When most of us think of Jesus, a number of pictures come to our minds. We might think of Jesus blessing little children, washing the feet of the Disciples, or healing the sick. We might remember him walking on water, stilling the storm, or being led off to a cruel death without a word. A lot of people who remember those stories, as well as others, end up wondering...well, how come the people turned on him and killed him? Who would want to kill such a nice guy?
Palm Sunday often seems the most baffling of all. If all the lovely hosannas and palms and Jesus riding into town on a peace-loving donkey make you wonder how they could crucify Him by the end of the week, read on to the next part of the chapter. The very next day, Jesus enters the Temple and in a violent rage turns over tables, lets birds loose, and dumps money boxes on the floor. The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus even made a whip for the purpose...Indiana Jones meets the Gospels. What on earth made Jesus so mad?
Being a Jew in Jesus' day was an expensive proposition. First there was the Temple tax, which was required of every Jew every year at Passover. The tax was the equivalent of two days wages. But bringing your money was not enough. The kicker was, the tax had to be paid in Temple money. The Temple had its own currency, and another entire day's wage was charged to convert the money...thus the moneychangers.
But the issues didn't stop there. Worshipers at the Temple needed to bring a sacrifice, and the sacrifice needed to be without blemish...perfect. If your animal had any defect at all, it was not acceptable. Temple workers were there to decide whether your animal was without blemish, and if the one you brought with you was found to be defective, guess what? The Temple just happened to have some perfect ones for sale. You can guess how many got through without having to buy another Temple animal.
When instructions had been given in Scripture about sacrifices, mercy was shown to the poor. Those of means were required to bring a sheep or a goat or an ox...a substantial sacrifice. But the poor were allowed to bring much less...just a pair of doves...and still be acceptable. When Jesus is born and his family shows up at the Temple to make a sacrifice, they bring doves...a sign that Jesus came from a poor family. The Gospel accounts of the rampage in the Temple make a point of mentioning that Jesus went after the sellers of doves. Why?
A pair of doves could be bought outside Temple gates for about one day's wage. But, somehow, those outside doves were never quite perfect, at least according to the temple workers making the decisions. So the poor lost what they had spent on the outside doves and were forced to purchase ones from inside the Temple. How much were THOSE doves? About 21 days' wages. And, of course, they couldn't buy the doves with their own money. It had to be converted into Temple currency...for another day's wage.
On almost every page of the Hebrew Scriptures, you can hear God's voice insisting on justice and caring for the poor...the widows, the orphans, the disadvantaged. The prophets tell us that the terrible destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah came about precisely because they had neglected justice and care for the widows and orphans. And here it was again...this time within the very House of God. It pushed Jesus over the edge.
But that was not all that Jesus took issue with. The place where all of this was set up was in a part of the Temple precincts known as the Court of the Gentiles. While the Temple proper was reserved only for Jewish males, there were two other places that were set apart on Temple grounds for others to worship...the Court of the Women and the Court of the Gentiles. Way back when God had called Abraham to be the father of a nation, God's intent was that the nation of Abraham's descendants should be a "blessing to all the nations of the earth." That intention was embodied by making a place on the Temple grounds for Gentiles to come and pray. It was this area, the Court of the Gentiles, that was filled with the agents of dishonesty, greed, and injustice...the moneychangers and those who sold the certified "perfect" sacrifices.
Listen to what Jesus says when he has finished knocking everything over. He says, "Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of thieves.'" This is a quote from the Hebrew Scriptures...from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 56, which we read earlier. In clearing the Temple, Jesus is making a statement about the two things closest to the heart of God...God's desire to be in loving relationship with ALL people, and the demand that God's people live in ways that proclaim God's love and justice. Make no mistake...God cares about those issues, and whether it is God raining down fire on cities that ignore it or Jesus making whips and disrupting a dishonest marketplace, we can expect that God's patience with our greed and injustice will last only so long.
