Sermon - 8th March 2015
Cleansing the Temple
Revd Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available in mp3 format via the link on our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Today’s reading is really difficult and dangerous. In it we see Jesus lose his cool, possibly resort to violence, upset everyone that matters and overturn ideas about religion as he overturned the tables in the Temple. It is a reading which makes us see Jesus in a different way – he’s not the “meek and mild” person that we like to think he is and his concerns in the Temple show an interplay between religion, power and money – all the things we’re not supposed to talk about in polite society! So let’s have a deeper look at what’s going on and see what we can learn from it.
The Temple was the holy of holies for the Jewish people. It was seen as the place where God was especially present and it was the only place where sacrifice could be offered to God. Prayers were said there each morning and evening and a round of sacrifices offered throughout the day. In many ways it was similar to the great Cathedrals that have been built for over a thousand years in Europe around the world and which have a cycle of services offering praise to God morning and evening.
Unlike the Cathedrals of Europe, however, the Temple was seen as being so holy that normal money could not be used there and was exchanged for Temple money – with the moneychangers making a handsome profit. Animals were sold for sacrificial purposes. It was a place where people gathered to worship and socialise. Gentiles were allowed in the outer court, women in the next and then men in the next before the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest was allowed to enter and then only one day a year. The Temple had been dreamed of by David but built by his son Solomon.
There is, however, a darker side to the Temple. As Christians we’re not used to the idea of animals being sacrificed and many people in the West are uneasy about the ritual slaughter still practiced by Jewish and Muslim butchers but the Temple had a troubled history. Traditionally it was seen as being built on the hill where Abraham bound his son Isaac and prepared to sacrifice him; David plundered other nations in order to bequeath a stable, and rich, throne to Solomon who continued the plunder but also enslaved his own people in order to build his palace and the Temple. The prophets Habakkuk, Malachi and Ezekiel were all wary of the Temple and suspicious of the priests who cheated the people.
So there is a very mixed view of the Temple in the Old Testament – it’s a place of worship but built on a spot associated with a very difficult story – Abraham understanding God asked him to sacrifice his son – built from plunder and slavery, ruled by priests who oppress and a place where merchants swindle those who come to worship God. This is the background to Jesus’ actions seen in today’s reading. It’s a background including religion, attempted murder, warped views of God, plunder, slavery and oppression.
Jesus and the Temple
In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus seems more sympathetic to the Temple authorities – if he cures a leper he tells the person to present himself to the priest and make the required sacrifice for example – but in John’s Gospel Jesus isn’t interested in the Temple and the priests who work there. Indeed, John believes that the chief priests and leaders of the Jewish people are those who are the greatest threat to Jesus and John places the cleansing of the Temple near the start of his Gospel – as if he’s portraying Jesus’ ministry as one of perpetual conflict with the authorities. As we move towards Easter we will be reading, again, the accounts of the Passion of Jesus – Mark’s account on Palm Sunday and John’s on Good Friday. In these the Jewish authorities resolve to have Jesus killed. Some thing this is because Jesus undermined the religious leaders – and clergy can be a vengeful lot – others because the religious leaders felt that Jesus would lead a revolt against the Romans and bring suffering on the people. Incidents like today’s reading wouldn’t have helped the religious leaders have a positive view of Jesus.
The central place for Jewish worship was disturbed by Jesus who not only caused a fuss – a fuss that is rooted, it must be said, firmly in the Old Testament, but also made astonishing claims about himself at the same time. If it was possible to upset everyone at the same time Jesus seems to have managed it. The one who is about to be oppressed challenges the oppressors, upsets religion, overturns the tables and sets the die firmly against him. Scholars debate about whether Jesus used the whip on the animals to drive them out or if he used it on the merchants too. The Greek isn’t clear though we might assume that Jesus would have been in more trouble if he’d hit the traders.
So we have this striking episode but what can we learn from it? I think there are three things: Jesus felt called to upset the status quo – so should we; Jesus overturned the tables of easy assumptions – so should we; Jesus had to face the consequences – so should we.
