Exodus 20: 1-17: John 2: 13-22
Some time ago, before the COVID19 lockdown, a clergy colleague who wrote about a time in his life when he was robbed. He and his wife had been on vacation. While they were away, his children went to check on the house. When his daughter arrived at the front door something just felt amiss. They open the door to discover that the living room was totally ransacked and vandalized. The furniture was turned over. Shaving cream and paint had been sprayed over the living room and dining room walls. Lipstick was also scrawled all over the walls. The cupboard drawers in the kitchen were emptied and dishes were smashed on the floor. Drawers throughout the house were dumped and their contents carelessly thrown about. And of course, the house was robbed. The TV was gone, the silver was gone, the computer was gone, the jewelry box, gone – everything of value -- gone.
There is something that hits us deeply in our hearts when our homes are violated. Our homes are our primary place of rest and sense of groundedness. To have our homes despoiled in any way would naturally cause us to feel hurt, fear and especially anger.
As we can see from our Gospel lesson from John today, even Jesus experienced anger at finding his Father’s house despoiled. All the gospel writers tell us this story about Jesus chasing the money changers out of the Temple, only John places this event at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It was a critical moment in Jesus’ ministry and drove him to take drastic action.
As every able-bodied adult Jew would do, Jesus traveled the 75 miles from Capernaum to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, pay his annual Temple Tax, and make his sacrifices as outlined in the Law given by Moses, of which the Ten Commandments were a part. By doing so Jesus fulfilled his religious duties as outlined by the religious law. But what did Jesus see that turned his mood of celebration into one of anger?
Jesus no doubt saw tens of thousands of pilgrims, perhaps up to 150,000, like himself, seeking to observe the Passover in Jerusalem. They sought like Jesus, to fulfill their obligation to pay the annual temple tax, which was the equivalent to almost two day’s wages. But the rub was that this tax had to be paid in temple currency, because the Roman coins that people commonly used had images of Caesar on them, and no graven images were allowed instead the Temple. The temple currency had to be made of coins of purest sliver. So, the pilgrim had to pay to exchange their ordinary coins for temple currency – for a steep fee of course. It was all a scam – between King Herod, the religious leadership and the money changers -- everyone got a piece of the action – paid for by the ordinary pilgrim.
Jesus also saw another injustice as he and his fellow travelers sought to make their annual sacrifices. Because of the rigors of travel, most pilgrims did not bring animals with them. So, they had to buy their sacrificial animals on site. The pilgrims were often charged ten times the amount for an animal on Temple property. Of course, they could not pay for these animals in any other currency but the temple currency. This of course exacted another transaction fee.
Jesus saw how these pilgrims who brought their own animals, or who bought animals from outside the confines of the Temple, had to have them inspected for blemishes, because only unblemished animals were acceptable for sacrifice. The inspector, of course charged a fee, only payable in the temple currency. Almost always, off-site animals were found with some insignificant blemish. Jesus would have observed then the harried pilgrim forced to sell his animal at a fraction of the cost and buy then at an inflated price an animal that did past inspection. It would not get past Jesus that many of these rejected animals were later resold to other unsuspecting pilgrims.
It grieved and angered Jesus, on this solemn feast of the Passover, the feast of liberation from slavery, to see religious practice and the worship of God turned into another form of enslavement. It angered Jesus that the vision of right relationships at the heart of the Ten Commandments and the practice of the Law should be reduced to business transactions. And it angered Jesus that his Father’s house, which should be a house of prayer for all people, a home for the weary pilgrim, would be turned into a marketplace that exploited God’s people. God’s home was violated and desecrated.
So, Jesus commemorated the feast of Passover with his own act of liberation – he took a whip and forcefully expelled the moneychangers, overturned their tables, poured their coins on the ground, and drove out the animals from the courtyard of the Temple. “Take these things out of here!” Jesus upbraided the merchants and moneychangers. Stop making God’s house a marketplace.”
Jesus’ act to cleanse the temple during the Passover reminds us that we are created for freedom, for freedom for right relationship, with God and others. That right relationship begins with ourselves, in our very hearts. This time of Lent gives us the gift to look at ourselves more closely, and to ask ourselves, how’s my inner house doing?
Is our inner house in order? Or is it, like most of us, I’d imagine, in some semblance of disarray? What messes do we have to straighten up? Some of us have some impatience stomping around. Others of us have discovered that worry has robbed us of peace of mind. And who hasn’t encountered some excessive anger or judgment lurking about, ready to upturn a chair or two? Few of us are as greedy as those money lenders, but I would guess that at some time or another we’ve all taken advantage of someone else. Lent is our time to help each other get a clearer picture of the mess, like Jesus saw that day he entered the temple grounds. It’s our time with God’s help, to clean house.
Even if we have done little for the past few weeks of Lent, there is still time. More than half of Lent remains. Paul reminds us that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are God’s house. In God’s sight you are more precious than Herod’s temple, or any grant edifice built before or since. Let us seek the freedom for right relationship. Let the same zeal that motivated Jesus for change also inspire us and motivate us to make the house of our hearts a worthy home, holy and acceptable to God. Amen.