Sermon - 17th March 2019
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
“In the temple Jesus found people selling cattle and sheep and pigeons, and the moneychangers sitting at their counters there. Making a whip out of some cord, he drove them all out of the temple, cattle and sheep as well, scattered the moneychangers’ coins, knocked their tables over and said to the pigeon-sellers, “Take all this out of here and stop turning God’s house into a market.”
This seems unusually violent for the Jesus we’re familiar with in the gospels!
We know a Jesus who is calm and in control; who forgives people their shortcomings; who receives insults and accusations and responds with replies full of human insight; who shows endless patience, and can even appear dangerously submissive.
Yet here he was, in Jerusalem; with his enemies actively looking for evidence to discredit him. Why did he appear to behave like a common hooligan, wielding a whip and causing havoc in one of the city’s most important and most public places?
Perhaps part of the answer is that Jesus wanted to deliver a major, public challenge to a big and powerful institution – the Temple - and the religious systems and structures which supported it. And to challenge something that big and influential, he needed to cause an incident of some considerable size.
So he struck, - in this case physically - at one of the Temple’s worst abuses. He used a whip to drive out the animals, and he overturned the business counters of the moneychangers. He effectively put a sudden stop to the market trading, knowing that he would quickly be challenged by the Temple authorities, and he was ready to tell them what he thought.
The Temple in Jerusalem was an institution which existed right at the very heart of Jewish belief. It was, to them, the place where God lived, God’s dwelling-place among humanity. And it was the only place where the ancient tribal custom of animal sacrifice was still continued.
There was a synagogue in every Jewish town, where the Hebrew scriptures were taught, studied and debated; but there was only one Temple. It was of unique significance to Jewish culture and, more than any other place, it looked back to the beginning of God’s relationship with the Jewish people and retained many of the primitive elements of that relationship, including animal sacrifice.
The Temple was an imposing complex of buildings and courtyards, in huge cream-coloured stones, marble and gold. In the centre of the series of courtyards, in a separate enclosed building, behind locked doors, was the ‘Most Holy Place’ or the ‘Holy of Holies’. This was where God lived, and it was out of bounds to everyone except the High Priest, and he came in only once a year on the Day of Atonement.
Around the Holy of Holies would have been the Court of the Priests. Here would have been a huge bronze altar for the animal sacrifices and a massive water-basin.
Beyond and surrounding the Court of the Priests would have been the Court of Israel, exclusively for Jewish men. And beyond and surrounding the Court of Israel would have been the Court of the Women.
Running down one side of the whole complex was a wall known as the Wall of Partition. And beyond the wall was a large courtyard known as the Court of the Gentiles. If you were a gentile (that is, a non-Jew) and you crossed the Wall of Partition and were found in any of the inner temple precincts, the penalty was death.
It was in the Court of the Gentiles – those whom the Jewish faith regarded as excluded, not of God’s chosen people – that the trading in animals for sacrifice took place.
And, just as a final twist, it was a rule of the Temple that all transactions in the Temple precincts had to be undertaken in a special Temple currency – not the ordinary coinage of the street. That’s why moneychangers were needed to act as middle-men in this lucrative enterprise.
And where better to do all this than in the large area, outside the really religious parts of the Temple, the area supposedly for the use of those on whom the Jewish religion had turned its back. Who could possibly object?
Imagine what this meant to the teacher from Nazareth, who had been telling everyone who would listen that God was a God of universal love; a God who offered life and freedom to everyone without condition; a God who would grant healing and health irrespective of how important, or influential or wealthy you might be; a God of the poor, the sick, the unloved, the marginalised.
To Jesus, the whole religious business surrounding the Temple in Jerusalem was a disgraceful perversion of the relationship which God offers to humanity.
The rigid hierarchies, the rules which excluded non-Jews on pain of death, the continuance of primitive animal sacrifice, the idea that God was contained by a physical structure, - these were all just so wrong and destructive in the eyes of the One who came with a simple gospel of love, liberation and equality.
And so he causes a disturbance. Today’s gospel records that he says “Stop turning God’s house into a market”. Other gospel writers who include the incident record him as saying “You have turned it into a den of thieves”.
It was these aspects of corruption, oppression, exclusion and segregation, all carried out in God’s name, which Jesus couldn’t help but challenge. If it was a rather violent challenge, perhaps it was a rather violent blasphemy which prompted it.
We can look at this story from the gospels as an isolated incident with little or no direct relevance to our churches, our communities and our society today. But we still face challenges brought about by corruption, oppression, exclusion and segregation - sometimes, even today, carried out in God’s name.
The challenge to us in the 21st century is still to avoid putting God into a Temple complex of our own making. The Christian church throughout its history, has regularly fallen into the trap of building a maze of courtyards, and gateways, and fences, and structures within which to categorise and contain people.
Our history is littered with examples of religious power concentrated among the few with influence over the many; or examples of some being counted not worthy to get beyond our own outer Court of the Gentiles.
Our human nature leads us so often to exclude others from what we perceive as our private territory. We do it in our jobs, in relationships, in our social lives – it’s called ‘looking after number 1’. We observe it in the animal kingdom and we recognise it as a strategy for survival there, but I think we expect more from the human animal than some kind of primitive tribal separation which excludes those who are different from ourselves.
And it’s such a bad strategy for the survival of our relationship with God. Those who would follow the way of Jesus are encouraged always to remove barriers and boundaries and human regulations which exclude others from fullness of life, freedom and equality.
God is not contained by our boundaries any more than God was contained by the intricately structured system of courtyards within courtyards in the Jewish Temple. Today’s gospel draws particular attention to this as it records Jesus saying: “Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days I will raise it up.” And John comments on that saying “He was speaking of the sanctuary that was his body”.
It is so easy to confine our christian calling to a modern-day temple; a place we visit on holy days; a place where we dress, or behave, differently; and somewhere to which we even bring sacrificial offerings, or make sacrifices to attend.
And just as Jesus was determined to throw away those outward symbols of religion which infested the Jerusalem Temple, so must we avoid collecting new ones which can only get in the way of our relationship with God and our response to Jesus’s call to fulfil his mission.
Unless we have moved on from believing that God lives in the temples we make for him, and get beyond any idea that God is limited by the boundaries we set for him, we will never be truly inclusive, and we will always be rationing our relationship with God between the priests, then the men, then the women, then those outsiders about whom we don’t really care and whose status we are prepared to ignore provided we are safe in our own courtyard.
Jesus cared. He knew that God is in people. And if this church is going to contribute anything towards life, freedom and equality for humanity, it will be through its people – the true sanctuary where God lives.