Third Sunday in Lent: Going Against the Grain

Scripture: John 2: 13-22

We have this morning, one of the greatest Jesus stories ever!!  So great in fact that is often misused and miss-represented.  I mean miss-represented in that many people set the tone of this text as an excuse for Jesus to be angry and violent!  For Jesus to be “out of the norm” of our “sweet baby Jesus”.  They use it to counter act the need for an always loving and kind Jesus the Christ, when in fact in validates the humanness of Jesus. 

During our Lenten journey, hopefully we have had the opportunity to look deep within our own humanness, to look at our reactions to the situations of the world.  How do we act as Christians in a situation where justice has been perverted and run rampant?  

We find this morning in the Gospel of John that this text, this story finds itself in a prominent place in John’s gospel.  The story itself is found in all four (4) of the Gospels but it appears here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as opposed at the end of Jesus’ ministry in the other three gospels.  

The placement of this text is extremely important in that John’s audience was most likely a part of a Christian community which no longer took part in the Jewish practices of Passover.  Now it is widely debated that Passover was not just a Jewish practice and the current Christian community had adopted the practice as well.  Therefore, the important placement of this story is critical because if it did take place at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry how did that shape the thought patterns of those people just being introduced to the one known as the Messiah?  Then if there were two “cleansing” stories, one at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and one toward the end of his ministry, what does that suggest about Jesus’ concern for the importance of social and economic justice? 

The writer of John continues to amaze the preachers and the theologians by being very particular with his vocabulary here in this story.  He is very distinct in using one unique word for “money changers” (found only in this text) and then switches back to a more common word for “money changers” later in the text.  He does the same when he speaks about His father’s house being a marketplace when he tells the merchants, “Do not make the house of my father a house of market!!”    

Here the writer of John also is different than the other Gospel writers as he includes mammals and not just the bird vendors in his gospel rendition. 

But why are we so concerned with the make-up and history of this text?  Because it allows us to put the scripture in perspective.  The temple, was for many, the Holy Place of worship!!  The place at the time, if a person was to make a sojourn there, they would come and sacrifice an animal, specifically, an animal without blemish.  All well and good except for the fact if you came from a distance, your animal might become blemished and non-acceptable.  What was one to do? Ah! Ha!  You buy an animal from your “locally approved vendor”!!  One that was “previously approved” and just happens to be set up right there at the temple, how convenient!!  The Law said you had to present a perfect animal, without mark or blemish.  Unless you purchased a “pre-approved” animal within the temple area, you had to bring your offering before an inspector, who would inform you if you “had made the grade”.  You have probably already figured it out, the inspectors were in cahoots with the vendors and knew how to “grease their palms” with silver.  Already an injustice in place!! 

Then came the concern about the money!!  It was much like the commercial we see every four years when the Olympics are being played, “make sure you bring your Master Card, because the Olympics doesn’t take Visa”.  As Will Rogers once said, “When people say, “It’s not the money, it’s the principle of the thing”, and it’s really the money!!”   For if you have traveled far and wide, form Greece, Egypt, Asia Minor, and the like, your money had the inscribed image of the emperor.  Which, according to the Second Commandment, made your money ‘worthless’ in the temple.  Therefore you had to exchange your ‘graven image’ money for ‘image free’ Judean money, this of course was done with an exhorbadent exchange rate charged against the seller, thus another injustice and unjust act being carried out around the temple. 

We are often misled, I believe, that this biblical story tends to focus around the use and placement of money and the money changers near the temple.  This I believe is not really the case.  

The reason Jesus raged through the temple I believe had little to do with the proximity of the money to a place of worship.  His anger was sparked by injustice!!; the true fact that the temple had been transformed into a corrupt machine for cheating people (mainly the traveling Pilgrims to the temple) out of their life savings. 

This text is about injustice and the incredible divine ability of Jesus to get angry about the injustice that prevailed in and around the temple.  

When we read this scripture, we as Christians have to be motivated to view the injustices that surround us, not just in the proximity of the Holy Place (our place of worship) but in and around our world in general.  

For Jesus, the temple was the central place in town, it was where all gathered for worship, but it was over time it had become a place of corruption, slander, and economic prevail.  It became a place, in and around the central market of the city where total corruption was raging and Jesus responded. 

E.P. Saunders said that “Jesus had a whip-cracking action as a symbolic occupation of the temple.”  Jesus was trying to bring the divine presence back into his Father’s House”.  In other words, Jesus had to clean house in order to once again make room for God’s Spirit!! 

The question for us today becomes, “Do we still have the ability to get whip-cracking mad for God’s sake?”  Do we have the ability to be passionate for the abolition of unjust acts in this world and in our own community?  What does it take to be passionate? What does it take to be “market place mad”?  

This text allows us to be active Christians in a way that goes against the grain, against the precious “norm” of goody, goody Christians.  It authorizes us to be an active people of faith involved in the best action that can be required by the Children of God.  We are constantly combatted by the ongoing struggle of doing what is right and we see Jesus’ reaction at the temple.  It becomes a fine-line of injustice but those are the most difficult to discern.  In the words of William Sloane Coffin, “It is not the money that poisons the soul; it is being anxious about it that poisons the soul and the heart.”   

The vendors that surrounded the temple and occupied the temple were more concerned with the frantic ability to beat out the other guy.  To be greater than their neighbor, to take advantage of the poor pilgrims that had journeyed many miles, and ultimately to gain the “almighty dollar”!!  

The injustice here does not have to be of great magnitude, rather it just has to be “lop-sided”!!!  It has to go against the grain of what is required by God.  That is what made Jesus so angry.  He was angry because the temple (the Holy Place) was turned into a marketplace.  He was angry with the money changers who had turned their Holy obligation in a lucrative money making profession.  He was angry that the priests had let their love for the law take precedence over God.  He was angry because of the pointless sacrifices that were done strictly for profit and left the temple to be drowned in the innocent blood of animals instead of aligning their lives with the Spirit of the Living God.  

These are the “hot buttons” for Jesus!  They were the actions that ‘set Jesus off’ in the words of popular culture!!  

The question we need to ask ourselves as we proceed through this Lenten season is; what are our “hot buttons”? What are the things that motivate us to work against the grain? To be motivated to move people and the world to a place of justice and away from injustice?  

Is it human trafficking? Unfair labor laws? Un-safe working conditions? Unfair housing and lack of housing for those in our midst?  Unfair food distribution?  Your list and my list will grow as we become more and more aware of the world around us.  

The beauty of this text is that it sets the tone in and around the Holy Place!!  What a place to grab the attention of others.  Jesus I’m sure could have done the same actions in a different part of the city, but he didn’t!! He did it in His Father’s House, where it was precious to him!!  What a way to grab our attention.  What a way to remind us who frequent the quiet, quaint, and comfortable Holy Place every week that we must expand our horizons and look beyond the sacred space and work for justice in the world.  

One of the great problems the modern church combats every day is that we fail to look beyond our four walls! Jesus commands us to look at our neighbors and the situations that surround them and act accordingly by going against the grain.  We have to come out of our cocoon and begin to open our eyes to what is around us.  

A friend of mine, a college professor and chaplain once told me, “The primary problems of the planet arise not from the poor, for whom education is the answer; they arise from the well-educated, for whom self-interest is the problem.”  

That seems to be the problem that Jesus was facing at the temple.  People who were so concerned with their self-interest that it blocked their path to understanding the true gift of the Savior.  

As we travel through Lent, let us strive to keep our path clear in order that we may receive the gift of the empty tomb and the barren cross. 

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.