Gracious God, we are so grateful for your ever-present love in our lives. In this time of worship, prayer, and reflection, may we quiet the busyness of our minds, release the frenzy of our worries, and open our hearts to your caring presence. And may we listen for your Spirit’s call to us this day. Amen.
Imagine you were in Jerusalem in the first century. Like so many others, including Jesus and his disciples, perhaps you are a Jewish pilgrim who has traveled from your hometown or village to this special city in order to take part in the festival of Passover. Maybe you’ve been there before. Maybe you go every year. Or maybe this is your first trip.
When you arrive, you know that part of the observance of this holiday is to find your way up to the temple to make an offering. It’s a common practice in general when one makes the trip to Jerusalem.
What you find when you get up to the temple mount is a huge structural complex and a busy, loud, bustling scene. The outer courtyard is filled with vendors selling sheep, cattle, and doves for sacrificial offerings. The money changers are there also to change any currency from the various corners of the empire and beyond into the Tyrian Shekel, the coin one must use to pay the temple tax. And it’s crowded! It’s Passover, so it’s like Disneyland on a busy summer weekend.
This was the second temple built on this site, by the way. Solomon’s was the first. This one was constructed during the reign of Herod the Great. John’s gospel tells us it’s been under construction for forty-six years.
In addition to being an important religious site in Judaism, the Jerusalem temple was also a popular tourist attraction in its day. Along with Jewish pilgrims and the priests who served at the temple to facilitate offerings, Gentiles went there too, some just to check it out and some to offer their own prayers. And surely there were some Roman guards posted there as well for crowd control, especially at Passover.
And then Jesus shows up, looking like any other Jewish pilgrim until he starts disrupting things and causing a scene. John’s telling of this temple incident is the most colorful. Not only does Jesus turn over the tables of the money changers and tell the vendors to get out, but he also makes a whip out of cords and drives out the livestock. You can imagine the sheep and cattle running away, the vendors chasing after them, the money changers angrily cleaning up the mess, people shocked at this behavior.
“Take these things out of here!” he says to the dove sellers. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” In the other gospels, but not in John, Jesus paraphrases the prophet, Jeremiah, saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer. But you have made it a den of robbers.”
It’s quite the spectacle Jesus has caused. And, as it turns out, it may have been the thing that ended up getting him into trouble with both the temple authorities and the Romans.
So why did he do it?
Did he just lose his temper? Probably not. Was he against animal sacrifice? There’s no clear evidence for that notion. Was it because the vendors were price gouging? Because the money changers were extorting the public by offering lousy exchange rates so they could make some cash? Some of that could have been happening (people do that kind of thing sometimes), but there’s no clear evidence that it was a wide-spread problem.
Though we can’t fully read Jesus’ mind, probably the best answer we have to the question of why he did this is that it was an act of prophetic teaching and witness. A number of biblical scholars see it this way. And we know that prophets make scenes sometimes in order to make a point.
Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets that came before him, was concerned with integrity. We also know that Jesus was concerned with the plight of the poor and suffering.
Had typical temple worship lost its relevance and depth? Had typical temple worshippers forgotten that ritual worship must always go hand in hand with loving and serving one’s neighbor? Had some of the temple authorities become so enmeshed with the Roman Empire that they were actively contributing to the oppression of their own people? Probably to some degree all of those things were happening.
For centuries, the prophets had been calling their people to integrity of faith in worship and practice. Consider that familiar passage from the prophet Micah (which is also quoted in our Bay Shore Church Bond of Union):
With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8)
We’re familiar with Micah’s point. Other prophets, including Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, and Jeremiah, all made the same point. God doesn’t want empty worship. God doesn’t want us to just go through the motions. When the practice of faith become devoid of those three important things Micah lists: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God, then something is wrong. Religion becomes disingenuous, even harmful, and it’s missing the heart and soul of a faith that fiercely loves both God and neighbor.
Might Jesus, standing in the company of prophets like Micah, have felt compelled to enact a public prophetic witness to draw attention to these issues? I think so. It wasn’t that Jesus was necessarily against the temple structure, sacrificial ritual, the priests, the vendors, and the pilgrims. But perhaps he wanted to get their attention. And I think that is because he wanted to draw them back to their heart of their faith. That’s what good prophets do.
