Monday, March 4, 2024

A Shift in the Temple


John 2:13-22

Lent 3 / Year B

In the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus drives out the merchants and money changers from the Temple on the day after Palm Sunday because he is appalled by their dishonest and corrupt practices.  Pilgrims comes from far and wide to make sacrifices at this holiest of places.  Once they arrive in Jerusalem they must convert their money into local coinage in order to purchase an appropriate offering.  What they encounter are financiers charging exorbitant exchange rates and peddlers selling sickly and deformed birds and animals when the offering required is supposed to be pure and unblemished.  (When it comes to giving to God, only the best will do.)  These three gospel record Jesus acts because his Father’s house has been turned it a “den of thieves.”  He is not attacking the Temple and its sacrificial rites, only those who are profiting by ripping off others.  Jesus’ actions, in these gospels, becomes the impetus for his arrest.

Now, as we heard moments ago, John’s gospel describes the same event but if you pay attention to the text there are subtle and not so subtle differences.  Not so subtle: John has this event taking place at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and not in Holy Week.  John is not concerned at all with holding his narrative to a chronologically accurate timeline.  Rather, he weaves events in such a way so as to reveal who Jesus is and what he is all about.  So by placing this story near the beginning, John is saying Jesus’ entire ministry has something to do with the Temple itself.  But what?

Well, the key to answering this question is found in a subtle detail.  In John’s gospel, when Jesus drives out the sacrificial birds and animals and overturns the tables of the money changers, he does not do so because they are a den of thieves.  Did you notice what he said?  Jesus said, “Stop making my Father’s house into a marketplace.”  He is not condemning unethical sales practices.  He is leveling an indictment on their entire system. 

When asked by what authority he acts, Jesus responds, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.”  Those who hear him take Jesus to mean the stone and mortar structure which has taken decades to erect and still is not finished.  But here, at the very beginning, John has Jesus shifting the entire focus and function of the Temple to himself.

It is a motif John will build on throughout his gospel.  Think about the conversation Jesus has with the Samaritan woman at the well.  At one point she asks him about the appropriate place to worship, either the Samarian site of Mount Gerizim or the Israeli location of Mount Zion in Jerusalem.  Do you remember how he answers?  “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.”  It continues the shift from an emphasis on an outer structure to one’s own inner devotion.

The way John tells Jesus’ story takes on even greater significance if we consider how his original audience would have heard it.  John writes some two decades after the fall of Jerusalem and total destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.  Some of John’s readers grew up making pilgrimages to the Temple to offer a sacrifice, something no longer possible (think solastalgia – for those of you who attended last Sunday’s Lenten program).  Other readers had never been to Jerusalem, let alone the Temple.  To both groups, John has Jesus saying, “Forget about the Temple and the things of old.  I am the new Temple.  You no longer need to offer sacrifices of cattle, lambs, or doves.  Now you are to worship the Father in spirit and truth.”

If Jesus calls us to worship God in spirit and truth, what might he find in us which might lead him to make a whip of cords in order to drive it out of us?

Perhaps the first thing Jesus may find is what Erma Bombeck called “the gift that keeps on giving” – guilt.  David Grohl, founding member of the rock band The Foo Fighters, said “Guilt is a cancer.  Guilt will confine you, torture you, destroy you… It’s a thief.”  And yet, at least for some of us, our religious heritage has instilled in us a deep sense of unworthiness, of guilt.  We have absorbed a spirituality which holds God is exacting; demanding from us a standard of holiness beyond anything we can possibility achieve.  If this is where you are, Jesus wants to drive it out of the temple of your soul.

I suppose the flipside of guilt is self-righteousness; the notion you are good in God’s eyes because… you name the reasons… while others who do not meet the standards of your religious heritage are not.  Jesus said, “Why do you criticize the splinter in your neighbor’s eye while ignoring the log in your own?”  Jesus makes a whip of cords to drive out of us any and every sense of judgementalism. 

And, while I could preach from now until next Sunday of this subject, allow me to name just one more impediment to worshipping God in spirit and true: fear.  While guilt infects how we remember the past, fear eats at the future.  Each shares the same power to cripple our ability to live in the present moment, which is the only place we can worship God in spirit and truth.  Do you know how many times the phrase “fear not” appears is found in the bible?  365 – one for each day of the year.  Jesus seeks to drive out all fear so that we might be free to live, to love, and to worship.

These are just a few of the building blocks and cornerstones which Jesus uses to build his new temple in us.  What other measures and messages resonate with you as Jesus drives far from us all that holds us back from coming to him in spirit and truth?