back and give tacit permission for traders to occupy the Temple, as it were. To let worldly priorities and values lead us down the wrong road.
Sometimes, disturbing the peace is the only Christian option. And that is the message of Lent. It's time for disturbing the peace, the peace of complacency. It's time for shaking up our routines a bit, for cleansing the temples of our lives. Spring cleaning, if you will, the practice of our faith.
After all, what does it profit a man to give up smoking for Lent, but leave everything else the same?
In the Name...