How are we called to do God’s business? Lent 3

How are we called to do God’s business? Lent 3

Third SUNDAY Of Lent,   March 4, 2018

Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22

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I suspect you might all agree with me that this is one of the most striking passages in the Gospels. It shows Jesus on the verge of violence as he drives the money changers out of the temple. It is a blow struck at the heart of his religious tradition. It is a powerful memory when you consider that all four gospels include an account of Jesus’ disruption at the temple.

The synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are similar, with some variants, and place the incident near the end of the gospel when Jesus enters Jerusalem for Passover the week he was crucified. In John, the incident occurs toward the beginning of the gospel and is distinctively different from the brief synoptic versions. Scholars agree that the gospel accounts are grounded in an historical incident.

Most theologians and historians seem to concur that the synoptic placement is more plausible historically because it provides the provocation for Jesus’ arrest and execution.

The gospel of John was written, of course, after the fall of the temple in 70 of the Christian era. Consider the way that this gospel is written. Jesus throws out the money changers. He engages in dialogue with the authorities. He responds to them by saying, “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”. They respond, “hah, this temple has been under construction for forty-six years and you can raise it up in three days”! “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.” And right after that sentence John takes us from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry three years prior to after his death by saying “after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this”.

Anyone else confused? I sure am.

The gospel of John places the scene in the first of three pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Jesus’ angry demonstration at the temple is the second sign in the narrative. The occasion of the first sign is among family and friends at a wedding in Cana, a small town in Galilee (2:1-11). The second sign follows only few verses after the first, but the context is by contrast urban, public and politically charged. Crowds swell the population of Jerusalem at Passover, bringing an increased need for services, not least of all access to the temple’s sacrificial rites. Crowds heighten the potential for disturbance and therefore the increased presence of Roman troops for crowd control. In this volatile setting, Jesus makes a whip, drives out animals, people selling them, and moneychangers; he pours out their money and tips over their tables. The second sign pertains to the temple, but what invokes Jesus’ wrath?

Consider that the temple was a complex institution in the first century. For Israel the Temple in Jerusalem was God’s permanent dwelling place, a sign of the covenantal promise of eternal presence. The sacrificial rites were administered here according to biblical law by priests descended from priestly lineage. Jews throughout the diaspora made pilgrimages at feast times. The temple was a potent symbol that bound Jews in a common identity. At the same time, the temple priests evoked resentment because of their inherited status, their connection to Roman authorities, and their distance from those who suffered under imperial powers. The temple priests were not necessarily viewed as religious leaders of the people.

A common assumption about this Sunday’s passage is that Jesus was cleansing the temple of commercial abuse. But the animals and the money changers had a right to be there. The animals were there because of the Torah’s requirement of sacrifice. The moneychangers were there to change pilgrims’ money into the coinage the Temple could receive to purchase sacrifices and also for the payment of the half-shekel tax levied on all Jews.

If Jesus is not cleansing the Temple from commercial abuse by the money changers, then what is the point of his actions?

Maybe we can think of the temple cleansing in a somewhat more familiar way.

How many of you remember spring cleaning? I remember my grandmother and her sisters would literally all gather at one another’s homes to engage in taking down the winter drapes, putting up the spring and summer curtains and washing the house from top to bottom. Maybe some of you still do it.

Believe it or not there are many that attribute the term and the practice to a variety of cultures and religious practices. It is claimed by some that the practice of spring cleaning finds its roots in Hebrew culture, with broad religious significance. Others believe that spring cleaning originated in Iran, and China too stake a claim, as a mean to marking the Chinese New Year. In English the term ‘spring clean’ dates to the mid 1800s.

Wherever or however, the term arrived, “spring cleaning” is a cultural tradition with advocates all over the world.

I don’t want to oversimplify what Jesus did in the temple, but I wonder was it something of a spring cleaning?

Since there is no basis for the belief that the financial transactions taking place in the temple were corrupt, many modern scholars assert that Jesus was making a statement about the place of the temple in the future. Was Jesus letting the disciples and others know that the way of the future would be different? Were Christ’s actions in the temple symbolic?

Lent is a time of spring-cleaning of our Christian life. It is the traditional season of prayer and fasting in preparation for the great feast of feasts, Easter. Even the word Lent is derived from a Saxon word meaning “spring.” In the early church, Lent was viewed as a spiritual spring, a time of light and joy in the renewal of the soul’s life. It represented a return to a life in which God was once more center and source. In the ancient church it was also a time that people were prepared for baptism.

Lent is a season that hopefully creates a yearning in us to clean our house and to clean our souls.

During the weeks of Lent Christians consider what it means to follow Jesus, or to walk the way of the cross. The gospel portrays Jesus in a public act that confronts religious and government institutions. Rome holds the ultimate power. I think the account of Jesus’ demonstration at the temple invites us to consider the complex relationships between civil and religious life. When does Christian faith lead us to challenge civil authority? When do secular laws compromise Christian values? When does one interfere with the other? In America we value the separation of church and state, but in reality we all know it is not so neatly separated.

Many American Christians have defied civil law because of their Christian beliefs concerning human rights. Martin Luther King is an obvious example. Perhaps a less obvious example is someone whom I have met personally and whose religious community I treasure.

Sister Megan Rice is an anti-nuclear activist and member of the society of the Holy Child Jesus. Both my aunt and great-aunt were members of that community. Sister Megan, who just turned 88, broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, at the age of 82, with two fellow activists. It was referred to as “the biggest security breach in the history of the nation’s atomic complex.”[1] Convicted and sentenced to almost three years in prison for sabotage of the national defense system, she served two years in prison before her conviction was overturned. In her testimony Sister Megan said “I regret I didn’t do this 70 years ago.”[2]

I don’t believe I would have Megan’s fortitude in serving two years in a federal prison at the age of 84, but she certainly wasn’t content with the status quo. What her community said upon her release is that “while the Society does not condone criminal activity, we support Sister Megan and the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings against nuclear weapons.” I’m pretty certain that is something that Jesus would agree with.

I think that was we are hearing in John’s gospel today is Jesus trying to let the people of the temple know that they needed to get their priorities straight. That the business of the temple must be the business for which God has established it and that they cannot allow the culture to dictate its agenda, its leadership, its mission, or its standards. That they must be prepared to follow God, even when it means moving against the culture.

How are we called to do that today?

[1]  William J. Broad, “Behind Nuclear Breach, a Nun’s Bold Fervor”The New York Times, August 11, 2012. Retrieved March 3, 2018.

[2] Koplowitz, Howard (May 9, 2013). “Nun, 83, Convicted Of Breaking Into Tennessee Nuclear Site: ‘My Regret Was I Waited 70 Years,’ Sister Megan Rice Says”International Business Times. Retrieved March 3, 2018.

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