Grace Presbyterian Church
March 8, 2015, Lent 3B
1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Mark 11:15-19
When the Temple Is Broken
Basically, it was a typical day at the Temple. Business was humming.
You have to understand, the Temple wasn’t just a Temple; it was for all practical purposes the economic engine of Jerusalem. You might say it was the biggest tourist attraction in the entire region, and it kept an awful lot of businessmen in business.
You see, for the Temple to operate properly, there were a great many business transactions that had to be carried out. For example: the temple coins. If you want to be able to buy anything out there in the Roman world, you had to use Roman currency. No surprise. But if you wanted to leave an offering in the Temple, you had to have Temple currency. The coins issued by the Romans had images of the emperor on them – no surprise, given that the emperors wanted to make sure everyone knew who was in charge. But the Temple couldn’t accept outside currency. Even though the Temple was run by the Romans to some degree – they actually appointed the chief priest who oversaw the Temple – you still couldn’t use a Roman coin in the Temple. So you had to exchange your coins for Temple currency. And of course, the moneychangers have to make a living, right? So there was possibly an “exchange fee” involved. Naturally these exchange tables would be set up right there, as you were making ready to enter the Temple. For your convenience, of course.
Another example would be those locales offering animals for sacrifice. The rules for sacrifice found back in the Torah allowed for a great variety of offerings, based on everything from the specific purpose for the sacrifice to the financial status of the one seeking to offer a sacrifice. A rich person might be mandated to offer, say, a bull, while a poor person might offer a pair of doves or even pigeons. Whatever the offering, the animal was required to be “without blemish.” Spotless. Flawless. But of course, who is to be the judge of whether or not a dove or goat was flawless?
So, even if, say, a relatively poor family from Galilee wanted to bring their two doves to offer for a sacrifice, they would still have to pass inspection at the Temple. After a long journey who could possibly guarantee that the sacrifice remained flawless? Of course, even if your doves were rejected, there would naturally be someone there who could supply you two “flawless” doves for the sacrifice – for a price, of course. And who were you to judge whether the offered doves were really more “flawless” than the ones you brought with you?
This was not atypical. And there were other things that might need to be addressed – a place to stay if you were traveling from a great distance, food, and any number of other issues. The visit to the temple, an obligatory thing for a faithful Jew, could become quite a burden. But we need to understand that these were typical conditions around the Temple. The things we have described were quite ordinary for a visit to the Temple.
Furthermore, we should understand that Mark has not given us any suggestion that there was any malfeasance going on. Mark doesn’t charge the moneychangers with any kind of cheating or swindling. The animal dealers are not being accused of dealing unfairly with the visitors to the Temple. Sometimes when we hear this story we want to jump to the conclusion that the Temple patrons were being ripped off or mistreated somehow, and maybe it was happening, but Mark does not say this is so; the scene that Jesus would so rudely interrupt was a pretty typical scene on any average day at the Temple.
Nonetheless, Jesus took one look at the scene and set off a commotion. He began to drive out “those who were selling and those who were buying,” flipping over the tables of those exchanging money (remember, you need those special, non-Roman coins) and those selling doves, preventing anyone from carrying anything through the Temple, and … teaching. It does seem a strange combination of actions, doesn’t it?
So what was the problem? What was it about this average day at the Temple that provoked such a reaction from Jesus?
It may just be that the best answer is that it wasn’t that anything was wrong; it was that everything was wrong.
To have a sacrifice offered at the Temple could mean going through moneychangers, animal dealers and inspectors, and any number of other obstacles, not to mention waiting in line with who knows how many similar would-be worshipers on a given day. The noise and, probably, smell of all the transactions going on in that outer courtyard, all around the central part of the Temple itself, probably didn’t do much to help the worship or prayer experience.
In short, the hubbub of activity around the Temple – the usual activity, the Way Things Are for a person seeking to offer a sacrifice at the Temple – was itself an impediment to prayer. Jesus cites two prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, to contrast God’s ideal for the Temple with what Jesus saw as its current, flawed, even damaging condition.
