a Sermon for Lent 3B
Text: John 2:13-22
what’s the problem?
Think about all of Jesus’s public ministry for a moment. There were some big spectacles like the feeding of the five thousand. There were also public condemnations, particularly of the Jewish leadership. But this story is unique. It is bold and unsettling. It is violent and evocative. And let’s be honest: pretty mean. What is Jesus’s problem?
Let’s begin with the context. The other gospels have this story take place at the beginning of Holy Week, where a public spectacle would be seen by his disciples, the huge crowd following him, and all the people gathered at the Temple to meet him for the first time. It fits right into the charges leveled against him in the ensuing days. But John puts the story right near the beginning. Suddenly, Jesus is anonymous, a stranger, walking into the Temple and messing everything up. There is no word-of-mouth about him yet, just a strange hick from the country with a small band of merry weirdos coming to the big city and messing with the Temple—the center of worship. So, again, what is Jesus’s problem?
We know Jesus has a problem with the chief priests, who are essentially working for Rome. The Sadduccees, the Pharisees, and the Scribes who should all know better, are on the bad list, too. But why the money changers and livestock- and dove-sellers? Is it personal? Jesus seems to make it personal. He appears to attack them with a weapon and throw their merchandise on the floor.
One thing should be made plain. Jesus was a good Jew and wasn’t starting a new religion called Christianity. He understood the place of the Temple and of sacrifice in worship. He must have had something else in mind. Something consistent with his criticisms of the church leadership. I think its the deal-making.
the art of the deal
Jesus’s problem with the money changers and livestock sellers isn’t ritual purity with respect to the Temple, since he didn’t seem terribly bothered by his own frequent moments of ritual impurity, but he does have a problem with a systematized, transactional relationship with GOD. The more money you brought with you, the better the animal you could buy for sacrifice. The better the animal, the more right you were with GOD. In this system, GOD’s favor
- could be bought
- and the wealthy could curry greater favor.
Christians are no stranger to this kind of deal-making, are we? You probably hear in this a similarity to the problem of indulgences, in which wealthy patrons got to buy their way out of their sins. They put GOD’s forgiveness up for sale. But don’t just blame the Catholics for that one. Go to many Protestant churches on any given Sunday and you’ll hear deal-making for GOD. If you come forward and get born-again or close your eyes and accept Jesus as your savior or ask for forgiveness for your sins then GOD will let you in to the inner circle. Here’s GOD’s asking price: what do you have? Can we get a deal done, right here, this morning?
We love cutting deals with people. We love the hunt. I remember a scene from an old sitcom in which one friend was so obsessed with getting a good deal, he would buy things he didn’t need, just because it was a good deal. A good friend of mine had this one roommate who actually preferred the good deal to free. He wanted to pay virtually nothing rather than nothing. Free isn’t a deal. Free is a gift. It’s unbalanced. But a good deal is great for you and just happens to be lousy for the other person. We make deals out of selfishness, not just possessiveness. It doesn’t count unless someone else gets the short end of the stick. Let them pay the difference.
Jesus doesn’t deal
Of course we don’t see it that way, really. We look at the bottom line and simply ignore the effect on others. No big deal. For us. But Jesus isn’t interested in deals. He seems to be challenging the idea of the transactional relationship with GOD. He says that all of this is alien to GOD’s will. The changing of money and the sacrifice of livestock isn’t really the problem. Remember that this is how Jews worshiped for the past 2000 years, so Jesus wasn’t looking at it like a 21st Century Christian American, but a 1st Century Jewish Palestinian. In fact, as we talked about Wednesday night, the money changers and livestock sellers were providing a service that made it easier for devout Jews to worship. Their being there wasn’t intentionally motivated by selfishness or greed, but of greasing the system for the benefit of the people.
When Jesus declares that they had made the Temple into a marketplace, I don’t think he’s talking about the selling so much as the deal-making. They made it easy to buy something, but the wealthy bought better stuff, then went in and expected more from GOD.
So when Jesus tells the people that the Temple, this gargantuan structure that is many football fields across and deep, would be destroyed (and it literally was, decades later), He was passing judgment on it, perhaps more than the people. It had become a marketplace in which deal-making enabled the wealthy to maintain advantage over the poor, rather than making all Jews equal. So it was going to be destroyed. And when it was, the Jewish people learned a new way to worship GOD, not an insignificant development.
The Scripture says: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” and then “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.”
Historically, we’ve melded the literal and metaphor: Jesus replaces the physical Temple. He becomes the center and destination of worship. This makes for a captivating image. But I’m more interested in why Jesus replaces the Temple than that he does. If the Temple needed to be brought down because it became a marketplace of selfishness and deal-making, then Jesus isn’t.
a free society
The grace in this prospect is that we don’t need to make deals anymore. We don’t need to make promises we may or may not be able to keep just so that GOD will find favor with us. We don’t have to bargain or beg. We are given access to grace freely.
We may not know how to deal with this reality, because we love making deals. But unlike my friend’s roommate, we want that access to be free. Free for us and for our neighbor who is having trouble with her mortgage. Or my buddy’s daughter who was having trouble at school and at church. We shouldn’t get second-tier grace or have to mop the floor to earn our way in. That isn’t GOD’s way. GOD gives it freely: we need only accept it.
And that truth opens the door to a whole new world in which we don’t need to bind others to these transactions. We need not cut deals and try to maximize our gain. It opens up a whole new world in which we really can help and protect others. A whole new world: a Kingdom of GOD.