Tearing Down Barriers (3rd Lent, B)
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
“Tearing Down Barriers”
3rd Sunday in Lent, B
Sermon co-written by the Revs. Kelly Steele and Guillermo Arboleda
Our Gospel story for today is John 2:13-22, a story that predicts Jesus’ eventual death, which we’ll commemorate on Good Friday, March 30. Looking at this passage, we see that it takes place during Passover.
Passover was a spring Jewish festival that celebrated the release of Israel from slavery in Egypt. It harkens back to that ancient story of Exodus from Egypt, when the Ten Plagues hurt the Egyptians, but passed over the Hebrews. They escaped through the Red Sea when it split open and they walked on dry ground. And after they passed to the other side, God commanded the people to keep the feast of the Passover every year as a reminder that they were once slaves and that they were only free because of God’s generous mercy and power.
By Jesus’ day, this holiday was celebrated with an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Wherever you lived, if you could make it with your family to Jerusalem, you went. You hiked up to the Temple, offered an animal for sacrifice and ate of the lambs that the priests slaughtered while sharing in a small worship service in the home. It was a beautiful combination of public worship and intimate family holiday party.
So what is surprising about this story is that Jesus wrecks the party.
Instead of laying low and enjoying the rituals, the smell of incense and barbecue, the flickering beeswax candles, the bells, the bustle of the Temple and city, Jesus gets mad.
He gets mad because the celebration -- while rooted in liberation and thanksgiving for that liberation -- has become just a commercialized holiday, a day for spending and buying, an exchange of goods and services. It was robbed of its original meaning.
14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.
Does this sound familiar? Is there a major religious holiday that is overpowered by our need to shop? Haven’t Thanksgiving and Christmas been taken over by shopping in our society? It’s all about money and sales and wishlists. Black Friday has crept into Thanksgiving celebrations, forcing people to leave their family dinners to work in retail stores and sometimes risk their lives against a stampeding crowd. For most people Christmas is about giving and getting the gifts you want, even if you go into debt, at the cheapest possible price because everyone wants more and more. American Christmas is not about love and joy and gratefulness, let alone worshipping God for the gift of Jesus Christ, the Word Made Flesh. It’s about feeding my desire for more stuff.
In the Marketplace
In the case of Passover, the animals were there for weary travelers to buy the necessary “unblemished” sacrificial animals. The coin tables were there to convert foreign currency (with kings and Caesars printed on them) into special “idol-free” Temple currency, probably at a high premium.
These people should have been remembering how bad slavery in Egypt was under greedy, abusive masters. They should have remembered God’s saving power in the desert. They should’ve been offering their thanks and giving up their first fruits and animals in recognition that all is gift. Instead, the festival had become an empty reality marked by buying and selling to meet the minimum requirements of God’s Law as interpreted by the Temple elites. If you’re going to worship here, you need to follow our rules, which are God’s Rules… and you’re going to have to pay for it!
Basically, greedy local people were making money off of tired, poor foreigners who were just trying to follow the Law! And this makes Jesus really mad.
15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
Money Changers & Tables
As I mentioned, the coin tables were there to convert foreign currency into special Temple currency, probably at a high exchange rate. The money changers were the epitome of the problem.
Imagine having traveled far and wide to stand in line forever, dirty and hungry, waiting to get the special currency needed to buy sacrificial animals. After waiting in line for hours, you get called up and the moneychanger doesn’t even look you in the eye, asks for the high price, and rubber-stamps you into “right relationship” with God. And remember, this is the radical God who ran with his people out of slavery and danced around the Red Sea in celebration.
Fiery, exciting stories of God doing amazing things became commercialized and bureaucratized.
The money changer’s table was the checkpoint, the access point. It was where the people were either granted access to God or denied and sent away empty (Luke 1:46 -55). The money changer’s table was the red tape table. The table was the gate, the moneychanger was the gatekeeper to God.
Under the guidance of the chief priests and scribes, the Temple had interpreted the Bible really rigidly and added extra rules to protect themselves from sin. They believed they needed these money changers and these animal sellers in order to celebrate the feast. And it was so normalized in the Judean culture that nobody questioned it anymore.
This is like someone tearing down the Christmas tree and ornament display at Home Depot or blocking the doors to Walmart on Black Friday. Jesus was destroying the things that got in the way of the true meaning of the festival.
In order to clear up the confusion, the distance between God and people, and people and people has got to go! The sheep and cattle, the coins and tables are all bureaucracy and commercial barriers between people. If you ain’t got the goods, you ain’t got a reservation with God. Too bad for foreigners who spent their money on the trip, too bad for the poor locals who can’t afford the exchange rate.
Look what happens now that the bureaucratic and commercial barriers are removed?
The greedy money changers and the folks in line have no barrier between them. They’ve got to look each other in the eye, standing up as equals.
When there’s no rubber stamp or exchange of money between you, you see the person for who they are, a child of God, loved by God from their mother’s womb (Jer 1:5; Ps 139:13).
Also, you might even start to see that each human is a Temple of the Holy Spirit, a home for God to dwell (1 Cor 6:19-20).
Maybe this is why Jesus messes with them and tries to show them that the real Temple is his body:
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body.”
He’s trying to show, by example, how much God values every single life. Every single human being matters more than the structures, procedures and artificial barriers we put up.
I recognize, in this, my own complicit behavior.
Do I always see the human being behind the cashier apron at the store? Do I recognize that they have hopes and barriers that separate them from those hopes? Do I notice the fact that I have access to help and support (e.g. therapy, doctors) because of my education or status or income level?
Do I realize that -- although Jesus loves the church -- the church has often set up barriers for entry, often unintentionally? Wearing the right clothes, cleanliness, and literacy can all be barriers to people when they enter a church like St. Matthew’s. Where have we put up money changers’ tables in this church?
I pray that God opens our eyes to the barriers that keep us from each other and from God. I pray that God removes those idols, those barriers, and our misplaced adoration (Exodus 20:1-17). I pray that we instead focus on worshipping the Creator who breaks down all those barriers with love, liberation, and life. Amen.
Deem, Michael, and Katerina Deem. "William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, Eerdmans, 2008, 115pp., $12.00 (pbk) ISBN: 9780802845610." Houston Catholic Worker. Published 1 April 2009. Accessed 28 February 2018. https://cjd.org/2009/04/01/william-t-cavanaugh-being-consumed-economics-and-christian-desire-eerdmans-2008-115pp-12-00-pbk-isbn-9780802845610/.
Davis, D. Mark. "Liberating the Temple." Left Behind and Loving It. Blog. Published 28 February 2018. Accessed 1 March 2018. http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2015/03/liberating-temple.html.
Image Credit: http://rationalfaith.com/img/Jesus_overturns_tables.jpg