3rd Sunday in Lent John 2:13-22 March 4, 2018Each week I receive our ELCA’s Youth Ministry Network email entitled Faith Lens, a study of the week’s gospel reading. As I read the study I was struck by the following paragraph: “A preacher once said in a sermon, ‘The Good News is not about being ‘nice’.” In a culture where we teach children to get along, have good manners, be polite, and ‘be nice.’ This may be a challenge. Certainly, putting the needs of others before our own is a Christian virtue, and adopting a servant heart can very well result in being a ‘nice’ person, there is much more to it than that. Being an active participant in God’s kingdom-work calls us to respond passionately to the needs and the injustices in the world, and sometimes being passionate does not equate to being polite.” The thing that grabbed my attention is the reference to being passionate and responding passionately.
For a good portion of my life I have lived within communities made up of stoic Scandinavians and Germans, a people who would sooner bury their passions than act on them, a people who are really good at being passionately passive aggressive (is that an oxymoron?) and when confronted with something that really rubs them the wrong way will tell you “That was interesting!” The result of this sort of behavior and lifestyle leads to a great deal of discomfort when they encounter someone who is in fact very passionate about something and not afraid to express it. We get nervous when someone is too enthusiastic, overly excitable, passionately angry and so committed to something that they speak and act out.I am telling you all this because in today’s Gospel reading is seems as though Jesus does not exhibit good manners and gets all passionate to the point of making something of a ruckus. And the question is, what are we to make of all this? Or, we can stand back and whisper to our neighbor, “That was interesting!”
Perhaps we ought to take a closer look at what is going on here to help us understand what all the fuss is about. John tells us that Jesus has entered the temple in Jerusalem and there he encounters people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables” (John 2:14). In order to appreciate this, you need to know that when people came to the temple in Jerusalem part of their worship involved offering a sacrifice to atone for his or her sins. Depending on the nature of your sin – and your pocketbook—a variety of animals were made available—doves, lambs, goats, and oxen. This was particularly helpful if you had to travel a distance to get to Jerusalem, you could simple buy your un blemished sacrificial animal on your way into the temple.
Here is the other thing you need to know—it was against Jewish law to bring in or use any currency that had the graven image of anyone—even the emperor who was minted onto each and every coin in the kingdom. To circumvent this problem, money changers were set up and offered you an opportunity to exchange your Roman coins with the emperor’s image on it for temple coins. Oh, and there was minor exchange fee, of course.
So, Jesus encounters sacrificial animals and money changers- both pursuits were necessary to the daily functioning of the temple. So, if the behavior of the buyers and the sellers is both normal and necessary, what is Jesus so upset about?Here is where all this gets a bit complicated because there are a variety of schools of thought. Allow me to share a couple.One line of thought suggests that Jesus was upset because the injustice he encountered. There in the Temple of God on Mount Zion, instead of serving the poor pilgrims of Israel who have come to celebrate the Passover, the religious authorities are exploiting them by selling high-priced animals to the pilgrims for their Temple sacrifices. And Jesus gets angry. Jesus is so passionate for the sanctity of God’s house, seeing it turned into a money-making marketplace makes him seething mad and to be honest, the thought of Jesus mad might make us a bit uncomfortable. That being said, we often hear about the “wrath of God,” or God’s “righteous anger,” though I suspect it is often said out of context. Here in this story, we see this anger demonstrated by Jesus. It can be difficult for us to think of God’s anger, because anger in humans often originates from sin and also leads to sin. For humans, anger often stems from pride or jealousy, and it often leads to grudges, gossip, or a desire for revenge. But in Jesus’ case, his anger did not stem from sin, instead it is directed towards sin. Because Jesus cares so much about God’s children he cannot stand to see sin hurt them. God’s anger is often called righteous, because it stems solely from the seat of righteousness, not from petty or misdirected desires.
This brings us to another line of thought--Jesus had a more complex and theological, objection. By allowing the merchants into the temple precincts, those in charge of Judaism had shown that they were more interested in maintaining that institution than they were in the purpose for which the institution had been founded. They were neglecting God’s mission to the world, they were as the old camp song goes, hiding the light of God under a bushel basket, they were not reaching out, they were closed in on themselves and their needs and wants. In other words, their neighbors in need were not high on the priority list. Instead of being a place of worship, the temple had become a going concern, a place where much money changed hands and huge profits were made for the religious leaders. In short, they took advantage of the people’s desire to serve God.
Sadly, over and over again, we humans turn gifts into duties and opportunities into obligations. This mornings reading from Exodus tells us about the giving of the Ten Commandments—which most people think of as the things God “requires of us” so that we can count ourselves as good people and get to go to heaven. But here’s the deal, notice that the story begins with God saving the people, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” And it is only after they have been rescued that God gives them the gift of the Torah, the guidelines for living in relationship with the Holy One and with each other. But eventually two things happen. The people find the rules hard to obey, and they assume that obeying the rules is the point. “If only I can keep the rules,” they think, “then God will love me, and all my hopes and dreams and plans will work out.” Repeatedly, people get the cart before the horse, thinking they must do something, preferably something difficult and distasteful and against their own desires, in order to please God. This is why Jesus got so passionately angry; the cattle pens and money-changers tables are both literally and figuratively getting between God and God’s people.
Even though it can be difficult for us to accept, Jesus’ anger can bring us comfort. It’s reassuring to know that our Lord cares enough about us to get angry when we are harmed, abused, or taken advantage of. Given the rampant sin in the world today, it’s probably safe to assume that God does get angry – at school shootings, at child and domestic abuse, at war, at world hunger and our apathy toward these daily events.
I said there were a variety of schools of thought on how to understand this text. One was from a justice perspective—Jesus was angry because people were being taken advantage of, and worse yet they were being taken advantage by the religious community. The second was from a theological perspective—a misinterpretation of God’s intended relationship with creation and its creatures, that being us. As I read this text I am led to believe that both carry weight. Both are worthy of Jesus passionate anger. And here is where I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that it’s ok if we feel angry too, as long as that anger comes from the righteousness of God, and as long as it directs us to positive action, not revenge.Today’s Gospel reading reminds us that Jesus wanted to make a powerful public statement, a demonstration of the fact that the temple was God’s house, God’s gift, a place for God’s people to come together in the presence of the Divine and that nothing should be allowed to get in the way of that.
For John, the reason Jesus came into our midst is to remove any doubt that our God is a God who acts before we can act, who saves us before we even know that we are in need of rescue, who will stop at nothing, not even death, to wipe away everything that stands between us and the love of the Holy One who made us. And if this is not an example of passionate love, I don’t know what is.Each morning as we arise, we are invited to ask our Lord to drive out of our lives anything that gets in the way of God getting to us. We are invited to remember each day that God so passionately loved us and saved us long before we were aware of God or capable of doing things to earn divine favor. And we are invited, as the body of Christ in the world, to allow the Holy Spirit within us to ignite a passion for justice and grace in such a way that we stand up, to speak out, and we dig in our heels for God’s Kingdom-work and allowing God to dwell in us and serve the needs of the others through us, in Jesus name. Amen
Pastor Stephen Blenkush
Zion Lutheran Church
Milaca MN 56353
Love like Jesus!