Date: March 8, 2015
Place: St. Joseph of Arimathea Episcopal Church
Scripture: John 2:13-22
In college I was president of a student organization that brought in speakers to address topics of interest in the humanities. In my senior year we read an essay by a theologian you may have heard me mention from time to time, Stanley Hauerwas. I still enjoy Hauerwas’ work, and appreciate the fact that he is an honorary canon theologian at Christ Church Cathedral. At the time I didn’t know that much about the theological landscape and so had no idea when I contacted him at his office at Duke University that his schedule was booked up for appearances and speaking engagements a year or two out.
But he agreed to come and speak at our university, a fact for which I’m grateful. His topic was Just War and Christian nonviolence, the two dominant ethical traditions within the church related to how we respond to violence and evil. At the end of his lecture, I asked him the question that had occurred to me which related to this gospel passage. I asked him what a person who holds to Christian nonviolence has to say about Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. Hauerwas, who is known for one-liners responded: “if you find a temple that needs to be cleansed, cleanse it!”
As I’ve reflected on today’s Gospel passage, those words have come to mind. “If you find a temple that needs to be cleansed, cleanse it!” Jesus having performed a miracle at the wedding and Cana of Galilee, and having gone through Capernaum, goes up to Jerusalem. While there, being a pious Jew, he goes to the temple to worship. And upon entering he sees something going on that so angers him – a cold calculating sort of anger – that he goes and makes a whip of cords, a scourge, and returns to the Temple and drives out those people selling livestock for sacrifices, those selling doves, and the money changers. He uses the web to drive the cattle, he overturns the table of the money lenders, and pours their coins out on the ground in the temple courtyard. Then, turning to those standing there, he says don’t make my father’s house a marketplace.
This event in the earthly ministry of Jesus, has been one that has evoked a great deal of comment. It’s one of the few places recorded in the Gospels were Jesus gets angry. There are a couple more he gets frustrated, or at least were his actions could be interpreted as frustration. But this event stands out starkly as the clearest example we have of Jesus’s anger. And it is an ambiguous event in some ways because people have wondered what was Jesus so angry about?
As has been pointed out by commentators both ancient and modern, the money changers and those who are selling livestock and those for sacrifices were not doing anything that in themselves was evil or sinful. I mean, it’s pretty natural. You have a need to offer a particular sort of sacrifice, and rather than hope that there is a lamb or calf without blemish or that fits the other requirements in your flock or heard that year, and rather than bring this animal with you all the way to Jerusalem, why not simply by an animal that fits the criteria at the point where you need it. These folks were providing a service. Likewise with the money changers, if you’re going to the Temple and you are going to offer a monetary gift, the last thing you’d want is to offer a Roman coin with a big graven image of the Emperor with the words “The God, Caesar Augustus” or some such. It would have been blasphemous. So the money changers offered the opportunity to exchange this blasphemous currency for something known as the Tyrian shekel, a coin that’s rather than an image of any person, had an image of wheat.
Some commentators have been wondering what it is that causes Jesus to become so angry at these people. Weren’t they simply providing a necessary service? I think the phrasing recorded in the synoptic Gospels is instructive. In John Jesus says “do not make my father’s house a marketplace.” But in the synoptic Gospels he’s more clear and to the point: “do not make my father’s house a den of thieves” (Cf. Luke 19:46, Matthew 21:13). Jesus’ concern doesn’t seem to be that these things are occurring in the Temple in and of themselves. Rather Jesus seems to be concerned about people’s focus and intention. The temple was to be the place for people came to worship God. The sellers of sacrificial animals and the money changers in the process of meeting a legitimate need, had turned the Temple from a place of worship into a marketplace in the worse sense of the word and had pivoted from enabling worshipers, to impeding worship. In other words, their focus was not to ensure that people were equipped to worship God, but their profit. Much as the tax collectors of the day made their living on the amount they were able to collect that was in excess of the amount Rome required, it seems that those engaged in selling in the Temple, were taking advantage of others. Their transgression was particularly egregious because of the context.
This seems to be why Jesus says in the Synoptics, “stop making my father’s house a den of thieves!” These folks were inserting themselves between worshipers and God. They were thinking of themselves and not others, and people believed that they had to go through them to get to God. And so, when we look at it from this perspective Jesus’s actions make perfect sense and are in keeping with the frustration he expresses at the Pharisees among others who presume to put themselves between people and God. Jesus is concerned, is that people be able to have a relationship with God.
When Jesus is asked by those who witnessed his actions, “give us a signed as to why you do this” Jesus responds by telling them destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it. Well of course, his questioners think this answer is absurd. The temple has been under construction for 46 years. But as the disciples understood when looking back from the post-resurrection context, Jesus was talking about himself and not the building of the temple. In this statement Jesus is making a claim about where the presence of God is to be found. The presence of God is no longer to be found in the temple, but rather in Jesus himself. This is the radical claim that separates Jesus from other contemporary critics of the Temple. None of the others would have claimed that God was uniquely present in and with them.
We must be careful considering this because of the fraught history of Gentile Christian interpretation of this passage, which has been filled with examples of the denigration of Judaism. Discussion of how the sacrificial system was backward and has been supplanted etc. So to be clear, what is being discussed here is the movement of the holiness of God, the presence of God, the Shekinah, from the Temple to another place. This is not an idea foreign to Judaism. It is instead considered to have happened multiple times. When the Israelites wandered in the wilderness the presence of God was with them in the pillar of cloud and later in the tabernacle (the tent) which served as a precursor of the great temple in Jerusalem. Within Judaism itself there has been an ongoing concept of the idea that God’s holiness can move.