So...what does this have to do with us today? Everything. In clearing the Temple, Jesus is making a critical statement about the purpose of the House of God and the calling of God's people. We have a financial audit of the church every year. I think it might be helpful to have a ministry audit each year as well. Are we as a church faithfully carrying out God's mission? Does the United Methodist Church of Westford care about the things that God cares about?
This action of Jesus invites us to ask of ourselves if our church truly has room for all people or do we have subtle ways of crowding out some of God's children? One way we try to make our worship more accessible to all is by providing a detailed bulletin. We try not to assume that those coming in the doors know the Lord's Prayer by heart or know the flow of a service. We list page numbers when we can't fit all the words and put asterisks for times to stand. But, just as I was thinking we were doing pretty well, I thought...what of those who can't read? The same bulletin that provides a key to some could very well block the way for others.
I worked for a number of years as a literacy volunteer. My first student was a woman in her fifties, and one of the great sorrows of her life was that she could not fully participate in singing hymns in church because she could not read the hymnal. I decided that we could use the words to hymns for our reading lessons, and she brought me a hymnal from her church for us to use. We gave it up almost as soon as we started. Every other word had at least one hyphen stuck in the middle of it, to show that the word was divided across several notes. The spacing between words is abnormal, and your eyes have to be able to jump past a bunch of music to down to the right line for whatever verse you're on. We finally decided she would just have to memorize them, which is not easy if they are long or always different. Is there room for everyone?
Is there room at here for those whose language might reflect the roughness of their lives? Is there room for those whose musical tastes are different from ours? Is there room for those who give voice to their prayers during our silences or who pray with body as well as spirit? Is there room in your pew for the man who has not bathed or the parent with active children? Why is there so little ethnic diversity here?
We need to be conscious all the time that our calling is to be in ministry to those outside of the church...to work not in the church but in the world for justice and to proclaim the God of love to those who have never heard the Good News. Inside the Church is the place where we make and equip disciples of Jesus Christ...not so we can sit around in the church and talk about how great it is to be a disciple, but so that we can go out into the world and do our job...to make the place where we live a little more like heaven and a little less like hell.
I don’t mean to imply that we are not doing God's will at all—just that we should always be looking for ways that we can do it better and for ways that we might be getting lazy and letting our priorities slide. The priests in the Temple did not decide from the outset that they would crowd the Gentiles out of a place to pray and that they would set up dishonest and unjust systems for conducting Temple business. But the sin worked its way in like a cancer...starting with small things that could hardly be noticed by those looking on. It grew because no one was watching, no one was paying attention.
"My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations." That desire of God has not changed. This has got to be the place where everyone and anyone can come and meet God. If we have doors that keep some from entering, if we have space that is so full of our own business that there is no room for the business of God, if we have systems in place that reflect anything other than the justice and mercy of God, we can expect that the Gentle Shepherd will come at us as He would go for a wolf after His sheep...with a whip and fury and the righteous indignation of God.
Whether this is passage is comforting or threatening depends largely on where you are coming from. For you who are poor, for you who are treated unjustly, for you who always seem to have doors slammed in your faces, this is a story to make you get up and dance. God cares about what happens to you, and is so outraged at the way you are treated that He will storm the Temple itself and take on anybody and everybody there to fight for you. Jesus is not the guy who is going to sit idly by and say, "There, there. They shouldn't have done that, but you'll have to forgive them," even as they continue to take the food from your cupboards with taxes and try to shut you out from the presence of God. Jesus is the champion of the poor and the outcast.
But to those of us who have the privilege and the power and the keys to the doors, the passage comes as a warning. Is our temple cleansed? Are there ways we’ve taken over the Court of the Gentiles with our own business? Will we still shout Hosanna after Jesus has visited our temple with his whip? “Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be lifted up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.” He is entering our city. What will he find there? Amen.
Sermon © 2007, Anne Robertson
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