Good people: Repent!
Deacon Scott Elliott
St Gregory's Episcopal Church
March 8, 2015; Lent 3B
From the Book of Exodus, Chapter 20, verse 1:
Then God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
God then goes on to say: You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
Here we are, in the middle of Lent, early in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary. In year B, we concentrate on Mark, and Jesus's central message in Mark is in Chapter one, verse 14; what Jesus proclaimed at the very beginning of his public ministry, the very first words to come out of his mouth in this Gospel: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." Anytime you think of the Gospel of Mark, think of that.
And yet, for three of the six weeks in this Lent: this week, next, and the next; we have these incursions from the Gospel of John. What's that about? And the story we hear today – the story of the 'cleansing of the Temple' – is even a story that's told in Mark! The lectionary compilers could have chosen it, but didn't.
It's also told in Matthew and Luke. It's one of the relatively few stories that all four of Gospels tell – so you know the church has always thought it very important. But we don't hear their versions in Year A or C; we only hear this version, this year. So why do we hear John's version? What is it about it, that they chose it for us?
John has this incident occur at the beginning of Jesus's public ministry. (The other Gospels have it near the very end.) Imagine the scene: Here is everybody and his brother, just come into town and gearing up for Passover, the biggest day of the year; the town is full of travelers and strangers; the temple is full of sheep and oxen and pigeons and everybody; and here are the money changers changing the money.
It's hot, it's crowded, it's noisy and dusty and dirty, and the place is full of hot and loud and smelly animals. And hot and loud and smelly people. Everybody's in a bad mood. Everybody just wants to get this thing done, get back to the hotel, put their feet up and have a cold drink, maybe a little something to eat, and just call it a day.
And then all of a sudden, coming up out of nowhere, here's this itinerant preacher; this countrified yahoo from Galilee of all godforsaken places, coming in just here like he's somebody, and he goes and tears the place up! Chaos! Destruction! Sacrilege! Totally unacceptable!
Why did Jesus do this?
In Matthew's, and Mark's, and Luke's renditions, Jesus, amidst the chaos, shouts out: "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer' … but you have made (or are making) it a den of robbers."
So I guess the animal sellers and money changers have been engaging in unethical business practices – perhaps charging inflated prices, or requiring an overly high exchange rate, or something. Maybe taking advantage of the location, the same way food in the convenience store is always higher than in the regular grocery. Maybe price gouging, like an Uber cab on a Saturday night.
Well, maybe all that's in the mix, but in John, Jesus doesn't say anything like that. He shouts: "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!"
So maybe he's got a thing about commerce? He doesn't like to see a guy making a buck now and then? Maybe the temple is too holy, or perhaps trade is so profane, that they can't be mixed.
But that doesn't really sound like something that would make Jesus have such an intense, violent reaction. I mean, later on in John's Gospel, we hear the story of a prostitute who pours perfume all over his feet. There is no more crass commercialism than prostitution, and if Jesus is going to freak out like this in the temple, he'd just have conniptions over that. But to that woman, he is absolutely, well, gracious; much more so than the others who are present at the time.
So it's not the commercialism. Not in John, at least. So let's think about this a little more.
First thing is: what were all those animals doing there in the Temple in the first place? The sheep and the cattle and the pigeons? They were there to be sacrificed.
Torah very specifically describes, in graphic fashion, the offerings and animal sacrifices that an observant Israelite is obligated to give, and various times and for various purposes. Levitical Law specifies Burnt Offerings and Peace Offerings and Sin Offerings and Trespass Offerings, and is very specific about how those various sacrifices are to be performed by the priest who performs the sacrifice.
Burnt Offerings are to be a bull, or a ram, or, for the poor, a dove or young pigeon. Peace offerings are to be any animal from the herd, but only certain organs. Sin offerings the same, but only a bull or a male goat or a dove, or maybe some flour for the very poor. And the sacrifices were made by travelers from all over, coming to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices, as required by the Law. They couldn't very well take their animals with them, so they brought money and bought the animals there, right there in the outer courtyard of the Temple. How convenient!
And they came to pay their Atonement money, the half-shekel ransom which the Law requires of every person once a year: the "Temple Tax." But they couldn't use Roman coins for that, so the money-changers, who took the drachmae and denarii and gave shekels in return, offered a necessary service to travelers on pilgrimage.
So what's the problem? Nobody was doing anything that wasn't legally required or practically necessitated, directly or indirectly, by Mosaic and Levitical Law. Nobody was being bad: everybody was being good, following the Law, doing the right thing.
So why did Jesus freak out like that?
I'm thinking about what Jesus said at the beginning of his ministry in Mark: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Repent. Examine yourself, and change: Change utterly.
He didn't say that to bad people; he didn't say that to tax collectors and thieves and prostitutes and hedge fund managers and dopefiends. He never has a harsh word for those people. He likes them, and hangs out with them, and eats with them.
He doesn't tell bad people to repent: he tells good people to repent.
He doesn't tell bad people to change, he tells good people to change.
He tells the good people, the Temple authorities and the obedient Israelites, the Law-abiding citizens of the Nation of Israel: he tells them to repent, for the Kingdom – himself – has come near.
A few weeks ago, a number of us from this parish got together on a Sunday night and watched a biopic about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor during the Nazi period who, among other things, was affiliated with the German resistance movement.
Some members of that group joined in a plot to kill Hitler. They had several opportunities, but let some really good ones go because they had real compunctions about killing – even killing a murderous monster such as they knew Hitler to be.
They dithered amongst themselves so much that when Col. von Stauffenberg finally planted the bomb, it wasn't the best of opportunities and, obviously, they failed.
It struck me: They were so concerned about their personal morality, that they permitted global immorality on an unimaginably massive scale to continue unabated for months and years longer than it would have, had they acted with moral courage instead of moral compunction.
They so feared being sinners by performing the act of killing, that, if anything, they sinned by failing to perform the act of killing. They didn't obey the law of God; they put the Law in the place of God. By following the Law, they disobeyed God. They weren't bad people who ought to have repented; they were good people who ought to have repented.
Maybe that's why Jesus whipped the cattle dealers and moneychangers out. Because they weren't faithfully adhering to the Law; they weren't doing what the Law required out of love for God and other; they were doing the Law in order to do it.
They made the Law their God; destroying the Law, and God – at least the worship of God – and themselves, in the process. Making the sacrifices no longer gifts to God, but just killing animals day in and day out.
God said, I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
So I ask myself:
How do I violate the law of God, by following the Law of God?
How do I make God an idol, or make an idol, god?
And so to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost be ascribed as is His most just due, all might, dominion, and power, both now and forevermore. Amen.