This is the message I gave at Camas Friends Church on Sunday March 11, 2012
“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. When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.” (John 2:13–23 NRSV)
A. The Hammer of Justice
This week we’re looking at a pretty interesting passage about Jesus. This text about Jesus in the temple appears in all four gospels but the other three happen at the end of each of the gospel stories, whereas the book of John puts it in Chapter 2. This moving the story around and relocating it is meant to teach us something very specific about Jesus’ ministry.
In the Gospel of John, This is only Jesus’ second real action and it is very dramatic. Apparently no one taught Jesus you’re supposed to ease into your career as a traveling minister here. Marching into the temple and flipping over some tables wasn’t the best way to get people to want to take your business cards. It’s probably more like careericide. If this had been his first day at kindergarten he would have been sent home early.
Instead, we’re taught something extremely important about all that will follow in the Gospel of John concerning Jesus. Everything that will follow is meant to be understood in light of Jesus as prophet in the old testament sense. Like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah, Jesus is calling his people back to the roots of their faith – those roots being true worship of God, care for the poor and the outsider, and liberation from corrupt powers (Exodus).#
If this is what Jesus ultimately wants to be about then the temple is the perfect because all three of these things come into focus here. In these times, the temple was thought to be the center of the universe, the place where heaven and earth collided, the place where politics, economics and religion were the most visible and influential.
Even today we see these things often at play within religious communities. Love of God, care for our neighbors (especially the poor and the marginalized), and liberation or justice from corrupt powers are not so easily followed by our communities and are easily forgotten when money and power are involved.
We see corruption when “love of God” is to worship in a way that reinforces their own positions and establishments, and is done in a way that accumulates power. We see corruption when “To love Neighbors” is practiced in a way that we simply love people who are just like us, who can help to serve our own purposes, who can make us look good for when they are in the picture with us. Finally, we see corruption when we forget the story of exodus and liberation and the central role it plays in our understanding of faith.
John 2 gives us a very clear picture of how Jesus feels about these kind of corruptions: Jesus comes to town and brings a hammer. Okay, well not literally. It says he actually makes a “cord of ropes” but for sake of imagery let’s consider it like a hammer for a minute.
There’s a well-known song that I think sheds some light on what is taking place at the temple in John 2. It was written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, so my guess is that at least some of you’ve heard it before – “If I had a Hammer.” It was originally written in 1949 in support of social, political and economic reform in the US. It is well-known that Seegar, and many others in the folk music movement, were interested in supporting workers rights who faced harsh working conditions, especially woman and children.
The song became fairly well-known, especially in circles struggling for social justice. “If I Had a Hammer” became an anthem of the American Civil Rights movement. Plus, the song has been covered countless times by musical acts as diverse as Peter, Paul, and Mary; Johnny Cash; Sam Cooke and Trini Lopez. Even the The Von Trapp Children recorded a version.
It’s very possible that this was the song running through Jesus’ head while this event at the temple too place, or maybe he had it on his iPod while he was walking up.
I’d hammer out danger
I’d hammer out a warning
I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
This song helps us see that certain acts (like the one at the temple) can be out of justice and love, but also of warning, of danger.
B. The Prophetic Act at the Temple
Just as in the stream of old testament prophets, Jesus participates in what we might call out a dramatic prophetic act, or even a live action parable here (Actually you get this a decent amount in John – Jn. 4 and Jn 9). The temple had become corrupt, abusing and taking advantage of the poor – you’ll remember – taking the widow’s last two coins (Lk 21) – this corruption, especially corruption that uses God’s name to justify what it does will be brought down, will be overturned just like the tables in the temple.# So Jesus enacts, on a small scale, with his hammer of justice, what this will look like.
Now, as you might have guessed, this would not have gone over very well because the temple was a very special place.
One NT scholar says:
“The temple was, in Jesus’ day, the central symbol of Judaism, the location of Israel’s most characteristic praxis, the topic of some of her most vital stories, the answer to her deepest questions, the subject of some of her most beautiful songs.And it was the place Jesus chose for his most dramatic public action” (Wright 406).
And it’s passover, the time when Jews from around the Middle-East flow into Jerusalem. During the passover Jews from all over the middle east would participate in a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. While there they would recite the entire story of Exodus, which is for them the paradigmatic story of liberation (Write 407). It was thought that the population of Jerusalem would triple during passover (from 50,000 to 180,000) during this time.
So do engage in this kind of act spells trouble. In the middle of the temple, during passover, Jesus is as an “unsettling force,” holding a whip, angered by the injustice and corruption that has gone on for too long in the temple and he’s had enough.