After this incident, Jesus would continue to teach in the temple. It certainly appears that he wanted the temple to be a place of prayer, spiritual nourishment, and public service. So, I don’t think he wanted to destroy it, even as he was critical of the way it was functioning in his day. I think he wanted to resurrect its ministry.
In John’s telling of this story, another theological point is being made as well. First off, John uses this episode to foreshadow Jesus’ death and resurrection. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” Jesus says. “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” his critics reply. “But he was speaking of the temple of his body,” John tells us.
And for John, Jesus is the temple. If we want to find God’s presence on earth, we look to Jesus. As you remember from the opening of John’s gospel, Jesus is the Word made flesh who lived among us. Jesus is God’s self-revelation of love.
John knew that temples would rise and fall. The one in Jerusalem would fall too, just a few decades after Jesus’ life. But the presence of God in Christ could not be destroyed or defeated by the powers of this world.
This story invites a lot of interesting questions for us to reflect upon for ourselves.
One is that question of integrity and wholeness in our practice of faith. How do our acts of prayer and worship go hand in hand with our acts of service, compassion, and justice-seeking? How are we living out those three important mandates Micah emphasizes of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God?
We learn from the witness of Jesus and the prophets who came before him that all of these things are a part of a cohesive and integrated practice of faith. They are not so separate from one another. None of this is new. But we all need reminding now and then.
In a way, Jesus cleaned house that day at the temple. Symbolically anyway. In reality, it sounds like he kind of made a mess. But the point was to call people back to the central focus of their faith – loving God and loving their neighbor.
And so, this story also invites us to consider how we might wish to clean our own spiritual houses. And how we might ask for God’s help with that. Perhaps you stopped by the prayer station last weekend that some of our worship commission members set up on the front steps and asked yourself that very question. If so, I hope that was a meaningful experience for you.
Sometimes we need to let go of some things in order to make more room in our hearts for God’s grace to fill us. Is there anything cluttering your heart today that you need to give over to God? Worries, fears, doubts, self-criticism, anger, grudges, guilt? How do you need release? How does your spiritual center, the temple of your soul, need to be made clean once again?
Truthfully, even though this idea of spiritual housecleaning is something we emphasize during the season of Lent, I think this is a constant process. It’s kind of like actual housecleaning. In a way, it never ends. But that’s ok because a messy house is one that has been lived in. And listening to our own hearts both for what we need to give over to God and for where God’s love and grace are in our lives is also a way in which we can really live in our spiritual home, really live into our relationship with God.
And, in addition to our personal spiritual lives, this story also invites us to consider this question as the church in the world. This was a public display Jesus enacted at a public place of worship, after all. So, how does our corporate practice of faith as the church in the world focus on what is most important? Do we need to do any de-cluttering? Are there things that have gotten in our way that we need to clean up or clear out in order to more fully and faithfully live into our calling as the church?
The late author and religious commentator, Phyllis Tickle, wrote about how every five-hundred years or so Christianity has a “rummage sale” in which the church examines itself, throws out some things that no longer serve people or function well, and makes some changes. The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation of the 16th century was the last big one. And Tickle made the case that we are now in the midst of another one now as we wait to see how the church of the 21st century will unfold and what it will emerge to be.
Though the biggest shifts may only happen every few centuries, in reality this is always happening in smaller ways. Just as our individual spirituality is always evolving and growing throughout our life-long faith journeys, the church in every generation is also growing and evolving too.
So, it’s always worth paying attention to voices both within and outside of the church, or outside of our familiar practices and traditions, who might have something important to say. In my experience, both young people and people whose backgrounds and experiences are different from my own have a lot to teach me about how to be the church in ways that are new to me.
Even if what another person has to say is unfamiliar or seems different to us, we might just learn something new. And we never know what might end up being transformative and life-giving until we give it a try.
And so, in both our personal and collective practices of faith, let us be open to a little spiritual housecleaning. Let us be unafraid to make a little room for the fresh air of the Holy Spirit to come rushing in and for God’s love to fill us in new and profound ways. It is all an ever-evolving, unfolding journey, after all.
And let us remember that what God really desires from us as we live out our faith is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.