Sunday, March 13, 2011

Why Are We Here?

Matthew 21:12-17
Lent 1
March 13, 2011
William G. Carter

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”

I can't hear this story without remembering Shirley Seibel. She was married to the minister of the church where I grew up, and she was known to have a bit of a temper.

Up until Shirley and her husband came to town, most of the minister's wives did the things that minister's wives were expected to do. They baked cookies and served tea. They played the piano and consoled their ruffled husbands. They stayed in the background. You realize, of course, that was back in the days before ministers were allowed to have husbands. In our community, Shirley was the first to break the mold. She refused to join the choir. She boldly announced, "I don't teach Sunday School." And if that wasn't enough, she publicly denounced the annual rummage sale in fellowship hall.

The rummage sale was quite an institution. For one weekend every October, the women's association took over fellowship hall. They put up tables and invited people to donate their used mammon. A couple of volunteers spent the better part of a day writing prices on little pieces of masking tape and sticking them to each item. Then on Friday and Saturday, they opened the doors and invited the community to buy Presbyterian leftovers.

Shirley thought it was awful, and she said so. "The church isn't supposed to get involved in the buying and selling of junk," she said to anybody who would listen. "That’s not why we are here. If we're not careful, Jesus is going to come down here and cleanse this temple." That was my first real contact with this Bible story; ever since, I've been a little bit nervous.

The usual way we understand the story of the cleansing of the temple is that Jesus is condemning the buying and selling of merchandise on religious turf. I don't know how you feel about it, but I get uneasy whenever money changes hands. Some churches sell books, tapes, or videos in the narthex. I heard about a church that sells hot lattes. Sometimes the kids sell hoagies and chocolates so they can go to a mission trip. That’s innocent enough until the money becomes more important than worship. This is a house of prayer, first and foremost. And that’s why we are hear.

The usual way to interpret this story from Matthew 21 begins there. We condemn any kind of commercialism within the church. We may be strangely silent about commercialism outside the church, but within the church, we don't want to see it.

I remember a children's Bible that I sold on eBay. There was a picture of today’s Bible scene. Beneath was a caption: "Jesus is chasing some people out of the church. They didn't come to church to love God and pray. No, they are selling things to get a lot of money and be rich."

Whether or not you agree with that perspective, I should probably remind you that most of the Jews in the time of Jesus would not have seen the issue in quite this way. Never mind that the temple and the church were two very different institutions. For the first century Jew, there was no split between "sacred" and "secular." They would never have said, "Prayer is sacred, but buying and selling is secular." Oh no, that's a modern construct. It is usually perpetuated by people who don't want to part with any of their money when they go to worship.

No, the Jesus we meet in the Gospel of Matthew has the authority to rule over all of life. As an act of God’s mercy, he healed the blind and the lame who came to him in the temple. They come to him, says Matthew. They come to him – even though the book of Leviticus was clear: “anybody who is blind or lame shall not come near God’s altar” (Lev. 21:18). But they come to Jesus – and he cures them. He has the authority of God to do that.

The children know this. They come to Jesus in the temple – even though children were widely expected to be never seen and never heard. They shout out the praises, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” They name him as the Messiah, and the chief priests and scribes went ballistic. “Do you hear this?” they bellowed. Mere children, the weakest and littlest, dared to affirm Jesus. Jesus looked at the religious leaders and said, ‘Go and read your own Bible, Psalm 8 to be exact: “Out of the mouths of babes you have prepared praises.’” He could say, because he had the authority.

This Jesus, the man who drove out the temple merchants, was a rabble rouser with a purpose. He goes to God’s house to do a little housecleaning. And whenever we go to God’s house, we might have our own houses turned upside-down.

Shortly after he turns over the moneychanger's tables and shoos away all the doves, some people come up to trap him while he's in the temple. They say, "Teacher, should we pay taxes to Caesar?" He responds to that question with another question: "Anybody here got a quarter?" (One of them says, "Sure.") He asks, "Whose head is on the quarter?" Well, it's the emperor's head. So in our kind of thinking, we say, "Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, give to Obama what belongs to Obama, and sometime next month, give to the IRS what belongs to the IRS. Then and only then, give to God what belongs to God; that is, the leftovers."

But the first-century Jew didn't see it that way. You give to God what belongs to God. And what belongs to God? Everything! "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." (Psalm 24:1) If you believe God is involved in everything, you have to recast your life so that God is served by everything, even that little silver idol with Caesar’s face on it.

