The Overturning

“Christ driving the money changers away from the temple”, El Greco, c. 1610

Scripture Passage:  John 2: 13-19 (20-22) (Lent 3B)

13The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15Making 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. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 

This passage is well-known to us probably not only for its significance but because of its absurdity.  After all, this is the usually-calm, always-loving, infinitely compassionate Jesus just making an absolute spectacle of himself.  Now, to put it in context, it wasn’t like this flurry of activity was going on INSIDE the nave of the temple itself.  The temple consisted of the very inner part, the holiest of holies, that, for the first-century Jewish tradition, would have been what held the dwelling of God.  Then there was an outer part, the “worship space” if you will for those that were cleansed for worship.  And then there was this outer, sort of “town square” full of activity and merchants.  There was nothing WRONG with it.  It wasn’t like they were selling doves on top of the altar. And the “money-changers” were there purely for convenience, offering a service of exchanging the “uncleansed” coins for the acceptable ones.  Again, nothing wrong or out of the ordinary was going on here.  This was the way the society ran.

So, Jesus enters.  I think that (literally) this was, as we understand it, Jesus’ way of cleansing the temple.  Perhaps that outer part that was “acceptable” to culture had become a little too important.  Perhaps, rather than merely a pass-through to get to what was important, it had become the central point itself.  Rather than a way to prepare for worship, perhaps it had become a way of merchandising God.  Or maybe this was Jesus’ way of waking us all up, reminding us that we have set our tables up in the wrong place.  Maybe it was Jesus’ way of saying that we had it wrong, that God did not merely exist within the walls of the holiest of places but also beyond.

When this Gospel version by the writer that we know as John was written, it was at least late in the first century and more than likely, was in the second century.  Paul had written his letters and was long gone.  The writers of the synoptic Gospels were gone (although, remember, even they weren’t written as it was happening.  I can tell you that the writers were NOT following Jesus around like a gaggle of press writers.)  And, more importantly, this temple would have been destroyed decades earlier in 70 C.E. during the Siege of Jerusalem. (The Temple has never been rebuilt.  After the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in the 7th century, the Dome of the Rock, or al-Aqsa Mosque, was built on the temple mount.  That’s the gold dome that you see in all the pictures of the old city of Jerusalem. And even though Jews are now allowed to pray at the Temple Mount—actually the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall—the mount itself is under the administrative control of the Muslim Waqf.)  

But for those of us in the Christian tradition, we claim to espouse that God is everywhere, that God does not just exist in the sanctuary or the church but rather is in our midst–everywhere. We believe that the temple, itself, is not the place of God but that God dwells with us, indeed, IN us.  Our lives are that metaphorical temple. Really?  That would mean that our lives are not such that we are called to separate ourselves from the world.  The culture going on around is not bad.  The way our society runs is not evil.  In fact, our culture and our society is overflowing with God.  There is no longer a division between things “of this world” and “of God”.  (Remember that Jacob’s Ladder thing the other day.  The realms are comingled, sort of intersected.  We live in the “both and”) So, for those who believe, everything is full of God.  So how do we look upon this place that is full of God?  What reverence do we attach to our lives, our bodies, our home, our city, our nation, and our world?  No longer can they just be a “pass through” to get to what we think is God.  God is here, here in our midst.

Boy, that Jesus WAS a troublemaker!  After all, we had everything neatly compartmentalized.  We knew good and evil; we knew what was “of God” and “of this world”; we had the “secular” and the “sacred”, our “church lives” and our “work lives” all neatly separated.  Really?  Is that the way it is? Jesus never said that the world was bad.  In fact, God so loved the world…(we are told).  But Jesus turned the tables on us, reminding us that this way that we have separated things, this way that we have assigned value and worth of one over the other, is not the way we are called to be. Essentially, I think Jesus knew that from time to time, we would take our eye off the ball, so to speak, and put the emphasis where it did not belong.  That’s what this season of Lent does–it refocuses us on what’s important. Jesus knew that the love of things, the love of power, the love of control, and the acceptance of a system or a religion that values one person over another, and the attempt to keep things like they are would crucify us.  But even that, God would oveturn.  THAT is how much God loves the world.

 As long as we aim to get something from God on some kind of exchange, we are like the merchants.  If you want to be rid of the commercial spirit, then by all means do all you can in the way of good works, but do so solely for the praise of God. (Meister Eckhart, 13th cen German theologian and mystic)

Grace and Peace,

 Shelli

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