January 16, 2011
Now, But Not Yet
When I was in high school our youth group had a very interesting discussion one Sunday evening. A girl in our group brought the guy she was dating, and she always dated some interesting characters. Her father was a very prominent person in our community and she seemed to pick her boyfriends by how much they would irritate her father. The guys she dated lived along the edges of legal activity and were usually very abrasive in personality. On this Sunday evening she brought with her the most abrasive.
We didn’t have a student minister – adult volunteers led our group – and he was peppering them with questions, mostly to irritate them. I remember one of those questions very well, because it troubled me for a long time. He asked how could Jesus have been perfect, since he showed anger when he drove the moneychangers from the temple, and anger is a sin. We all sat there not knowing how to answer the question. We looked at each other, and at the leaders, and they looked at us, and one of them said, let’s go find the minister’s wife. See, when you really need the answer to a question, don’t bother with me; just go find Tanya. She came into the room, pondered the question, and said she didn’t know. Believing that minister’s wives know everything, I was very puzzled.
She went in search of her husband and I can still see him standing in the doorway of the room not knowing how to answer the question. It was a long time before I finally realized the answer to the question – who said anger is a sin? Anger is an emotion, not a sin! Scripture gives us warnings about the danger of anger, but never says that anger itself is a sin. Ephesians 4:26 says in your anger do not sin.
This morning, continuing with our series Now, But Not Yet, we come to the story of Jesus clearing the temple. Using John’s telling of the story we read of this incredibly dramatic moment when anger flares in Jesus as he looks around at what is taking place in the temple. John tells us he takes some cords and fashioned them into a whip and drove from the temple those who were conducting business by selling sacrificial animals and he overturned the tables of those who were moneychangers, proclaiming in his anger to get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market! And though he hardly needed to at that point, Jesus practically dares them to kill him by saying destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.
If you read this passage in all the gospels you will find that John does something very interesting with the story – he places this event at the beginning of his gospel; it’s one of the first events in the ministry of Jesus that John records. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place the story immediately after the Triumphal Entry, during the last week of Jesus’ life, but John places it at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. We need to remember that the gospels record historical events but they don’t always follow a chronological order, because the gospel writers were concerned about what does this event mean, rather than in what order did these events happen? John took an event that takes place in the last days of Jesus and tells it at the beginning of his story of Jesus, and it’s his way of saying here is something that happened that set the tone for the entire ministry of Jesus, this is an event that tells us something of incredible importance about who Jesus is.
Jesus was a person of incredible passion.
This image of Jesus clearing the temple is very much at odds with the traditional image we have of Jesus – the meek and mild Jesus, always nice and forever kind. This is the outrageous Jesus, the one whose righteous anger is willing to challenge those who are taking advantage of others in the name of God and is willing to upset those in power.
I think the definitive screen portrayal of Jesus is by the British actor Robert Powell, who plays Jesus in the 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, although I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t speak with a proper British accent. The scene of the clearing of the temple as portrayed by Powell gives us a glimpse, I think, of the passion Jesus portrayed.
Jesus was extremely passionate. He was passionate about his love for people, he was passionate about his commitment to his mission and ministry, he was passionate about justice, he was passionate about being open to all people – passion just oozed out of every part of his being. I get frustrated when people see Jesus as this boring, white-bread personality. Jesus was a living, breathing embodiment of passion.
Jesus was passionate about giving love and grace to the prodigal son, to the woman taken in adultery, to the leper, to the tax collector; he was passionate about just one lost sheep; he was passionate in his love for the great city of Jerusalem as he wept over it; he was passionate about love, and grace, and forgiveness.
Jesus railed against the commercialization and corruption of faith.
When you look around at the landscape of faith today it can make one wonder if people think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd or a Cash Cow. There are legitimate religious products but sometimes I wonder if the name of Jesus gets slapped on some products just because it’ll help to make a few dollars.
