Good morning, Friends!
Last week, we talked about stories that are found in all four gospels.
There’s the story of the feeding of the 5,000 – we reenacted that one a couple of weeks ago, and I don’t think that anyone who was here is ever going to forget it!
There’s the story of the woman who anointed Jesus – we read that one last week. There’s John the Baptist – he shows up in all four gospels. There’s Jesus’ death and resurrection, of course – all the gospels testify to that.
And there’s the story we’re going to read together today. All four gospels have it – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
To be in all four, it must be important. They wanted us to remember it, and think about it. So, let’s read it together.
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So Jesus made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.
To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
– John 2:13-22
Good morning, Friends!
We’re starting to get close to Easter. And the question which folks sometimes ask me is, “Why did some people hate Jesus so much that they wanted to kill him?”
Usually, we come up with some kind of theological answer, about how people disagreed about whether or not Jesus was the promised Messiah. If you thought he was the Messiah, then you were for Jesus; if you thought he wasn’t the Messiah, then you were against him.
That may be true. But there’s another reason some people didn’t like Jesus. And it’s a reason we don’t usually talk about very much.
If Jesus had wanted to make headlines, or to make enemies, he could hardly have chosen a better way to do it, than to go into the Temple and start overturning the tables of the people who did business there.
It would have been as dramatic as protesting against the commercialization of Christmas by setting fire to Wal-Mart. It would have been, as if Jesus had spray-painted peace slogans on the front door of the White House. I mean, this was news!
Other prophets, before Jesus, had made symbolic protests before. For example, the prophet Jeremiah once took an old clay jar out to the city dump and he smashed it. With all of the cameras clicking away, Jeremiah said, for the record, that God was going to smash Jerusalem, just like that clay flower pot – and nothing could be done. It was going to be totally beyond repair.
So what Jesus did, in today’s story, was right in line with what other prophets had done before. Jesus got peoples’ attention with a symbolic action, and he followed it up with a speech that no one who was listening would ever forget.
Jesus said, “This is supposed to be a house of prayer, a place where God is worshiped, where people come to be close to God, and find comfort and insight and peace and instruction. And instead, you’ve made the Temple into a headquarters for thieves. Get out!”
It made the evening news. Even people who weren’t there to see for themselves what Jesus did, heard about it pretty fast.
We like to think of Jesus as a quiet person who never raised his voice – some of you remember the old hymn about “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”. Well, that’s the way he was most of the time. Later on, during the events of Easter week, Jesus didn’t resist being arrested. He refused to fight, and he told his followers to put away their swords.
But here, in today’s story, Jesus is driving out people who were selling and buying stuff in the Temple. He flips over the tables of the money changers, and you can almost hear the sound of the thousands of coins rolling down the sidewalk.
He kicks the chairs right out from under the people who are selling sacrifices. I can picture him breaking open the cages of all the sacrificial doves and setting them free. Hundreds of snow-white doves, filling the air, and flying away, free!
In this morning’s version of the story, it says that Jesus made a whip, and drove the sheep and cattle out, sort of like a cross between a Wild West cattle drive and Indiana Jones.
Any way you slice it, this was dramatic. And Jesus didn’t choose a slack time in the season to do all this, either. He did it at Passover, when the city was filled with pilgrims and visitors.
Have you ever seen pictures of people at religious festivals? I mean millions of people, all crowding the place at once, and all of them pumped up to fever pitch with religious emotion. At Passover, every male Jew who could possibly attend was supposed to come to Jerusalem, which made the city’s normal population swell to something over two and a half million.
They would have been sleeping on floors, on roof tops, in gardens, crowded into every available space, filling every motel in all of the nearby towns. It was like Market Week here in High Point, but literally with twenty times as many people.
With so many visitors in town, what Jesus’ did in the Temple might have easily been seen as an incitement to riot, against the Temple authorities or against the occupying troops of the Romans.
As a matter of fact, that’s exactly how the priests and the Romans did see it. They could tolerate Jesus, as long as he was just a traveling preacher from some little village up north in Galilee. They could put up with Jesus’ criticism, as long as it didn’t amount to much.
Jesus had healed people on the Sabbath, and he said that all of the minute regulations on staying pure were nonsense. But he hadn’t done it in Jerusalem. And Jesus hadn’t done it with all of the crowds around, on a holiday, when people were already excited, at a time when political tensions were already at fever pitch.
So this time, they had to deal with Jesus.
Actually, Jesus’ protest probably would have made him enemies anyway, even if he’d done it in August when everybody was away at the beach. Part of what’s going on here is that in Jesus’ time, the sale of sacrificial animals, and the exchange of money for paying the Temple tax, had become totally corrupt.
All Jews back then had to pay a tax to the Temple every year. The tax was about two days’ wages – call it 200 dollars in today’s money. But back then, there were all kinds of coins in circulation, from every nation around. There were Roman coins, Greek coins, Persian coins, old coins, new coins, you name it. For everyday trading, you just used whatever coins you had.
