Third Sunday of Lent JERUSALEM.....CONTESTED CITY
Psalm 18:7-10 The law f the Lord is perfect, refresh he soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The decrees of the Lord are firm and all them are righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.
John 2:13-22 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; , he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, "Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father's house into a market" His disciples remembered that it is written: "Zeal for your house will consume me". The Jews then responded to him, "What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days." They replied, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?" But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
Have you ever had one of those times when you had just had enough? You've had enough and you decide you just can't be silent any longer. So you do something fairly dramatic. Looking back on it, it may not have had been all that smart, but you had had enough. Can you remember one of those times? Take just a moment and search your memory and maybe this story about Jesus cleansing the temple will make a little more sense.
But before we actually begin the story, let's recognize some of the confusion around this incident and get it out of the way so we can hear what the story actually has to say to us. Sometimes we get distracted by things and miss out on what the story is actually trying to tell us.
Today's version of the story from John's gospel takes place at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, during his first visit to Jerusalem for Passover. John tells us that Jesus actually made at least three trips to Jerusalem for the Passover. The other gospel writers only tell us about Jesus making one trip to Jerusalem for Passover - at the end of his three years of ministry.
It was during that visit when Jesus entered the city on a donkey in the big parade and walked into the temple where our story takes place. John tells the story differently. Let's hear the story one more time together and you can decide if it really makes any difference.
It was Passover. Passover is one of the larges holidays of the Jewish faith, remembering an celebrating the Exodus out f Egypt with Moses, centuries earlier. Every faithful Jew who was capable was supposed to travel to Jerusalem and present an offering at the temple. So Jews traveled from all over the world to be at the temple on Passover, and that included Jesus and his followers, who came to town with all of the other faithful Galileans prepared to make their sacrificial offering.
Try to imagine what the Passover experience was like. The typically busy city was now stretched to the limit with visitors from all around the world, wearing all manner of colorful clothing and speaking dozens of different languages. Rooms were full, streets were packed and everyone was focused on one thing; getting to the crowded temple to offer their Passover sacrifice.
The specific type of sacrifice you had to make depended on many things; where you were from, how old you were, what your job was, how nasty the sins were for which you needed to be forgiven and a long list of other things. Your sacrifice might be as simple as a dove and a half bushel of wheat or something more elaborate like a full-sized, unblemished oxen.
Most sacrifices included at least some form of animal and the requirement was that the animal be perfect and free of blemish. This not only meant it should be physically perfect but it needed to be clean and look nice and healthy as well.
This leads to an interesting issue for those coming from out of town. Can you imagine the challenge of traveling a good distance across country, mostly by walking the crowded and narrow roads, typically for many days and the entire time dragging along a few crates of doves, several bushel of grain, not to mention a couple of sheep or oxen? You not only needed to keep the animals from wandering off and getting injured from the hours of walking on the rocky paths, but you needed to bring enough food for them so they looked nice, fat and healthy when you finally go them through the crowds, up into the temple. You needed to keep them clean as well.
It's not surprising that most travelers thought it was best to not bring their sacrificial animas with them, but to wait and buy them once they got to Jerusalem. As a result, there was quite a variety of vendors set up their booths around the temple yards, all offering the types of sacrifice that travelers needed to purchase. Because the visitors had to purchase their sacrifice there, the vendors were able to charge more, kind of like buying gasoline along the interstate instead of driving a few extra miles where you can find better prices.
Just making sense of all of those rules was nearly impossible for most folks as well, so what you actually had to sacrifice depended a lot upon who you knew and asked. As an example, one of the things people argued about was what you did with the sacrificial animal that you purchased after you purchased it. Some said that you could just get it from the vendor and take it to the priests. Others argued that if you touched the animal yourself, it became unclean, so the only option was to have one of the temple workers take your animal from the vendor to the priest, which would be done for a small fee.
In addition, every person entering the temple courtyard itself was required to pay an admission fee. So before entering the temple to offer their sacrifice, they had to visit one of the many moneychangers who were scattered around the vendors and who were known to charge whatever exchange rate they could get from those needing their services.
But there was more. They way the process worked was that you would take your sacrifice to the temple courtyard where it would be presented to one of the priests. Sacrificial animals were killed and butchered, parts of the animal were burned on the alter fire as the law required, and the rest of the meat was thrown into a large pot and cooked, to be used as part of the various Passover feasts.
So get the picture. Noise, crowds of people needing to buy a sacrifice, going from vendor to vendor who are all yelling about their pricing. You have moneychangers and people arguing and bickering over exchange rates. You watch the people paying to enter the courtyard and humbly presenting their sacrifice to the priests, and watch as their "holy" sacrifice is quickly turned into just another revenue stream for those who are running the show.
That feels a little irritating to you standing an watching this, so it might help explain what went through Jesus' mind as he stepped up the stairs, entered the temple courtyard and stood there watching and listening. Then he came to that moment when he had finally had enough. We're told he grabbed some rope from one of the vendor tents and started swinging it around like a whip, chasing vendors, money changers and livestock out of the temple courtyard. He grabbed the metal boxes that moneychangers used to old their loot and poured the coins out all over the ground, which had to have created a stir all by itself. As he did this, he was shouting, "Take these things out of here!" an "Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!"
Let's pause right there for just a moment to point out that Jesus was not yelling at us and telling us that we can't have bake sales or fall festivals in the church. His anger was not about the fact that something was being sold but that those doing the selling were taking complete advantage of those buying.
It wasn't that money was involved: it was that one group was treating the other as if they were worthless and had no value in the eyes of God. The were doing that in the very place that was meant o be the ultimate symbol of fairness and equity among all people. God's temple. So, he drew a line. He took a stand.
Let's end our retelling of this story with a couple of important points. First, as suggested earlier, Jesus wasn't making a point about bake sales and fall festivals. He was upset that one person was not treating another person as an equal, as another child of God.
Second, the story is not a call for all of us to become zealous about some issue and to go out and turn over tables and drive away the evildoers. We live in a time that is running wild with zealots, each proclaiming their view of right and doing horrendous things to other human beings, far beyond turning over tables and swinging a rope. We don't see the world as the Son of God sees the world, so any zealous act we might pursue is gong to be corrupted through our limited understanding.
What might we rake from this story, other than understanding a bit more about why Jesus did what he did that day in the temple?
The story's message seems clear. Our task is to zealously make sure that our church, this house of God, never becomes a place in which: any one person is treated as less equal to or less valuable than any other person Our task is to keep the house clean of those things that might cause any person to feel less at home here, less safe here, or less welcome here. Our task is to obey the one rule of the clean house: "This one commandment I give to you: Love One Another."