Old Testament Reading – Exodus 20:1-17
20 Then God spoke all these words: 2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before[a] me.
4 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. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
13 You shall not murder.[c]
14 You shall not commit adultery.
15 You shall not steal.
16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Gospel Reading – John 2:13-22
13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body.22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
“Tempted to Compromise Our Values”
The 1st century Jewish temple is the setting for our gospel reading today. And it’s MORE than the setting. Having an understanding of the place the 1st century temple had in Jewish society is critical to understanding the POINT of Jesus’ words and actions. But I’m guessing that we 21st century Christians don’t have a good sense of the customs that shaped activity in the 1st century Jewish temple or even of what the temple had come to represent or how the temple impacted the identity of 1st century Jews. So…before I can really talk about the meaning of our gospel reading, I want to share just a little background about the temple:
- The first thing you should know concerns what the Jews believed about the purpose and function of the temple. You might think that they thought about the temple the same way we think about our church building…but that’s not the case. Just like modern Christianity has church buildings, the 1st century Jews had synagogues – places where God’s people worshipped God – scattered in towns throughout the Jewish world. But there was only ONE temple. And the temple was different. The temple was a very special place, a DIFFERENT place than the synagogues. It was the only place where the sacrifices could be made and where certain rituals could be performed. And it was the one place on earth where God’s people believed God dwelled when God chose to be on earth. As such, all men among the Jews were required to make a pilgrimage to the temple three times each year, during each of the three major Jewish festivals – the Passover, the Festival of Weeks, and the festival of Booths. This was prescribed in Deuteronomy 16.
- The second thing you should know concerns the sacrificial system. If you refer to the biblical book of Leviticus, you’ll find that there were 5 different types of offerings required of God’s people and that 4 of them require the sacrifice of one kind of animal or another. And the sacrifices were required to be made at the temple. Over time, a whole economic system near and at the temple was established for dealing with this reality. Since the ancient Israelites didn’t have cars or any other easy way to transport animals (and keep them unblemished, as was the requirement for the sacrifices), sellers of animals popped up in and around the temple. Since the sacrificial animals were required to be unblemished animals, inspection stations were set up to ensure the quality of the sacrifices. Since Israelites came from far and wide and carried all different forms of currency (and since Roman currency was forbidden to be used for temple transactions), currency exchange stations were set up just outside the temple to ensure that worshippers would have the local currency accepted by the sellers of animals and could therefore make the required purchases. None of these things inherently violated God’s law; they simply helped the sacrificial system function smoothly.
Against this backdrop of what the first century temple WAS and HOW it functioned, we read our gospel story for today. And I think the scene that unfolds in our gospel reading is a well-known scene. I doubt there are many here who are not familiar with Jesus’ clearing out of the temple. But, I wonder, when our modern eyes and ears see and hear these words, do our modern minds focus on the right question or questions?
I’ve had people come and ask me through the years questions like: if Jesus cleared out the temple because it had become a marketplace, isn’t it wrong for modern congregations to sell stuff in church buildings? And during the course of conversation, these mainline protestant folks usually point to the increasing number of mega churches that have coffee shops and book stores within their buildings, and they point out how WRONG such practices are…given what happened in our gospel text. (Interestingly, I don’t think I’ve EVER heard one of these folks point to the annual bazaars or fundraising suppers of their mainline protestant congregations as being subject to the same criticism. But the consistency of our beliefs and how we apply them is a different topic for a different sermon.) So, I’ve had people come to me through the years and demonstrate by their questions that their FOCUS when hearing and interpreting this passage is placed upon the selling of goods in the temple…and the issue concerning whether such a thing was right or wrong. AND…I’ve had other people through the years talk about this scene and suggest that the problem wasn’t so much that the temple had become a marketplace but that some of the people involved in the economic system that developed over time to support the temple sacrifices were effectively CHEATING the worshippers who came to the temple – maybe they inflated exchange rates; maybe they sold animals for inflated prices; maybe the inspectors declared some animals to be “blemished” when in fact they were unblemished because they could charge a penalty fee for that. In fact we KNOW these kinds of things were going on because they are described by historians who witnessed them.
But, folks, I think these questions about specific practices – selling goods in the temple or even cheating God’s people in the temple – I think these questions are looking at what’s happening here a little too narrowly…something akin to missing the forest for the trees. It turns out, there is something much BIGGER going on.
The temple was SUPPOSED to be a particular kind of symbol for God’s people – a symbol for God. It was a symbol for God because it was supposed to be God’s dwelling place. It was a symbol for God because the sacrifices and rituals performed there reminded the people of their Exodus journey and God’s presence with them all along the way. In fact, all three of the festivals which required the Jews to make a pilgrimage to the temple reminded the Jews of different portions of that exodus journey: the Passover, the giving of the law, and the 40-year wilderness journey. It was a symbol of God because the rituals performed there were an important part of biblical law, GOD’s LAW. The temple was a symbol for God that SHOULD have functioned to bind the Jews in a common identity as God’s people.
And yet, by the time Jesus entered and cleared out the temple in our gospel reading today, the temple had become a symbol of something ELSE. It had become a symbol of how God’s people had compromised their values over time in a couple of ways.