Upsetting the Status Quo
On Wednesday the First Wednesday group thought about what the causes of homophobia were – we broke into groups and came up with ideas but each group had religion and culture at the top of its list. Not surprising when you think that the group members come from Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Central Africa, Cameroon, Ghana and Iran. We also realised that the family – close and extended – is the agency that most often imparts the culture. We realised that “culture” is a word that simply means “the way we do things around here.” In the West we realised that the growth of the welfare state, a greater flexibility in work and good education have given more people the chance to live independently of family and the decline in religion has meant that cultural values have changed.
For some of us who came out as LGB or T in an earlier age we upset the status quo. For those who have come out, or been forced out, in homophobic or patriarchal cultures the status quo has been upset and terrible punishments have been enacted against those who transgress those boundaries. It’s easier in the UK to live as we are but there are many areas where we need to upset the status quo and disrupt the “way things are done around here”. The increasing gap between rich and poor, the reliance on foodbanks, fighting the right for refugees to live in the UK all are ways in which we disrupt the status quo. All take energy, determination and a clear view of the powers that are ranged against us – just as Jesus needed energy, determination and a clear analysis of all that was wrong with the powers at work in the Temple.
Overturn easy assumptions
Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers as he objected to the way they cheated people. In doing so he overturned the easy assumption that money could be made dishonestly and done so in God’s name in God’s own house. We like to have easy assumptions and it’s quite challenging when they are overturned. Some of these assumption challengers have been doing the rounds on social media recently:
- How much, as a percentage, do you think the government spends on welfare? (25%)
- Looking at the pie chart are you surprised at the size of the debt repayment? As a proportion it doesn’t look anywhere near as large as the politicians imply.
- How much of this welfare bill do you think is support for the unemployed? (less than a quarter)
- Looking at the chart does it surprise you to see that half of the benefit bill is state pensions? Maybe pensions shouldn’t be seen as a benefit as we pay into the system during our working lives?
Now, figures can be used to prove anything, but these figures – from the BBC and the Daily Mail – show that the assumptions we often have need to be overturned.
What about asylum seekers. The media like to give the impression that we have hundreds of thousands of people claiming asylum. Does anyone want to guess how many claims were made last year? 23,507.
Interestingly there were just 4,256 applications in 1987 which rose to 84,130 in 2002, and then declined to 23,507 in 2013. I’m not sure why there were so few in the late 80s but I suspect the increased effect of globalization and easier travel all helped. To get this into perspective in 2011 15,000 people fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo – of whom only 188 made a claim to stay in the UK. Less than 2% of the world’s refugees end up in the UK and only 25% of initial asylum claims are successful here – though many more are granted asylum by the courts.
Then there was the news from the High Court this week that the Home Office is relying on easy assumptions with Nigerian lesbian Aderonke who many of us know – their easy assumption is the fact she has children means she can’t be a lesbian!
But there are harder easy assumptions we need to overturn – religion is always negative to lgbt people; the Christian Church has nothing to teach us; politicians are always self serving; – all these are easy assumptions when the truth is so much more complex. But overturning these assumptions takes time, passion and energy. And it can be dangerous.
Be prepared for the consequences
Jesus actions in the Temple led to his death. John places this event at the start of his ministry and there is tension between Jesus and the authorities throughout his Gospel. The other Gospel writers place the cleansing of the Temple later in Jesus’ ministry but either way it represents a decisive break with the Temple authorities and seals his fate. Some of you have been persecuted for doing the right thing, for standing up for truth.
Many of us have had to face the consequences for upsetting the status quo and overturning easy assumptions. Sometimes that’s about rejection from family and friends, sometimes it’s more serious, sometimes people will see us as a bit strange – a bit single issue – other times they will see us as dangerous. Yet, together, we find strength in our journey of discipleship to follow Jesus as we disturb the status quo, overturn the tables of easy assumptions and live with the consequences. We do this as it’s integral to the proclamation of the coming Kingdom which Jesus proclaimed and died for – a kingdom of love and justice where all shall be free.