Homily: March 8, 2015
THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT, YEAR B; Rev. Theo Park
When most of us think of Jesus, usually a number of pictures come to mind.
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 these 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?
Today’s gospel begins to give us an idea.
Jerusalem was at once a grand pagan city and the center of Jewish culture at its best. Huge numbers of pilgrims came to worship at the Temple from all corners of the empire,
especially during Passover, when they might number as many as a million.
These pilgrims were economically crucial to the life of Jerusalem:
they brought the latest news and innovations,
and provided a living for large segments of the local population.
Around the beginning of the 1st Millennium,
Jerusalem was prosperous and the material wealth and luxury
of the affluent and priestly classes were at their peak.
This prosperity trickled down to the lower classes as well, to some extent;
the masses enjoyed the benefits of the increased trade,
the incessant exchange of currency, and a sort of peace—
even if it came at the cost of Roman occupation—
that allowed the free exchange of goods with both East and West.
It is this peace and prosperity that Jesus threatens to disrupt if not destroy.
Imagine Jesus as a sort of one man “Occupy Jerusalem” movement.
Because not everything is quite so peaceful or prosperous as it seems.
And what is it with Jesus and the dove-sellers particularly?
Being a righteous Jew in Jesus' day was an expensive proposition.
First there was the Temple tax,
which was required of every Jew every year at Passover
and collected at the Temple itself.
The tax was the equivalent of two days wages.
But bringing your money was not enough.
Roman currency was considered idolatrous
because it was stamped with the image of Caesar,
so the Temple had its own currency,
and another entire day's wage was charged to convert the money...
thus the moneychangers.
There was a lively money changing business going on every day inside the temple.
But the issues didn't stop there.
Worshipers at the Temple, at any time of year, 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 stood by to decide whether your animal was without blemish,
and if your animal was considered unworthy, guess what?
The Temple just happened to have some perfect ones you buy could on the spot,
again having to convert your money into Temple coinage.
It was a pretty lucrative business for the priestly class
who had jurisdiction over the Temple.
Anybody on the Bishop’s Committee getting ideas?
And of course all of this was hardest on the poor, and here’s where the doves come in.
When instructions had been given in the Torah about sacrifices,
provisions were made to be compassionate 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…you guessed it:
just a pair of doves...and still be acceptable.
Now, you could buy a pair of doves outside the Temple gates for about one day's wage.
But, somehow, those outside doves were never quite perfect,
at least according to the temple authorities making the decisions.
So the poor lost what they had spent on the outside doves
and were forced to purchase birds from inside the Temple.
How much were THOSE doves? About 21 days' wages.
Well, they were perfect, after all.
And, of course, you couldn't buy the doves with your 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 is again...this time carried on within the very House of God.
It pushes Jesus over the edge.
But this isn’t the only reason Jesus reacts with such anger.
Last week we heard God call Abraham into covenant relationship.
Do you remember that 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 physically embodied by making a place on the Temple grounds,
called the Court of the Gentiles, for non-Jews to come and pray, to worship God.
Jesus now saw this area—the symbol for God’s grace and radical hospitality—
filled with the agents of dishonesty, greed, and injustice.
In the other gospels, the writers give Jesus a didactic speech that explains all this.
They have him quote the prophet Isaiah and say,
"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."
In John we get no speech from Jesus, just fury, which this author sees as justified, identifying Jesus with a different Hebrew scripture, a tag from Psalm 69:
“Zeal for your house shall consume me.”
Whichever version you read,
the evangelists portray Jesus as making a critical statement
about the two things closest to the heart of God:
God's desire to be in loving covenant relationship with ALL people,
and the demand that God's people live in ways that proclaim God's love and justice.
That’s the tie in with today’s reading from Exodus,
where God offers the commandments not so much as limitation but as protection.
You can just imagine God saying, “Look, I know the choices that make you miserable.
Here are ten ways of living that will help you avoid that.”
Make no mistake...God cares about these issues.
We hear this over and over and over.
And Jesus, having the mind of God, does as well.
He sees the Temple practice for what it has become:
an unnecessary barrier between God and the children of God.
And he’s had enough.
After all, Jesus came to make manifest the ultimate love of God,
to eradicate the barriers that separate us,
so a system that kept God and the people of God apart,
especially one perpetrated in the name of religion
and that enriched the pockets of some at the expense of the poor…
So...what does all this have to do with us today?
This action of Jesus invites us to ask of ourselves
whether our church truly has room for all people
or whether we have subtle ways of crowding out some of God's children?
This action of Jesus invites us 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,
to establish justice and to proclaim the God who is 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 outside the church 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 or that they would
set up dishonest and unjust systems for conducting Temple business.
But 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’s has not changed.
This has got to be the place where everyone and anyone can come and meet God.
If we have barriers that keep some from entering,
if we have space that is so full of our own business, our own concerns
that there is no room for the business and concerns of God,
if we have systems in place that reflect anything other
than the justice and unconditional love 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 passage is comforting or threatening
depends largely on your circumstances.
For those who are poor, for those who are treated unjustly,
for those who always seem to have doors slammed in your faces,
this is a story to make you get up and dance.
It says that God cares about what happens to you,
and is so outraged at the way you are treated that
God will storm the inner bastions of religion 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 soon to be entering our city.
What will he find there?