The first and most important way had to do with Rome. You know who was supposed to control the temple, right? It was the priests – people descended from priestly lineage (with God having chosen the origins of that lineage.) But by the time Jesus entered the temple to clear it out, the priests were under the control of Rome. I read this week that by the first century, the priests in the temple were not in any sense religious leaders of the people. Rather, the chief priests were appointed by Roman officials to serve the interests of ROME and Roman officials, not God. The priests were POLITICAL leaders more than religious leaders. Lest you think I’m exaggerating, consider the account of Jesus’ trial in John’s gospel, chapter 19. During the trial, the chief priests proclaim to the Roman governor, Pilate, “We have no king but the emperor.” The chief priests DENOUNCED God’s chosen king in favor of Rome’e HUMAN ruler. Folks, Rome CONTROLLED the temple. And so, with each transaction – each time currency was exchanged, each time a sacrificial animal was sold, each time a penalty was levied for a blemished animal – with each transaction, ROME took a cut, Rome benefitted, not God. Rome controlled the temple, and the temple became a symbol of Rome, not God. The temple became a symbol of how God’s people had compromised their values to serve an emperor who proclaimed himself a god and to serve an empire that reinforced a set of values very DIFFERENT from God’s values.
The second way the temple had become a symbol of how God’s people had compromised their values has to do with an idol with which I think we are well acquainted – the idol that is money. When I gave you some background about the temple, I suggested there was nothing inherently wrong or against God’s law with the economic system that had been set up to facilitate the sacrificial system in the temple. The PROBLEM arose when those administering the system began to idolize money, when they craved money more than they hungered for God. Already compromised by Rome, the sellers and money changers gave Rome its cut. But they also took a rather large cut for themselves…exaggerating Rome’s fee, inflating exchange rates, and the like. The problem became so pronounced that by one estimate the total cost for a one-day stay in Jerusalem (with a visit to the temple for the appropriate sacrifices) would cost a person between $3,000 and $4,000 in 2015 currency. And, as you can imagine, these practices on the part of those who were making the temple a marketplace had a disproportionately negative impact on the poorer people of Jesus’ time, requiring them to give up months of wages to comply with their obligations under God’s law. All the while God’s values required those with power to free the oppressed…not FURTHER oppress them.
Do you see what was going on with regard to temptation…which is the theme of our Lenten sermons this year? God’s people had given in to the temptation to compromise their Godly values for the values of the society around them. Now, YOU don’t know what it’s like to give in to that temptation, do you? I mean, it’s not like we live in a society that:
- Encourages you to spend lots of money on things like make-up and gym memberships just to look a certain way that society values?
- Bombards you with messages to keep on buying new clothes to stay in style, while the clothes you already have work just fine?
- Tells you happiness can be found in buying and having the right STUFF instead of in nurturing the relationships God made you for and with the people God placed here?
- Tries to convince you that eating out tastes so much better or is so much more convenient than eating in…all so people who already have more money than they know what to do with can get even more out of you?
- Tells you people want gifts of stuff instead of the gift of your presence? And that the more you spend on a gift the more valuable it is?
- Defines success in terms of how many hours you work or what position you attain in your occupation instead of in terms of how much time you spend with your family and loved ones and what kind of person you grow into?
- Tries to convince you that whatever YOU want – which has, by the way, been heavily influenced by what some people in power want – that whatever YOU want is actually what God wants…if you’re the type of person who cares what God wants?
- Tells you that whatever the majority wants, whatever might be the values of the majority, is what is right? That it’s the majority of PEOPLE who should determine right and wrong…not God?
I mean, we don’t live in a society that is trying to compromise our Christian values, our values determined and given by God, do we? And certainly, none of us are tempted, right? (PAUSE) Well, what can you do? Fortunately, as has been the case so far in this Lenten series, God offers us some tools in this passage to help get us through and past this temptation without giving in.
The first thing God offers is found in Jesus actions and words concerning the sacrificial animals. Jesus drove them out of the temple and said to the sellers of the doves, “Get these things out of here!” Folks, it really can be that simple. Take the things that tempt you, and get them out of your life! I know it sounds difficult. The reality is, it’s really simple to get rid of stuff. Just give it to someone. The problem is NOT that it’s difficult to figure out HOW; the problem is that it is painful to do.
The second thing God offers has to do with the placement of these two texts on the same day in this lectionary cycle. Back in the Old Testament, God offered a set of laws to REPLACE human laws (a set of God’s values to replace human values). Our gospel reading reveals that over time people had replaced God’s values (on which God’s laws was based) with human values. And Jesus came in and did two things. The first, which I already addressed, was to get rid of those things that tempted people to compromise their values. And the second had to do with how you fill the void that was created when you got rid of those things. You don’t replace them with just ANYTHING. You need to replace them with God-value kinds of things. Jesus did that with his response to a request for a sign: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” In other words, “get your focus off of the building and the sacrificial system and the economic system that supports the sacrificial system. Those things will tempt you. Instead, put your focus on Jesus.” And, folks, that’s what we have to do…once we put those things that tempt us to compromise our values out of our lives and away from our focus, we’ve got to focus on what really matters: Jesus; God’s love and great desires made known through Jesus; God’s love for EVERYONE demonstrated through Jesus’ love for everyone and Jesus’ intentional actions to help people in need.
For hundreds, maybe even more than a thousand years, Christians across the globe have made a practice of giving up something for Lent, to give up something that TEMPTS them, that tempts them to compromise their values (by getting them to focus on something other than God, which means REPLACING God with something else). It started with fasting giving up certain foods and drinks, and has extended to all manner of things. And for probably just as long, pastors have been encouraging Christians to add something to their lives during Lent, something that will help Christians get their focus back on God and God’s values. Folks, that’s at the heart of what these passages are all about. It’s time to get rid of the metaphorical sellers and money changers in your life – whatever is tempting you to choose values that aren’t God’s values – and to replace them with people and things that reinforce God’s values in your life. Amen.