Someone once commented that perhaps the followers of Jesus are called sheep because they are so easily fleeced. There are certainly people out to fleece others by using the name of Jesus.
The commercialization of faith is not a new problem. Jesus walks into the temple and he sees a place where trade and commerce had replaced worship. Those engaged in the commerce in the temple would argue they were simply providing a necessary service. There were thousands and thousands of religious pilgrims visiting Jerusalem because it was Passover, and when those individuals came into the temple to give of their gifts they had to change their money because money with an image was unacceptable. For those who needed to purchase an animal for sacrifice it was necessary to be able to get an animal somewhere. The problem was the amount of corruption that was part of the temple and all the associate activity. It was not considered wrong to charge a commission for these services, but the rate being charged had risen to the point where it was almost extortion; it was certainly taking advantage of people who could not afford being taken advantage of.
It’s important to note that Jesus did not condemn the temple; Jesus had great love and respect for the temple, but he railed against the way the leadership were using it for their own financial benefit. Instead of praying for people, they were preying upon people.
Jesus never gave up on the temple. Jesus is sometimes portrayed as one who stood against institutional faith, but that’s not accurate.
My older brother and I have had many conversations about church, and especially the institutional side of the church. After some years of serving as minister in traditional services my brother gave up and decided to plant a new church. They rented space and he would tell me how great it was to not have to worry about taking care of a building. Now he’s in his second church start and they have purchased a building. He’s right back where he started! As much as church frustrated my brother he wasn’t out to abandon it but to seek to bring a sense of renewal, which is what Jesus was doing.
Jesus saw what was happening in the temple as a blot on the face of faith, just as we see the same sad fact today. Those who seek to profit in the name of God by preying upon others are still with us.
Jesus was opening worship.
The temple was divided into several sections. The clearing of the temple took place in the outermost area, which was called the Court of the Gentiles. This picture, which is a model of the temple, shows the large area inside the other walls – this is the Court of the Gentiles.
This is the only area of the temple where non-Jewish people were allowed entrance. This was a big area, and it was a convenient area to use for the commerce that was taking place.
One of the things that so incensed Jesus was the insensitivity toward those who could only enter this portion of the temple. This was the area of worship for many, many people who could not enter any other part of the temple, but commerce had overtaken to the point that worship could not take place.
There was an exclusivity within the temple that caused people to forget something very important – Isaiah 56:7 says my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations. The leadership of the temple had forgotten that the temple was for all people. It wasn’t just for the leadership; it wasn’t just for the Jewish people; it was for all people. In fact, in Mark’s telling of this story he includes Jesus quoting that verse – my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.
The temple was never to be owned by one particular group, but what had happened was a very large group of people had been pushed to the outermost area and not only were they pushed to the outermost area but that area was turned into a marketplace where it was impossible for worship to take place.
Church was never meant to be owned by church people. The church is for all people, but the same dynamic can happen in churches as happened in the temple, with some people pushed to the outer edges because and they are pushed to the outer edges because they are seen as less important, if they are seen to have any importance at all.
Back in the fall Tanya and I took a week off and decided not to travel anywhere. Most of the time, when we take time off, we travel to see our families. Staying home sounded like a great idea to me. I thought we could go out to lunch and to see some movies so I was pretty excited about it. So I asked Tanya what her idea was for the week, and she said I want us to clean out and organize the garage. We spent three days together in the garage. After the first hour of the first day I was asking if I could just go on to work.
Jesus was about transformation, where sometimes you have to sweep life clean, where you have to clean house. We live in a time of greatly oppositional forces – culture wars, political wars – that demand we answer which side we are on. People were always doing the same to Jesus, wanting him to be on one side as opposed to the other. Are you for or against paying taxes to Caesar? Are you for or against the temple? Are you for or against the Romans? Are you for or against rebellion?
Jesus was about transformation. He was about transforming that which ran counter or opposite of the kingdom of God. May we be about the same.