Freeport, March 4, 2018
A farm boy accidentally overturned his wagon-load of corn in the road. The farmer who lived nearby came to investigate. “Hey, Willis,” he called out, “forget your troubles for a spell and come on in and have dinner with us. Then I'll help you get the wagon up. ” “That’s mighty nice of you,” Willis answered, “but I don't think Pa would like me to.” “Aw, come on, son!” the farmer insisted. “Well, okay,” the boy finally agreed. “But Pa won't like it.”
After a hearty dinner, Willis thanked his host. “I feel a lot better now, but I just know Pa is going to be real upset.” “Don't be foolish!" exclaimed the neighbor. "By the way, where is he?” “Under the wagon.”
Life has a way of overturning us. People protest and lobby to get unjust laws overturned. Investigations cause decisions and protocols to be overturned. Life events, both good and challenging, overturn us – force us to change our way of life, reconsider our point of views, to see things from a different perspective, to move in a new direction.
Jesus’ outburst at the temple from John’s gospel is a prophetic act of overturning. Done during the Passover, the sacred feast of liberation of the Jewish people from slavery, Jesus overturns the table to reveal the true identity of the Temple. God’s house is not a marketplace but a house of prayer for all people.
It took a lot to get Jesus angry. Jesus debated fiercely. Jesus confronted the religious leadership frequently. However, in our reading today we witness a Jesus who takes aggressive action. Jesus observed that being a faithful Jew had become an expensive proposition. First there was the Temple tax, required of every Jewish male every year at Passover. The tax was the equivalent of two days wages.
The kicker was, this tax had to be paid in Temple money -- not the secular money imprinted with an idolatrous image of Caesar -- which to the Jewish sensibility violated the second commandment: “Thou shall not have graven images before me Ex.20:4.” As a result, a class of unscrupulous money-changers emerged. They would charge a fee to convert the secular, scandalous currency to acceptable Temple money. For their efforts of course, they charged a hefty fee, equal to a day’s wage to convert the money. So, the hapless believer ended up paying three days wages-- which included that 50% exchange fee.
But the gouging didn't stop there. Worshipers at the Temple often needed to bring an animal sacrifice, and the sacrifice needed to be without blemish. (Deut. 17:1; Lev. 22:20-24). If your animal was judged to have any defect at all, it was not acceptable. If the one you brought with you was found to be defective, guess what? The Temple just happened to have some perfect ones for sale, in temple money, for another whopping fee. Animals bought outside the gates were frequently found imperfect and taken away. What the hapless and harried believer didn’t see was a system where their “so-called” defective animal were frequently recycled and sold to other unsuspecting folks on the Temple grounds – for you guessed it, a markup.
Scriptures give implicit instructions that mercy was to be shown to the poor. Those of means were required to bring a sheep or a goat or an ox...a substantial sacrifice. But the poor were allowed to bring much less...just a pair of doves. When Jesus was born, and his family went to the Temple to make their sacrifice, they brought doves...a sign that Jesus came from a poor family. The Gospel account makes a point that Jesus specifically went after the sellers of doves.
Jesus saw this corrupt system and the heavy burden placed especially on the poor, within the very house of God. Jesus saw how the intent of God’s laws were overturned in the name of greed. Jesus sought to overturn the wickedness and the spiritual malaise and call people back to a worship rooted in right relationship modeled in the covenant embodied in the “ten commandments.” The commandments describe faithfulness, justice and peace in action. When we have a right relationship with God, it naturally flows into our souls, within our families and our larger communities.
Jesus’ ministry was a ministry of overturning – overturning illness, overturning evil, overturning spiritual ignorance, overturning sin, overturning those cheating tables. Jesus turns the tables so that in God’s eyes, the poor are uplifted, the eyes of the blind are opened, the imprisoned set free, the crippled can walk, the crooked ways are straightened, sin is forgiven and faith is restored.
For me, the issue of overturning obstacles hits home in a very personal way. I remember a time when my daughter wanted to discuss some fears. During our conversation I noticed she had a tattoo on the side of her wrist. It was an arrow piercing a diamond. I asked her what it meant to her. She said since diamonds were the toughest elements on earth, it represented having the courage to move straight through the hardest times in your life. I listened as she talked about her struggle about feeling different: different in the sense that she has significant learning disabilities and health issues that always placed her at the bottom of the class. She felt stupid and out of place. Information moved too fast for her. She was alternatively pitied or laughed at for choosing the wrong answer.
However, it wasn’t until mid-high school that she was placed in an alternate learning environment. Finally, a switch turned on. Information was presented in way that she could assimilate it and learn. She began to strive. She learned she wasn’t dumb. She was differently abled. In fact, gifted. I shared with her that diamond comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “unbreakable;” I reminded her that she was, in fact, is and always has been a diamond. She just needed to learn to overturn how she saw herself.
That’s our call to faith this Lent.
To help people to overturn and fear and doubt in order to see the diamond in themselves that God created. So today we worship and seek to follow the God who overturns: slavery to freedom, prejudice to acceptance, greed to generosity, despair to hope, lies to truth, unbelief to trust, evil to goodness, apathy to love. God overturns wickedness to create us to be living temples. As we join in overturning all the obstacles in our life, we discover underneath it all the call to worship freely, care abundantly, the power to restore God’s intentions for this earth. We discover within ourselves, the precious faith and commitment, hard as diamonds, sets on the journey with Jesus, holy and made whole. Amen