After the destruction of the first Temple, this was the understanding that explained the destruction. Jews came to see the destruction as evidence of the fact that God’s holiness had departed. The absence of God’s holiness explained the destruction. Some Rabbis–the inheritors of the Pharisees–explained the destruction of the second Temple in similar ways. One moving example of such stories was told to me by a Rabbi who happened to teach the history of Judaism course I took as an undergrad. In this account, the chief priest during the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, climbed to the pinnacle with the keys to the holy of holies and threw them up into the air and as a hand–a divine hand–appeared from above and grabbed the keys, pulling them up into the sky. All this is to say the notion that God’s holiness can move is not something unique to Christianity. Indeed to the degree that is present in Christianity it is part of the shared inheritance that Christians have with modern-day Jewish believers.
What is unique about the Christian claim is about where God’s holiness now resides. For Christians the claim is that God is uniquely present in Jesus Christ. And through Jesus Christ, that God is uniquely present in each believer and present in the world through the body of Christ, the people of God. Us in Christ, Christ in us.
In cleansing the temple, Jesus is not doing so out of a sense that this is the only place that people could possibly worship God. You’ll recall from John’s Gospel Jesus’ exchange with the Samaritan woman at the well, where he says the time is coming and now is when true worshipers will not worship on this mountain (Gerizim) nor in Jerusalem but will worship in spirit and in truth; for such the father seeks to worship him (paraphrase of John 4:21-23). The problem was not that folks were defiling the Temple in some way, except insofar as they were inserting themselves between God and the people who came to the temple to connect with God. And so Jesus cleanses the Temple. We likewise are called to cleanse temples. We are called to rid ourselves and our communities of anything that prevents us or others from having relationship with God.
If we find a temple that needs cleansing, we ought to cleanse it!
But since we are now worshiping God in spirit and in truth, and there is not a particular place where we say we are in closer proximity to God than others per se, then we are called to look not only to our communities but within ourselves to determine what sort of cleansing needs to take place.
As the early scriptural commentator Origen put it, “When are there not some money changers sitting who need the strokes of the scourge Jesus made of small cords, and dealers in small coin who require to have their money poured out and their tables overturned? When are there not those who are inclined to merchandise, but need to be held to the plow and the oxen, that having put their hand to it and not turning round to the things behind them, they may be fit for the kingdom of God?” (Origen, “Commentary on John,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, 393 to 394).
And looking to ourselves we can consider St. Augustine’s sermon on this passage. Augustine has this wonderful imagery he uses, of Christ having made the whip of cords out of the very sins of the merchants and money changers. In other words he envisions them being run out of the temple metaphorically, by their own sins. Taking up that imagery, and combining it with some imagery from Psalms and some of the Gospels, Augustine warns us that we can sin, and then sin in order to cover our sin, with the result being that we take a single sin, one cord, and bind it together with others until we have a rope. A rope with which to bind ourselves. Much better he says that we be scourged now with the small sins and be preserved from being bound by long ropes of sin and cast into the outer darkness (Augustine, “Homilies of the Gospel of John,” Post-Nicene Fathers, 70-72 )
If you find a temple that needs cleansing, cleanse it!
Lent is the perfect time to discuss the cleansing of our temples. We’re all temples of the Holy Spirit; what in our lives is getting in the way of our faithfulness? Of our relationship with the father? Picking up on Augustine’s metaphor, could we not lay out for ourselves the cords of our sins, and making a weapon of them, cleanse our hearts, casting them out and reorienting ourselves toward God? If we want to talk about what this means, I think this could be seen as a metaphorical representation of the process of confession and absolution. When we confess – and even during this general confession that we have in our services, I hope that we’re all thinking about particular sins which are separating us from God and one another – we are laying out before us the cords that could be turned into rope. But the very act of remembering, of calling the sins to mind, helps to deprive them of their power and in turn gives us the opportunity to once again be faithful. Lent is a time of introspection and reflection. Perhaps we should put this active, if violent, imagery to work and understand that when we confess, when we pray, when we ask for forgiveness – these are the tools with which we can run off the things that separate us from God.
And if we want to temper the aggressiveness or violence of this imagery a bit, we can do so by considering the fact that this action is not taken in order to make us worthy of God, or of forgiveness. It is rather taken, out of gratitude for the forgiveness already received, for the reconciliation already achieved.
In seminary I had a T-shirt that had a slogan on it that amused some of my classmates, and I know that one Episcopalian theologian, Paul Zahl, also had this T-shirt. It said “I bring nothing to the table.” The reality of that slogan is that there is nothing that you or I can do to win God’s favor, or to earn our salvation. But out of gratitude for what God has done in my life, I can reflect upon the ways and I have fallen short of the great gift I have been given, and I can seek to live a holier and more faithful life, a life where I am more closely identified with Jesus. And so as we come to this table–this altar–today let us recognize that we bring nothing with us with which to purchase the grace of God. Instead we come to this table and receive the grace of God, and having been bought by it, enabled to cleanse ourselves and be more like Christ, not out of necessity but out of gratitude. Amen.