That's why people went to the temple. They went to honor the God who is concerned about the whole of human life. The temple was the place where heaven touched earth. It was where people returned back to God something of what they received from God. If you receive a baby who opens your womb, you offer a sacrifice to say thank you. If you are cured of a disease by the Great Physician, you offered up an animal to express your gratitude. If you committed some sin, and wanted to atone for it, you could purchase an unblemished lamb as a sin offering.

In the ancient world, every good religion had a temple, and commercial activity was normal. Joachim Jeremias, the great Bible scholar, says the Jerusalem temple was the basis for the city's economy. If you wanted to offer up prayers to God, you had to have the right goods. Fortunately for most worshipers, the Jerusalem temple provided the very goods you needed in order to worship God. As one commentator puts it quite plainly, "If you're traveling all the way down from Galilee from three days away, do you really want to carry a couple of doves in a cage, where they might become sick or bruised or impure? Why not wait until you got there, and pick up what you needed at the temple?"

So why is Jesus so hot and bothered? He is not condemning the sacrificial system of Jerusalem. Otherwise he would be going after the high priest, who was authorized to do the sacrifices. No, he lets the theologians deal with that one after his death.

Rather, his attack is quite focused. He goes after the money changers. Do you know who they are? They are the street representatives of the Jerusalem financial district. They make a little money on every little sale, kind of like a legitimate tax collector who charges a little extra and skims off the top. According to the scholars, do you know who stood to benefit most from their sales? It wasn't the poorest of the poor; you can be sure of that. No, it was the priests' union. The whole religion was mandated by the priests, who stood to profit by their mandate. The poorest worshipers, the one who needed the most help, were the ones who gained the least.

Not only that, Jesus goes after the dove sellers. Not the lamb sellers, but the dove sellers. There was a difference. In the book of Leviticus, it says, "If you're going to offer a sacrifice, and you don't have enough money to buy a good lamb, you can buy a couple of doves as a poor person's offering." (Lev. 5:7, 12:8)

For what it's worth, that is how we know Jesus was born into a poor family. When he was dedicated in the temple, his parents offered a couple of doves as a sacrifice, because they were too poor to afford an unblemished lamb.

So why does Jesus go after the dove sellers? Because they exploit the poor. The whole system is requiring the poor to make religious sacrifices, and then charging them money to provide for the sacrifices. It was not only about profit; it was about exploitation. The religion of God the redeemer became more and more distant from those who needed it most.

So Jesus goes into the temple, and he throws out those who are buying and selling, and he casts out the money changers, and he stops anybody who gets in his way. If you know the Gospel of Matthew, you know what this is: it's an expression of his authority. He has the authority to cure the blind and the lame. He has authority to cast out the forces that oppress and demean human life. Now he goes right into the Jerusalem temple and throws out the money-changers. This Jesus is more than a reformer. He is a Savior, and he confronts any authority or any power that puts people down and keeps them down.

As a result, those who have a vested interest in the institution look for a way to kill him. It isn’t long before the chief priests and the scribes begin to plot against him.

The Bible wants us to know that Jesus comes to heal something more than ruffled feathers, broken fingernails, and bruised feelings. He comes to save the whole world. Jesus comes to attack the forces that hurt us and damage others. He is the Messiah of God, whom death cannot confine, whom illness cannot destroy. And he questions any form of religion where the rich and famous are honored and adored, while widows are plundered and people with basic human needs are thrown away.

"In fact," he said, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees! You sit on the seat of Moses, the great teacher, but you do not practice what you teach. You lay religious burdens on the shoulders of others, but you are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. You prance around in public, take the places of honor, and love to have everybody bow down in respect. You forgot that you were called to be servants, and exalt yourselves above everybody else.” (23:1-12)

I realize that's the way of the world. In our time, the gap between the mighty and the lowly continues to grow. The chasm between the few affluent nations of the world and the many, many poor nations continues to widen.

But listen to what Jesus goes on to say. "Do you see the big stones of this temple, which were constructed on the backs of the poor? Do you see these large buildings which are monuments to injustice? The day is coming when this entire oppressive machine will be pulled apart piece by piece. The day is coming when selfishness will be dismantled, greed will be dethroned. Not one stone will be left upon another." Tell me: is that good news? Or is that bad news? Depends on where you stand.

In the meantime, I do know this: anybody who talks like this could get themselves killed. Anybody who keeps standing up for justice is going to get crucified.

And if there's any justice in heaven, they will also be raised from the dead.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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