But the Temple tax had to be paid using special Jewish coins. They wouldn’t let you use coins that had the head of an emperor or some foreign god stamped on them. That would be totally wrong! But the coins for the Temple tax weren’t in general circulation, so you had to change your regular money into the special coins for the Temple tax.
And the exchange rate wasn’t anywhere close to even. The exchange rate was grossly, unbelievably inflated. They charged a 50 to 100% markup to buy the coins for the Temple tax. And the profits for the exchange went to the money changers, who were all members of the family of the high priest.
The same thing happened with the sale of animals for sacrifice. As long as you were in town you’d want to make a sacrifice. You could bring your own sacrifice from home – which is what it said to do in the law of Moses.
But the animals had to be “without blemish or spot”. They had to be perfect – no sores, no illness, no funny markings. There were inspectors who checked out each and every animal before it could be sacrificed, because God only wanted the best.
So the racket was, if you brought your own sacrifice from home, it was just about certain to be automatically rejected. Then the inspector would point out that you could buy one, over at the concession stand located conveniently just inside the Temple gates, for a much higher price.
For example, a pair of doves for sacrifice cost about a half a day’s pay out in the city, but the same pair cost almost a month’s pay just inside the Temple. And of course, if you were really grateful to God, you’d want to sacrifice a sheep or a goat or some cattle, which brought a much higher price.
It made people pretty unhappy. But it was how the system worked. And the same people who ran the concession stands were the same people who ran the money changing booths, and they all belonged to the family of the high priest. Hmm.
So, when Jesus went around upsetting people’s applecarts and driving the livestock out of the Temple, he made a lot of enemies really fast. He was attacking a powerful family, and he was destroying a growth industry.
Jesus was saying, “This is not religion,” to people who defined what religion was, and whose fortunes and livelihoods and whose ability to make payoffs to the Romans, all depended on the way the system worked.
When people like that are attacked, they fight back. There are theological reasons for why some people rejected Jesus. But there were extremely powerful economic reasons why some people hated Jesus as well.
One of the most influential writers in America, Walter Rauschenbusch, once wrote:
“The most potent motive for [the protection of evil] is its profitableness. Ordinarily sin is an act of weakness and side-stepping, followed by shame the next day. But when [sin] is the source of prolific income, it is no longer a shame-faced vagabond slinking through the dark, but an army with banners, entrenched and defiant. The bigger the dividends, the stiffer the resistance against anything that would cut them down. When [you feed] sin with money, sin grows wings and claws. . .” (A Theology for the Social Gospel, p. 66)
Yes, Jesus died to save all humanity from our sins. That’s very real, and it’s very true.
And yes, Jesus died, as an example of faithfulness, as an ultimate act of love.
And yes, Jesus was, and is, and always will be the Son of God, who loved the world so much that he laid down his life for us.
But part of the story, also, is that human greed, and human manipulativeness, and human willingness to put profits ahead of human life, are a source of terrible evil. The “sin” that Jesus died for, was something very human. The motives of the people who hated Jesus are motives we should all recognize, very clearly. Because we see those motives still at work all around us, all the time.
Easter is coming, in just a couple of weeks. And we will celebrate the great joy that we experience, in Jesus’ resurrection. There is a spiritual victory that Jesus won, and it’s real!
But Easter doesn’t mean very much, if we refuse to face the reality of evil, and about all the things we’re willing to justify and live with, even when we know they’re wrong.
People who profit from the suffering of their neighbors. People who get rich by taking away other peoples’ homes. People who poison the whole community with pollution and make money from it. People who destroy communities by shipping their jobs to other places.
And especially, people who make a racket out of religion. Jesus wouldn’t have anything to do with that.
Jesus never charged for healing anyone. He never took a penny for praying. People undoubtedly gave him gifts, but Jesus seems to have given them all away. Jesus had no home, no place to lay his head. He had nothing when he died.
Easter is not about bunnies, and eggs, and marshmallow peeps, even if we enjoy those things. It’s not just about lilies, and good clothes, and family dinners, either.
Easter is about God overturning evil and overcoming death. Easter is about integrity, it’s about truth, and it’s about a turning away from the wrong of the world and turning away from the sin of human behavior.
Easter is about life. Easter is about victory. Easter is about turning things upside down.
People were offended when Jesus talked about the Temple being destroyed. It had already been destroyed 600 years earlier, when the Babylonians attacked, and most of the Jews were deported.
They rebuilt the Temple when they came back from exile, and it was the symbol of their return and their independence.
Then King Herod rebuilt the Temple again, and it took 46 years. Herod’s temple was the one that Jesus knew. Generations of Jews had given money for the rebuilding. It was literally covered with gold, and you could see the sun reflecting off it for miles away.
The temple was destroyed for the last time by the Romans, about 40 years after Jesus died. It was never built again. All that’s left today is one wall, the Wailing Wall, which still stands in Jerusalem.
Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will build it up again.” That didn’t go down well with people who had a lot of pride invested in the Temple, or with folks whose power was centered there. They didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about, and they probably would have opposed it if they did understand.
We still need Jesus. We need what Jesus said, and we need what Jesus did. We still need Easter. Let’s be glad that it’s coming soon.