3 Lent – March 7, 2021
Today we’re hearing about one of the few times in scripture where Jesus is angry. A righteous anger to be sure, but wow….making a whip of cords, driving the animals and people out of the temple, pouring out coins and overturning tables. This is not a description of a meek and mild Jesus, for sure. So, a little background on the times to help us understand where Jesus was coming from is in order.
The first story in John chapter 2, just before this one, is Jesus’ miracle at the wedding in Cana. You remember the story, how they ran out of wine at the wedding. Jesus tells the steward to fill six stone jars with water, which he then turns into the finest wine. When the steward sips wine he finds it of such quality that he wonders why the host has saved the best wine for last.
Sometimes we struggle with the meaning of Jesus’ first miracle. The teetotalers among us would prefer that Jesus not make wine. But John adds a particular detail that we may miss in our fascination with all that wine: the stone jars filled with water were used for the rites of purification. That is an important detail for John and for Jesus. Jesus turns the waters of purification into wine.
Jesus overturns a system with purification at its center. An elaborate system had been developed over the centuries which named some things “pure,” others “impure.” Women were impure for seven days after the birth of a son, fourteen days after the birth of a daughter. Dead bodies were impure. People with blemishes caused by leprosy and other diseases were impure. Certain foods were unclean. The list was very long.
Changing water into wine was not primarily a way to enhance a party – it was an act of transformation, a breaking down of boundaries, a different way of seeing the world and God’s presence in it.
It is not accidental that the next action takes place in the temple because the temple had become the center of the purity system. The animals being sold in the courtyard are for sacrificial purposes. The cattle, sheep and doves here are the proper animals for sacrifice, sold according to one’s ability to pay. There were economic implications for purity: poor people who could hardly afford to give a tenth of their crop away found they were then unable to sell their grain because it was judged “impure.” When it came to temple services, the poor were unable to buy the best animals.
Money-changers became a very important part of this system. Roman coins were considered impure and could not be used to buy sacrifices. The money-changers weren’t simply giving change for a twenty – they were giving “pure” tokens in exchange for “impure” money. …sometimes, for an extra fee.
Imagine an updated version of this story in our church today. Suppose everybody was required to make an offering when they came to church, but the vestry refused to accept American money or regular checks. The new rule requires that all offerings to the church be made with a special credit card, perhaps one with a cross on it. Everyone must use that credit card to give their offering. And by the way, the bank will make 25% on the exchange of your money! Nobody would be very happy with that arrangement, but it is very similar to what was taking place in the Temple.
The money-changers were making profit on the people’s worship. Jesus was not pleased. He threw them out of the Temple because they were hindering true worship. Jesus came into the temple not to be destructive or disruptive, but to draw us back to the heart of God. Jesus came to the temple to overturn every barrier that separates us from God.
It’s a subtle process, this turning the temple into a marketplace. Think about the houses we live in – a little dust and dirt build up on the baseboards and in the hard-to-reach nooks and crannies of each room, lint balls accumulate under the beds, mildew forms in the shower stall and around the tub, coffee stains appear on the carpet, cobwebs hang from the ceiling – it all happens so slowly that we hardly notice, until, one day, an alarm goes off, and we come to our senses, and we realize it’s time to do some spring cleaning and put our houses back in order.
Speaking of spring cleaning. You may have heard the controversy this past week around some Dr. Seuss books. The Seuss Foundation has decided to no longer publish 6 books that contained some racially stereotypical drawings that were hurtful back then and are still hurtful today. Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) created thousands of cartoons, illustrations, paintings, sculptures, and stories over the course of his 70-year career. Like many of us, he evolved over those 70 years, actually editing some of his own inappropriate images while still alive. Geisel’s great nephew recalls when he made his first change to one of his books – he said “art and humanity are always evolving”.
Mulberry Street was written in 1937. By contrast, the much-beloved The Sneetches was written in 1961 just as the Civil Rights Movement was well underway. Geisel wrote The Sneetches as a parable about equality. By drawing bird-beings, he transcended the boundaries and pitfalls of using humans as characters, and allowed all readers to relate to the characters as best they could.
Dr. Seuss’s most well-known later works, Horton Hears a Who!, The Lorax, and The Sneetches, “teach about the importance of inclusion and acceptance of others and yourself.” His later works show an evolution of values and beliefs. Those who knew him believe that if he were alive today he would have jumped at the chance to be a part of the country’s evolving dialogue about diversity and inclusion. (https://www.drseussart.com/dr-seuss-use-of-racist-images)
Jesus did a cleansing of the Temple. And when Jesus speaks of his body as a temple in our story, he’s talking about the meeting place of God and God’s people. “Jesus says I am this. Jesus carries the temple in his bones. Within the space of his own body that will die, that will rise, that he will offer to us, a living liturgy unfolds.
The wonder and the mystery of this gospel reading, and of Jesus’ life, lie not only in how he gives his body as a sacred space but also in how he calls us to be his body in this world. Christ’s deep desire, so evident on that day in the temple, is that we pursue the congruence he embodied in himself: that as his body, as his living temple in the world, we take on the forms that will most clearly welcome and mediate his presence. In our bodies, in our lives, in our communities; by our hospitality, by our witness, by our life of prayer: Christ calls us to be a place of meeting between God and God’s people, a living sanctuary for the healing of the world”. (Jan Richardson – The Painted Prayerbook)
And this is what I hope you’ll take home from today: Lent is a time of introspection, of looking within and taking note of the various ways we’ve strayed from the righteousness of God. It’s a time for cleansing the temple and making our lives – mind, body and soul – worthy places for the Spirit of God to dwell. We are complex people and we all, hopefully, evolve during our life’s journey; recognizing what we could do differently as we seek to heal, and to be healed, in this world. So, how is it with your temple today?