Where Divine and Human Meet

Mar 4, 2018 by

Sermon by Garry Blinch for Mar 4 2018

The story of Jesus clearing or cleansing the temple is likely a familiar one. It tends to stand out because it seems so out of character for “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”, to quote the hymn title by Charles Wesley.

How does it hit you? Preachers have used this text to talk about the wrath of God against the unscrupulous and against “defiling the temple”, which quickly becomes a invective against buying and selling in the church building.

This outburst has made some Christians quite uncomfortable. Think of the chaos that must have followed in Jesus’ wake! Animals running everywhere, money rolling, tables flying….Hail to the Prince of Peace.

Perhaps you are in a place where you see nothing to apologize for or feel embarrassed about in Jesus’ behaviour. Anger is the right response when fighting for the disadvantaged or powerless who are being abused and cheated. Anger clearly expressed with appropriate action- action that fits the context and does not threaten physical harm to another- is completely in order. And this is what Jesus was doing.

Jesus cleared the temple twice in his earthly ministry. This is contested by some who say there was only one cleansing event, near the end of his ministry, and that John places this event early in Jesus’ career because he wasn’t that concerned with chronology. But I favor the belief there were two events; each one has unique elements as reported by the gospel writers. Matthew, Mark and Luke have almost identical stories: Jesus entering Jerusalem in the triumphal entry, his final Passover, and he clears the temple the next day and says, “It is written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’” Same quote, same point in the timeline of Jesus’ life, all three gospels.

John, however, talks about this event as right after the wedding in Cana of Galilee, and he reports Jesus saying,  “…you will not make my father’s house a trading centre”, and nothing about this being a house of prayer. And what follows is completely unique to John, when the Lord says, “destroy this temple and raise it up in three days”.

So first, what exactly was it that had the Son of God so angry? Was it about conducting retail business in a place of worship and prayer? The sale of animals and the exchanging of money was permitted in the temple court for the convenience of pilgrims who needed animals to sacrifice and shekels to pay temple dues. Coming from a long distance, possibly with family, it was prudent to sell an animal before you left home- rather than have the extra burden- and with that money buy a sacrifice in Jerusalem. And there did need to be some place of currency exchange as Israelite people came from all over the Roman empire; Roman coinage was exchanged to provide the half-shekel for the temple tax.

The point is that under the chief priests, the concessions were a way of making money and so the temple had become a commercial venture. No doubt the priests took their cut and vendors likely fixed prices with no one to stop them doing so. The other gospel writers supply the idea that these venders were also cheating people- “den of robbers” Jesus is reported as saying.

The temple then, a sacred space for divine and human to meet, is debased to the point of being just a money-making venture for the leadership and for the numerous vendors- who couldn’t be there in the first place if priests had not okayed it. Presumably there are some priests who have not fallen into the trap of greed and possibly most of the worshippers came with the right heart; but poison at the top has a way of trickling down. The leadership knew better, and with greater privilege of position comes greater responsibility.

In the eyes of those who profited, those holding the power, the pilgrims weren’t worshippers, they were consumers. And what do the sellers and investors have foremost in their minds? How to minimize cost and maximize profit. That, in itself, is not wrong- as long as there is a general respect for people. But to reduce the temple to this makes mockery of the very idea of worship and views something that was required of every Israelite- that is, to come to the temple to meet with God on various occasions- as an opportunity to cheat their fellows. Jesus wades into this power differential to call for an end to this abuse.

It’s a story familiar down through history and is very much evident today. The wealthy and powerful use their wealth and power to get control of goods and services that people need, and then decide what their fellow human beings will have to pay for it. Those doing the hard work get to the place where there is little to lose and the result is uniting into unions, work stoppages and, unfortunately, sometimes violence. Christ’s example is that his followers do need to take stands against the abuse of power and for a vision of community that respects and honors all people.

I have been reading an enlightening and frightening book called No is Not Enough by Naomi Klein. Right now, in our time, Donald Trump and other far-right world leaders are using something Klein calls “shock politics” and “shock economics” to create crisis that, in turn, scare people into giving up personal rights and freedoms in exchange for a government-sponsored solution to the crisis…which the leader actually created. And the leader is in cahoots with rich and powerful corporations and business interests. Christians need to say “NO” to manufactured crisis and austerity while saying a resounding “YES” to a vision of the future that does not favor the one or two percent. The author has a powerful vision to share that I cannot go into detail here but would be happy to guide people to investigate further.

The other important movement in today’s gospel drama is the confrontation with the Judean leaders. They challenge Jesus’ authority to be disrupting the status quo. His reply is entirely off-topic; at least, off the topic of his authority. Jesus doesn’t let them control the topic. His answer sounds absurd. They think he is saying he will destroy the temple in which they were standing and then build another one in three days. But Christ did not say “I will destroy”, and the gospel writer helpfully informs readers that he was talking about his own body.

Just to get the full force of Jesus’ words and how upsetting they are consider this: the word our bibles typically translate as “temple” is the word for “sanctuary”. The word refers to the inner sanctum of the temple in Jerusalem, into which only the High Priest could enter on the Day of Atonement. That is, the “Holy of Holies”. For Jesus to suggest that he can do anything with that part of the temple would have been blasphemy to those Judeans. And then for John to identify the holy of holies with Jesus body is even more so.

Jesus is predicting the destruction of his body, though certainly not a destruction he authors. One writer suggests it is more of a taunt: “Go ahead, destroy this body and I will raise it up in three days!” The body of Jesus is the new “holy place.” “The Word became flesh, and lived among us,” John writes. In the incarnation, with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s dwelling place is with human beings, as a human being.

The body of Jesus is the new “holy place”. The place where divine and human meet.

One person said this:  “During the season of Lent, we follow the body of Jesus as he travels to Jerusalem, as his hands braid pieces of rope into a whip to herd cattle and sheep out of the temple, as his knees bend to the feet of the disciples to wash them. We watch him eat and drink with his friends, and we follow him to the garden, where the bodies of his disciples unsuccessfully fight off sleep while Jesus sweats through a prayer that he might not have to endure the torture in his immediate future. We see him beaten, crucified, taken down from the cross, and laid in a tomb. And in the stories of his resurrection, he is still a body — huggable, touchable, scarred, and eating.       

Christians are not naive about the trials of being a body, and we have no satisfying description of the miracle it will certainly be for God, after we are dead, to raise us up, incorruptible. Nevertheless, we will not let go of that hope, precisely because God was committed enough to human flesh and blood to become it in Jesus Christ, and committed enough to human flesh and blood to raise Jesus up after his death, as a body able to eat fish, and point out scars to Thomas, and ask Peter to feed his sheep”.Mary Hinkle Shore 




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