Rev. Don Beyers
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I was reminded the other day, while reading another book, of the key to biblical interpretation. Namely, that God is the actor in the story, not us. I spoke about this briefly this past Advent. The scriptures are not about humanity and it’s encounter with God, but rather God’s reaching out to us and God doing wondrous things within our midst. All the stories of the Bible return to a singular theme: it is God who saves us, not us.
While this may not seem all too radical of idea, I think it provides the interpretative key to understanding difficult scripture passages, such as the gospel lesson for today. The story of Jesus upending the temple market is a well-known story of the gospels. I think we’re drawn to it not only for its dramatic value, but also because we see another side of Jesus, one very different than what is typically imagined. Rather than the gentle and tender shepherd who draws even the least of people to himself, we have a Jesus filled with rage, flipping tables over and causing extraordinary chaos as animals run wild and money changers and shopkeepers scream at Jesus for the destruction he has wrought.
Before we get caught up in the dramatics, I think it is best to step back from the text and remember the interpretive key to scripture: all stories are about God and God’s work of our redemption. So what is really going on in this story?
To help us understand this passage, we need to remember that the temple was the heart of ancient Judaism. Standing on top of Mt. Zion, in the city of Jerusalem, the temple served as the meeting place between God and humanity. The people believed God dwelled with God’s people in the temple and that the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant, was contained within its inner chambers. The temple was the centre of the world for the ancient Israelites, and actually remains very much so for many Jewish persons today. Although the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. by the Romans, a portion of its foundation remains and is now known as the “Wailing Wall.”
At the heart of temple life was an intricate system of cultic worship, largely detailed in the levitical laws of the Old Testament. A priestly class would take turns offering sacrifice and prayer to God on behalf of God’s people. Pilgrims to the holy city of Jerusalem and the temple would have to purchase various animals, particularly those appointed as acceptable for sacrifice, and present them to the priests as their oblations. Money changers would be present to ensure that the Roman coin, the silver denarius coin with the emperor’s image imposed on it, would not enter into the temple precincts as that would be blasphemous as the Romans considered the emperor a deity. They would exchange the denarius for the approved currency so that the pilgrims could buy their sacrificial offering within the temple precincts.
As with so many other religious customs and practices, abuse of the system became prevalent and often oppressive to those who had little money in the first place. We get a hint of this in Luke’s Gospel in his account of Jesus’ presentation in the temple. Jesus’ parents, unable to afford the expected lamb as their sacrificial offering, instead were permitted to offer two turtledoves, or two young pigeons. As a result, rather than temple worship and sacrifice serving as a blessing and relief to the people, it turned into a something oppressive, often burdening those for whom God’s mercy was needed most.
The temple’s transformation from a place of encounter with the holy presence of God and a refuge from the burdens of this world was further lost in the strict adherence to the laws. The laws of the Old Testament were never meant to be a weight around the people’s necks, but a blessing. Yet, as is so often the case with religious institutions, the people became slaves to the works of the law. No longer was it about God’s work among God’s people, now it was the people’s work in order to win their favour with God.
Although certainly not present at the time of Jesus, we have to keep in mind that by the time John’s Gospel is put into written form, the early Christian community had well developed a theology that stressed God’s grace could never be won by what we do, but rather by the grace of Christ and his death and resurrection. This theme, together with the social and cultural realities of the temple at the time of Jesus, converge in this one story. This is not simply a story of Jesus’ rage in the temple; rather it is a story that challenges the people to remember that is God who saves us, not us or our actions. There is nothing we can do to win the favour of God, but to have trust in God’s promise of life. Moreover, we are not to impose obstacles that prevent others for sharing in the fullness of the life of God’s grace.
The formulators of the lectionary seem to understand this as they pair today’s gospel lesson with a reading from Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians. Paul makes perfectly clear in this epistle that it is Christ’s death upon the cross which has won for us our salvation. This is absolutely contrary to what we expect God to do. We expect God’s power to be shown in human ways, yet God does the very opposite of what we imagine. Not only does God work in ways contrary to ours, God’s salvation is won for us by a shameful death on a cross. While the world may deceive itself with its lofty thoughts and love of wisdom and human abilities as a means for its liberation, Paul reminds us we are simply fooling ourselves if we think we can figure things out on our own. And God shows how foolish we are by showing his power not in human ways but in ways that are contrary to what humans expect. As Paul says, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor 1:25)
Fundamentally, Jesus’ anger and rage is fuelled not only by the temple authorities abuse and oppression of the people, but also by their ignorance of God and God’s saving work. The temple is no longer a place of prayer and rest from the world, but now it is temple of thieves and extortioners and a people who have forgotten the power of God to save.
Strikingly, this is not the first time the people of Israel and Judea were challenged for their abuse. In fact, Jesus’ response to the abuses in the temple ought not to have surprised the people. Countless prophets before Jesus warned the people as much. Prophets repeatedly warned the people of their forgetfulness of God and God’s beloved poor. Rather than put their trust in God, they’ve put their trust in themselves and in the process have forgotten their neighbour in need. Most of all, they’ve forgotten God and God’s call to love him with all our hearts and to love our neighbours.
We are no different than our ancestors of the past. While we may no longer offer sacrifices in temples, we still succumb to the temptation that we can save ourselves and not God. We deceive ourselves into thinking we no longer need God and God’s grace to survive, but our own wisdom and ingenuity to create a better and improved life. And in our desperate search for our own wellbeing, we often forget the poor and the oppressed, often imposing upon them heavy burdens that they can no longer bear.
This is evident in the contemporary myth that we must do all we can to uphold, sustain, and advance the global economy. This has become all too obvious during this pandemic. Political and corporate leaders continue to weigh the measure of our response to the pandemic with the costs that that response may have upon the economy. We are told that if our efforts to prevent and limit the spread of the virus damage the economy too much, then we must ease our efforts even if that may mean others die. Sadly, we’ve become so entwined with the consumerism that we now feel our lives entirely depend upon it, even though most of us suffer under the weight of the laws of this new religion. And God and others are left to the wayside to die.
Yet St. Paul asks a simple, yet important question, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:20) We discover, either sooner or later, that we will never be able to save ourselves and that no economy, no financial gain will ever win us the joy and happiness in this world or even in the next. Sooner or later, we will be faced with our own mortality and be confronted with the ultimate question from God: “Do you love me?” Our response will be shaped and formed by the way we lived our lives, how we cared for the suffering and oppressed among us, and whether or not if we lived our lives entirely dependent upon the grace of God. If we love our neighbours as God loves them and trust in the grace and mercy of God, then our answer will be a certain yes. Ultimately, nothing we can do will give us life and save us but for the love of God. Amen.