Can you imagine how we might respond today to this? Some man or woman walking in holding a whip, or a hammer, and flipping over our tables telling us to get rid of all of this stuff, that we turned God’s house and God’s name into a sales pitch? That we’ve used this to exploit the poor and for the benefit of our own power and prestige.
What is interesting to me here is this:
The temple in the Gospels represents an accumulation of power, it truly is “the establishment” and they have used their understanding of faith to reinforce the establishment.
Then Jesus comes along, walks into the middle of this establishment and flips the script. He calls judgement down on it, he shows that true faith in God is not one that continues to reinforce everything we know and do, religion isn’t about buttressing “the establishment” it’s about calling it into question. It’s about calling us, continually, into transformation. Constantly challenging us to grow and push beyond where we are at.
So we could say that Jesus’ dramatic prophetic act in the temple was one that was not just justice oriented but, but was calling for deep transformation. It was a call to a radical new orientation to God and neighbor because it said essentially to remove what has become corrupted by power.
To put it in the words of Dorothy Day (who was an iconoclast in her own time): Nothing is going to change unless we stop accepting this dirty rotten system.
He could have walked in and said, “Ah yes, lovely limestone arches here, I love how you have organized the different people into groups, containing the poor ones over there where they can purchase their doves and then quickly move on, oh and how you’ve provided the sheep and the cattle for those who can spend a little more money. I see your coin bags are already full, it seems like you have kept your cost down and have a good model for growing. Keep it up.”
Instead he shows up with a hammer and starts to overturn tables.
C. Overturning Tables
In his 1948 William Penn Lecture, Bayard Rustin asked, “How can we love God, whom we have not seen, if we cannot, in time of crisis, find the way to love our brothers whom we have seen?”
And I believe that this is the crux of the problem for Jesus.
How can we love God, who is invisible to us, when we do not first find ways to care for and love our brothers and sisters right in front of us?
The temple was understood to quite literally be God’s physical house here on Earth. And people were being exploited there. The very thing that should cause deep love, sacrifice and generosity had become a matter of greed, control and exploitation.
This is why Jesus was angry.
It was not simply because someone had started selling objects in God’s house and God is someone who is against selling cheaply made plastic junk [Pic], though that might be true as well, it is that people (and animals) were being taken advantage of in the name of God [Note: Animals that had become objects of exploitation are also released].
Jesus goes to the temple and he finds people selling:
there are money changers conducting their business as usual, funding the establishment from their tables.
He makes a cord of ropes. The passage is filled with verbs. It is an passage of action.
He drives “all of them” out of the temple:
both the sheep and the cattle.
He poured out the money
He turned over the tables
He told those selling doves “Take those things out of here!”
Those selling doves get the major attention and get the full rebuke of Jesus because doves were the sacrificial animal of the poor, it was all they could afford, if they could afford anything at all. Here the doves are a symbol of all that has gone wrong here.
He says: “Stop making my father’s house a market-place.”
Then he goes on to say the temple will now be internalized, consumed into his body, which will be then shared by communities of people in the first century and beyond known as the “body of Christ” or the “resurrection community.” In John, Jesus wishes to replace the temple with a new way of relating to God that doesn’t need religious goods, or a physical temple, or another other signs or symbols, this new community will be gathered around the presence of Christ in their midst. The new community will be one that will be an unsettling force, it will be a community that doesn’t seek to exploit others for its own gain, but will welcome all. It will be a transformative force in the world. It will be a community gathered to love of God, care for neighbors and work for liberation from corrupt powers. In a word, they will continually embody an alternative kind of temple.
What Jesus has done in John 2 should be difficult for all of us to grasp. Jesus’ act here is not a civil religion, if anything it is civil disobedience. And we have to come to terms with this.
In closing – This morning Jesus shows us that the good news is sometimes about overturning tables.
Jesus overturns the tables of religious-inspired injustice this morning.
This morning Jesus does not attack individuals or use faith to pit people against people, he challenges and overturns the tables of unjust systems and those who represent those structures.
Jesus overturns the tables of a structure that professes to be from God, all the while rejecting the reality of God.
“How can we love God, whom we have not seen, if we cannot, in time of crisis, find the way to love our brothers [and sisters] whom we have seen?”
In overturning the tables, Jesus showed us what it means to truly love of God. And that is a love that stands with those in need, it is a love that is sacrificial, and sometimes it is even indigent.
In overturning the tables, Jesus showed us that loving our neighbors can be a costly act.
I can imagine that shortly after this episode in the temple that it was absolutely quiet.
Once the hammer of justice, the bell of freedom and the song of love stop ringing, there is a silence that falls. A silence that allows space for us to reflect on the old world passing away, and the possibility of a new world in which we can live. That is the good news Jesus brought.