In seminary at Yale Divinity School I was awed to find myself in a vast landscape–that of the Christian witness spoken through the centuries. My perspective, having grown up in the Southern California United Church of Christ, was limited by comparison. I realized I had only seen faith from one small corner of scholarship in this time and place. There were more voices to hear, endless voices of faith and ways of understanding God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Add to that the Jewish traditions that are woven into scripture, and the totality of the Judeo-Christian witness reaches back to the days of creation. This faith tradition is varied and beautiful, reaching far and wide, inviting us into a relationship with the living Creator, God’s self.
The vastness of the Judeo-Christian faith starkly contrasts with the image of the temple, the day Jesus arrived, as described in the gospel of John.
“In the temple Jesus found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.” (2: 14)
Entering into the space where people came to meet God, Jesus is accosted by the sights and sounds of animals being sold for sacrifice to atone for sin.
In the claustrophobic chaos, the faithful find their way to the stalls in order to buy the appropriate animal as described in Jewish law. Imagine the sounds, the smells, and the difficulty of holding an animal long enough to carry it to the priest for the altar. How easy it would be to lose the intent, to lose God’s larger story, in the business of what must be done.
Recall, the Jewish people have come to the Jerusalem temple to celebrate the Passover, the day when God freed Israel from Egyptian bondage. They remembered a day of blood and horror and salvation. The night before Passover, each family of Israel was to sacrifice a lamb and put the lamb’s blood on their door. God passed over the households that had this sign, inflicting the last plague on the rest of Egypt, killing their first born sons. Only this last plague turned Pharaoh’s head long enough to allow Israel to leave his service and enter into a new life with God.
Israel, the freed people, enters into the wilderness, a vast landscape which opened them to experiences of God they had never before known. Beautiful experiences, as when they saw God as a pillar of cloud and fire. Frightening experiences, like a snake rising up from the desert floor. After a generation had passed away, the new generation led by Joshua, entered, with God, into the land God promised. God’s presence there is marked by the Jerusalem temple.
Having come to the temple, the symbol of God’s promise and presence, the crowd enters in thinking about what must be done to atone for sin. How small is their view as the din of animal noises and seller’s voices echo off the high walls of the courtyard. Is this really the freedom that God envisioned long ago when blood was shed in Egypt?
Jesus gets angry…very angry.
“Making a whip of cords, [Jesus] drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (2:15 – 17)
I’m sure Jesus’ actions confused the temple leaders of the day. They were only doing what was expected. Maybe the root of that which would debilitate the churches of this day is similar. It is all too easy to get into a business that, in its essentials, is quite similar to selling sin offerings: we do what has always been done in order to placate what someone has said is the Holy Way instead of seeking to invite all people into God’s grace.
Jesus was angry because the temple had created a way for people to placate the Holy One instead of opening the doors to a relationship with His Father and our Father.
Church practices are rarely questioned, indeed, just as in Jesus’ time, there is always a scripture to point to defend them. Every such practice can be justified through tradition…and will continue to be as long as we are trading in our earthly temples.
Would that Jesus enter in, whip in hand, to tell us to get out. Stop selling your doves here, your narrow way to peace with God. This is my Father’s house.
In Christianity, we come to know God through Jesus. When Jesus saw the faithful confined to buying sin offerings, he overturned the tables. Given this, is it not possible that God is unhappy with tradition bound rules even if they can be justified by a small portion of scripture? Isn’t possible that, even now, God continues to overturn the tables of our limited understanding that we might better know God’s way?
When Jesus saw that the temple, the place where one could come to enter into God’s presence, had as its first and foremost concern making people act according to tradition, he told them to get out.
Then, he pointed to himself as the temple which would be destroyed and in 3 days raised up.
Of course, the temple faithful had no idea of that which he spoke. For it required leaving behind expectations in order to imagine God in a new form, one who would not kill, but would die to set us free.
May we allow God to make us free to enter a faith which is varied and beautiful, which reaches far and wide, and invites us into a relationship with the living God.