No matter how normal the day was, all the moneychanging and selling, and maybe arguing and haggling (a pretty typical Middle Eastern way to do business), was getting in the way of God’s purpose for the Temple – to be a “house of prayer for all nations.” That was enough to provoke a “freakout” from Jesus, flipping tables and cutting off sales.
“A house of prayer for all nations.” Let that roll around in your minds for a moment. There is no nation, no people that God does not seek to draw to Godself. It is God’s will that all have access, that all are able to enter into God’s house and open to God in prayer. That line I use at the beginning of the service about God’s house and God saying that all are welcome? Not an accident; the basic call of God to God’s people.
Again, understand that nothing about the Temple activity that Jesus disrupted was “wrong”; none of the moneychangers or animal inspectors would have thought they were doing anything to disrupt prayer in the Temple – if anything, they most likely would have said they were helping Temple visitors pray or worship “the right way” – making sure they had the right coins and the right animals and the right prayers.
What happens today? Like all those functionaries clustered around the Temple, I seriously doubt that anyone connected with any church today would ever think that they were putting obstacles in the way of those who seek in our churches a place to worship, to pray, to find some way to be open to God’s working within. If anything, they’re helping. Helping folks to look right, to sing the right songs, not to sit in somebody else’s pew, to worship the right way. You know, like us.
Would Jesus agree? Or would Jesus enter our churches and start upsetting pews and tossing hymnals around?
Do our churches truly offer a welcome to all nations? Or are we really more interested in replicating ourselves and our ways of doing things? What do we as Christ’s churches, Christ’s body on earth, present to those who seek God? Do we provide a place of welcome, an opportunity to pray or worship? Or are churches unwittingly putting obstacles in front of those seeking a place of prayer?
This is what sets Jesus off. It is worth remembering that our Gospels don’t portray Jesus getting angry often, but when Jesus does get angry, it’s not at an individual. Jesus doesn’t “freak out and flip tables” over the foibles of an individual sinner. Jesus “freaks out and flips tables” over a system that provides obstacles instead of welcome to the true seeker of God. Jesus “freaks out and flips tables” over The Way Things Are, the way that is more concerned with Doing Things the Right Way instead of making our lives and our worship signs that point toward the love of God.
It’s a way of talking about “radical welcome.” It’s about our churches being truly open to all, not merely giving lip service to the idea while seeking out those who look and talk and act like us to fill our pews. The pastor and preacher Fred Craddock, who passed away this week, expressed the idea thus: “Wherever and whenever, for whatever the reason, anyone is not welcome to sit at table with you, to eat with you, then you do not have church.” It’s about taking down the unspoken walls and taking the locks off the gates that we didn’t realize were there.
In Mark’s gospel this story takes place during the last week of Jesus’s life, after the triumphal “Palm Sunday” entry into Jerusalem. It is seemingly the last straw for the Temple authorities, who come out of the incident bound and determined to get rid of this troublemaker once and for all. After all, they were highly invested in The Way Things Are and in making sure people were Doing Things the Right Way. It kept them in business. It kept them in power. It kept order. Being open to all – not just in word, but in deed – has the potential to be disruptive, to upset old orders, to [shudder] change things. And yet this is what God expected of the Temple – in fact this is what God wanted the Temple to be, and it is what God wants our churches to be.
Where do we modern Christians start? What would it look like for our churches to be radically open and welcoming? What does it mean to be a “house of prayer for all nations”? And just how much trouble might it cause for us?
How do we look at our churches and see the unintended walls and fences and gates that hinder others from coming? How do we look with different eyes to see what it looks like from the outside? What would it take for us to be truly, completely, a welcoming church? And how will that change us, the modern Christian church in twenty-first century Gainesville, or Florida, or the United States, or the world? And how willing are we twenty-first century Christians to follow the Christ who freaked out and flipped tables rather than let those barriers to worship and prayer for all peoples stand?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (PH ’90): “How Great Thou Art” (467), “My Song Is Love Unknown” (76), “The Church of Christ, In Every Age” (421)