In the Name...
A preacher started his sermon denouncing Hollywood and several people said "Amen." Then, he preached against Wall Street and people said, "Amen." Then, he preached against gossiping and one elder turned to another and said, "Uh, oh, he’s gone to meddling!"
We're at the third Sunday in the season of Lent today and our Gospel has presented us with a problem. Jesus is angry, angry to the point of physical violence.
Have you ever wondered about this story? Has it every disturbed you? It seems so contrary to the traditional image of the calm, collected, impassive, gentle Jesus meek and mild, the suffering servant, the Prince of Peace about whom we sing at Christmas. 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.
Of course, this incident is traditionally called, "The Cleansing of the Temple", and a good thing, too, we might say. After all, the Temple was the house of God. A place set apart for sacred activities. Regardless of the religion that builds them, temples are where people go to give thanks for all that the gods have done for them, ask forgiveness for their sins, hear sacred words, receive guidance for their lives, and, first and foremost, offer sacrifices.
How outrageous, how sacrilegious then, that this holy place should have been turned into a marketplace. Shame, shame. But, was it, really?
Since the dawn of man, sacrifice has always been an essential component of the life of faith. Sacrifice reveals the depth of our sincerity; it shows that we put God and what he asks of us ahead of our own wants and desires. The offering of sacrifice is a key part of any religion and for the Jews, the Law of Moses stated what kinds of sacrifices should be made at their temple and these involved - take note - sheep, cattle, doves.
Now, the Gospel only mentions three commodities on offer at the Temple - sheep, cattle, doves. It didn't say that Jesus emptied wine jugs or coffee pots, or kicked over displays of jewellery, Girl Scout cookies, or postcards of Jerusalem. No. The kind of commerce that went on was very specific. It was not, and this is important, it was not secular and every day. It was, in fact, sacred and limited.
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 and in the days when most Jews lived within a day or two walking distance from the Temple, this wasn't a big deal. But, as the Jewish people spread out all over the world - Antioch, Egypt, Persia, Rome - this became a serious issue. Travel was expensive and difficult enough for people. Imagine having to cart along livestock, as well, with all the risks of theft, injury or disease. The Temple authorities made it very clear that only perfectly 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 problem was solved for overseas visitors by providing on-site purchase of carefully raised, grade-A certified, sacrificial animals. That way, there was no risk of offending God or making a wasted trip. It was easy and convenient. One-stop sacrificing. Cash and carry to the altar. It was a practice intended to be respectful of the Temple's holiness. Of course, over time, it wasn't just overseas visitors, but everybody, even Jerusalem residents, who took advantage of this service. Leave the cow at home. Just bring the money.
And, about the money, since most money issued by pagan rulers had pagan inscriptions, like those nasty Roman coins with their various gods and emperors, you could have these converted into kosher Jewish coins. Again, the idea was to prevent offending God. So, the moneychangers and traders were actually the guardians of Temple purity and their security measures were for the greater glory of God. You can see their point. And it sounds quite reasonable.
So why, then, does Jesus object and object violently?
There was once an abbey whose nuns were terrible singers. Despite their best efforts, every day they painfully chanted the liturgies off-key and out of tune. Finally, one Easter, the Mother Superior decided that for such a high feast day she would hire some professionals to lead the service so the nuns wouldn’t have to sing. It was a beautiful service and all the nuns agreed the performance was heavenly. But, that night, she had a dream of Jesus saying to her, "Reverend Mother, why did I hear no music from your abbey today."
The sacrificial laws were instituted to bring people closer to God. The whole idea of a sacrifice is that you are giving to God something of value to you. That's what was important. Yes, one should always try to offer God the best one has, but, that will be different for everyone. With their rules and regulations, the Temple authorities changed something which should have been an intensely heartfelt act into an impersonal function. Sacrifice became a business. The "right spirit within me" of which the prophets spoke was replaced by a focus on outward show. And that was what made Jesus mad. Yes, the sacrifices offered should be of the highest quality, but, it's more important to God that they be my sacrifices, offerings of my toil, of my heart, and not something purchased for the purpose.
If we're looking for a modern analogy, (and here’s where I stop “preaching” and start “meddling”) we see that today it's increasingly popular for churches to take credit cards and why not? Most businesses do. It's easy and convenient. We even have an online donation button on our website. But, whose money am I giving to the church when I use a credit card? Mine, or the Visa Company’s? It's really part of the great pool of unsecured consumer debt. It's not my gift. It's not my sacrifice. It's just another item on a charge statement, like I’m buying something from Amazon. Does that honour God?
You see, some things can start out looking good, but, unexamined; these same things can become obstacles to our relationship with God. Now, we are the temples of the Holy Spirit and there may be some practices and attitudes within us that have to be overturned and driven out to cleanse that temple.
For, just as there were Jews who went to the Temple, not to offer any heartfelt sacrifice, nor to listen for God's guidance, nor to give thanks, but, because they thought if they just showed up and said the right words and went through the motions that's all it was about, so there are Christians for whom their religion is just some equally indifferent and optional exercise.
That's what happens if we let worldly priorities and values distort the priorities and values God wants us to have. Sometimes disturbing the peace is the only Christian option. And that is a message of Lent. It's time for shaking up our routines, for cleansing the temples of our lives. Spring cleaning, if you will, the practice of our faith. Even, no, especially if it means meddling with complacency.
In the Name...