Sermon - 14th August 2011
Seeing Salvation: 9
Driving the traders from the Temple - El Greco
Scripture - Mark 11:15-19
Rev Andy Braunston
When we put together the paintings and themes for this sermon series we included El Greco’s picture of Jesus driving out the money lenders and traders from the Temple as we thought this was a particularly challenging passage in the Gospels. It is challenging as it seems Jesus used violence, or at least put people in fear of violence. It is the only episode in the Gospels where Jesus uses force and this doesn’t sit well with our normal image of Jesus. I was thinking about what to say about this Gospel story as the riots broke out this week in London, Birmingham and here in Manchester. Suddenly those abstract thoughts about violence were abstract no longer.
In St Mark’s Gospel the story of the cleansing of the Temple is sandwiched between a story of Jesus cursing a fig tree which then died – another troubling story which seems to have Jesus cursing a fig tree as it didn’t have any fruit for him when he was hungry. Just as Jesus cursed the tree so his actions are a type of curse of the Temple. St Mark points out that it wasn’t the time for figs to be out on the tree but it was the time for the early fruit which is tougher than figs but still edible. Jesus “curse” of the fig tree was a statement of fact. As the tree hadn’t produced any fruit it was clearly beyond its fruit-bearing life. The Temple had, according to Mark, outlived its usefulness. But it’s not the cursing of either Temple or Tree that causes us thought – it’s violence.
When people came to the Temple they would buy animals for sacrifice. These could only be purchased with special Temple money. Ordinary money was exchanged for Temple money at extortionate rates from the money changers. Clearly this hit the poor hard and introduced corruption and extortion into the worship of God. Animals for sacrifice had to be bought in the Temple so there was no way around the system.
All the Gospels show that Jesus was angry about this practice and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke show that he upturned the tables of the traders and money changers, made a fuss and declared that “My father’s house shall be a house of prayer for all people but you have made it a den of thieves”. So far we have Jesus causing a scene and making some people afraid about what he might do next. St John, however, in his Gospel records that Jesus fashioned a whip and used it to drive out the traders, their animals and the moneychangers.
Jesus was angry at how the poor were being swindled through the money changers and how this meant that the worship of God was being turned into a commercial activity which excluded those who couldn’t afford to lose money through extortionate rates of exchange. Worship shouldn’t be reduced to trade or commercial interests and shouldn’t exclude those who are poor. I suppose the old English system of pew rents where people supported their parish church by paying rent for a particular pew (which no one else could use) could be open to the same criticism. But given the week we’ve had I suspect the issue for us now isn’t why Jesus was angry but how he reacted.
We fear violence and we don’t want to see it or be involved in it. We fear the physical pain and the sense of things being out of control which happens when someone or some people are violent. The scenes from our city this week have profoundly shocking. Shops we use or pass by when we are in Manchester have been targeted by seemingly mindless thugs, police officers seeking to keep order have been attacked. People in our church community have come to the UK having suffered dreadful violence at the hands of agents of the state in their own countries. Violence makes us angry.
We have seen that anger in comments that people have made about the rioters. We have seen anger channelled in the sentences already given out by the courts and we will continue to see it meted out over the coming weeks and months as more people are brought to justice. We saw the anger inspire hundreds of people to go out on Wednesday morning into the city centre to help clear up and we have seen people really get on side with the police by showing support and by giving information about rioters and looters to the police.
There is anger at how people have behaved, anger at our failure to understand what this is about and some anger shown to some who have given over simplistic views of what the rioting has been about. It’s about more than poverty, exclusion and changing government policies – though these are a part of it. It’s about more than family breakdown and changing views of authority and order – though this is part of it. It’s about more than simple criminality – though clearly this is a huge aspect of the disorder. This anger has led to the start of a debate at how best to respond; a debate that will continue for some months.
People were angry with the police reaction to the rioters. Many are angry that the police didn’t have the resources they need to deal effectively with the breakdown of law and order – particularly in London – which meant that they weren’t able to stop the disorder more quickly. But I wonder how angry people would have been if the police had weighed in at first and been very heavy handed before things got too out of control. In other words, if they had used more violence to stop violence they would have been severely criticised.
We will have different views on violence. Some of us are solidly anti-violence in all circumstances and are pacifist. Others are very much against our armed forces being involved in conflicts overseas and are generally suspicious of war being used as a means of foreign policy. Some of us may feel that violence is a proportionate response, as a last resort, when protecting the weak and safeguarding life and property. All these views have honourable parts to play in the history of Christian ideas.
Christians and Violence
These are issues which have puzzled the Church since our earliest days. The first Christians were pacifists and Roman converts to Christianity were troubled if they were in the army. After Christianity became the Imperial religion Christians adjusted themselves to the new reality and soon were enlisting into the armed services. The Bible gives a mixed message on violence and the Old Testament does see war as a legitimate activity but seeks to limit the effects of war on non-combatants. Jesus’ teaching to love one’s enemies and to turn the other cheek has led to a strong pacifist streak. Yet his actions in the Temple show that violence, or at least the threat of it, seem to play their part.
In an imperfect world we don’t want police officers turning the other cheek when they have missiles hurled at them! When there is violence in the streets we need to feel protected and the police may have to use force in order to restore order. It seems to me that Jesus used force in response to great, provocation – the turning of a place of prayer into a place of theft. We don’t know if he struck anyone – as opposed to overturning tables and driving out animals – but we can be sure that people were afraid of this guy who was shouting and screaming at them.
We long for a world where violence has no part. We dream of a world where violence is a distant memory, where there is no social inequality, injustice or crime. We yearn for a world where we don’t need to use force in order to keep property and life safe.
We recognise that anger is part of life and that we can channel anger into ways to bring around creative change. In the meantime we pray for those who have to balance protection and force, for those who have to make decisions about how best to deploy ever meagre police resources and for those who try to make our fragmented society more healthy. We pray that our anger may be channelled to more productive ends than violence.
Link to image of painting here.