Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
Where did he find the freedom to do that – to show unapologetically with his words and actions exactly how he felt? In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes quite an entrance. While the other Gospel writers place Jesus’ “cleaning house” near the end of his ministry, John places this protest at the beginning. For John, this is Jesus’ first truly public act. Sure, he’d just turned water into wine at a wedding, but that was a parlor trick compared to confronting the religious power structure head on. It seems like conduct unbecoming Judaism’s rising star, doesn’t it? The leading prophet of his day hailed Jesus as “the Lamb of God.” He looks more like a lion here.
No matter how many times we read it, it’s still shocking to hear about Jesus making a whip – yes, a whip - to drive out the merchants and their merchandise from the temple, pouring out coins, overturning tables. At the very least, it’s impolite. It’s downright vulgar by Episcopal standards. And it doesn’t sound at all like the wordy, placid Jesus we get in the rest of John’s Gospel – the one who’s always in control, who epitomizes non-anxious presence.
Technically, these are law-abiding citizens he’s targeting. They haven’t committed a crime. The other Gospels imply that they’re skimming off the top, but not here. Here in John, they’re just doing their jobs. It’s the time of the Passover. Jews from all over the known world are coming to offer their sacrifices. It was impractical to bring their own animals, so the sellers of the cattle and sheep and doves are simply making it easier for the faithful to make their offerings. As for the currency exchange, that was because the coins the pilgrims brought bore the image of the Emperor. They needed to be exchanged for coins that didn’t bear what some might call an “idol” or a “graven image.” It wouldn’t do to verge on breaking one of the Ten Commandments. Everyone here is trying to fulfill the letter of the law at least.
Could they have set up shop outside and avoided bringing all that noise and smell to the Court of the Gentiles, the only place in the temple where non-Jews were permitted to pray? Sure, but that would have required another layer of bureaucracy. And besides, what do non-Jews care about the Passover anyway? Here, our marketers have maximum foot traffic. They’re bringing efficiency and convenience to their customers. And hey, if the faithful aren’t treating this like sacred space, why should they?
It’s in this very pragmatic hustle and bustle that Jesus finds himself. By driving out the sellers and the moneychangers, it’s as if he’s attacking the sacrificial system itself – a seeming pillar of his own Judaism. Could he do that? It’s interesting that those who confront him don’t ask him why he did it; they only want to know under whose authority. They want some sign, some miracle, to prove that he’s acting on divine orders. It’s as if they know somehow that turning a place of prayer into a marketplace isn’t right, that this is not what God had in mind. They know - something can be technically legal and still profane, still wrong.
The Old Testament was not of one mind concerning temple practices. For all the priestly scribes who tried to regulate their way to holiness, there were just as many poets and prophets who couldn’t accept the idea that we find our way to God through ritual alone. It’s the psalmists who tell us that the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, that we should offer God a sacrifice of thanksgiving – not the flesh of some unsuspecting animal. It’s prophets like Jeremiah and Amos who remind us that no amount of perfectly executed ritual will protect us from God’s judgment when we’re oppressing the foreigner or the needy among us. Jesus is not some whiny outsider here throwing stones at an institution he has no investment in; it’s because he cares so much about what the temple is supposed to represent that he lets loose.
The temple was supposed to be a place for people from all over to remember who they were – most especially on the holiest days of the year. It wasn’t the only place they could find God, of course. They could and did pray at home. They prayed and studied Scripture at their local synagogues. The temple’s purpose was slightly different, though. By standing as it had for hundreds of years, through countless waves of regime change, it was a place for all Jews as well as God-fearing Gentiles to pray where generations before had prayed – to, as T.S. Eliot once put it, “kneel where prayer has been valid.” We understand that impulse. It’s part of why we’re here this morning as opposed to some mountaintop somewhere. It’s not because God is here and not there – we agree with today’s psalmist that “the heavens declare the glory of God” – but because the visible traces of our fellow travelers (past and present) mean something to us. The well-worn pews and worn-out prayer books, the ancient words spoken and sung, the sheer number of people who’ve been baptized or married or buried from here – they’re like trail markers reminding us that others have been through this same wilderness and somehow made it through.
Once we know a temple’s true purpose (or a church’s, for that matter), it is infuriating to see it distorted – to see it become about status and power, a way to grade other people’s holiness, to decide who’s worthy to come close to God and who’s not, where people are sorted by the offerings they can afford. Let’s face it - we are all capable of reducing what is supposed to be a living, breathing relationship with God into a choreographed series of moves and payments. Love should never be cheapened like that. And somehow, Jesus found the freedom to say so out loud - and to act in such a way that his convictions were unmistakable.
We could say he found that freedom because he’s the Son of God and we’re not, but it’s that simple. The God revealed in Jesus has always been about freedom. This is the God who brought the people of Israel out of slavery – who told them to choose whom they would serve, who gave them the capacity to choose – and who put laws in place to protect them from the worst of their choices. This is also the God who wants a higher standard of judgment from us than what’s currenty legal or illegal, who believes that we can still recognize what’s death-dealing, what’s profane, what’s just plain wrong – and who gives us the courage to speak and act on those convictions. And in just a few weeks at Easter, we’ll see yet again that this is a God who can bring new life, new action out of our worst choices, who gives us yet another chance to walk in new life, and who wants us – for God’s sake – to make the most of it.
In the silence that follows, I invite you to use it how you will – but consider how you might want to “clean house” this Lent. What rituals, what habits, what convictions have become unthinking substitutes for a living, breathing relationship with the God who loves you? What might you need to drive out so that something less fearful and more life-giving can come in? In the Name of the One who shows us what it really means to be free – Amen.