Year B: Third Sunday in Lent (John 2:13-22)
I wrote this for a class on Homiletics that I am taking at Emmanuel College where I am a student.
The city of Jerusalem was packed, and I mean packed! Jews from all of the provinces and all directions were coming to the holy city to celebrate the Passover. It’s easy to imagine this human parade winding into the city along roads constructed by the Roman powers. The noise must have been momentous – childrens’ excited shrieks of laughter with delight as they play games running between the legs of the adults, the braying donkeys and groans of camels. The sounds of conversation over the footsteps of hundreds of people and wheels trundling across stonework. As the crowds approach the walls of the city, no doubt there were vendors and markets set up to cater to the travellers – they would be selling all sorts of delicious-smelling food and potent spices, brightly coloured fabrics and brown clay pottery. And of course the most prominent reminder of Roman rule… Golgotha, a hill on the north side of the city where the crucified were left to die. At this time of year, the hill likely would have had dozens of occupied crosses on it. Passover, a festival which was about the release of the Jews from captivity was near, and no doubt the Romans were wary that their subjects might get any revolutionary ideas… But the crowd moves on, through the gates into the city and past the temple. This temple complex, Herod’s temple, was an enormous structure with high walls and ornate decoration. From outside its walls, you would see a black plume of smoke emanating from within the innermost of multiple courtyards – it was here that the burnt offerings took place, just outside the Holy of holies – the place reserved for God. But there was a problem here and Jesus knew it. The outer court of the temple was filled with merchants selling livestock and birds for sacrifice. There were also money changers who converted Roman and Greek currency into Jewish and Tyrian money. The gospel doesn’t make clear whether Jesus’ outburst was planned or spontaneous, but I imagine that it was a bit of both. Seeing these merchants selling to the rich and the poor, using the buyers’ religious devotion to squeeze every last penny from them likely infuriated Jesus into a white-hot rage. He began flipping over tables and pouring out the moneychangers coins. Then Jesus fashioned some cords into a whip and drove the animals, merchants and moneychangers alike out of the courtyard demanding that they stop making the temple into a marketplace, or as Matthew describes it, “a den of thieves!”
The temple priests no doubt came out to the scene of the commotion and wanted to know what on Earth Jesus was doing. What right did Jesus have to get in the way of their profits… I mean orderly worship. Jesus responded by talking past them with a cryptic statement that if the temple is destroyed, he would raise it up again in three days. The priests were incredulous – the temple had been under construction for 46 years and he’s going to rebuild it in three days? Suuuuuure…
Frequently this protest by Jesus has been misunderstood to be a damning of the Jewish practices of the time, particularly his remark about the destruction of the temple. One of my undergraduate professors, Tom Yoder-Neufeld, suggests that it’s much more likely this was a case of Jesus being outraged at the “commercialism” and “spiritual cynicism” that was present in the temple and its leadership. Indeed, Jesus demands that they stop making the temple into a marketplace. The temple was to be a place for all the peoples – Jew and non-Jew alike – to encounter God. To underline Jesus’ loyalty to Jewish tradition, John quotes Psalm 69, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
And so it is today that Jesus demands that we stop making our temples marketplaces. I take this to mean that we need to clean our own houses of worship from time to time, considering what it is that we’ve placed in our temple that needs to be overturned like the tables in Jesus’ time.
Close to home we can see a recent example in our own parliament where civility should reign supreme. Recently the Conservative government’s public safety minister, Vic Toews was on the verge of introducing Bill C-30, a bill which would permit warrantless wiretapping of Canadians’ Internet connections along with access to their browsing histories upon request. The online world erupted in outrage as this was seen as a huge overreach of power by the government and fears of a society akin to Orwell’s 1984. Petitions were signed, Facebook statuses were updated and maybe even a few letters were written to members of parliament. Suddenly, out of the dark a twitter account appears with the name of “Vikileaks” – the biography section stating “Vic wants to know about you. Let’s get to know Vic.” This account then began posting details from affidavits filed during Toews’ messy divorce, which cast him in a very negative light.
As someone whose very livelihood working at a small Internet provider is being threatened by this legislation that sparked the protest, I will admit that I cheered for the anonymous leaker who seemed to be giving Toews a taste of the pill that he was trying to force upon all Canadians. The Vikileaks account, however, was not to last. A few days following its creation it disappeared amidst accusations flying from both sides of the aisle in parliament. The Conservative party seemed especially eager to accuse the NDP of being behind the Vikileaks account. And just as the scandal was reaching its peak, Bob Rae, the leader of the Liberal party stood up in Parliament and admitted that it was in fact a Liberal staffer who had created the account without the knowledge of the party and that that staffer had offered his resignation.
I offer you this story not because I now think the legislation is not so bad, neither do I believe that public figures should be immune to criticism when they purport to uphold one set of values while acting in completely the opposite manner. I offer this story in recognition of Bob Rae’s actions in admitting to his party’s responsibility for the scandal and offering a sincere apology and repentance for the actions that took place. Rae could have let the matter slide and left the blame on the rival NDP, but he realized that the integrity of his party, and of parliament itself was at stake. Parliament, a temple of democracy in Canada would be cheapened if this cynical attack were left unchallenged. The party had crossed a line and needed to come clean.
So how are we turning our temples into marketplaces, or dens of thieves? Moments where we just don’t want to introduce ourselves to the outsider in our midst because they might be too different from us. The times when we back our country’s welfare to the detriment of the citizens of other nations. Or the Sundays when we find ourselves furious with the preacher at our church because they preached a sermon which failed to reinforce our own prejudices.
Jesus tells us that when the temple is destroyed, he will raise it up again in three days. In this account of the temple story, John even feels the need to point it out to struggling theology students that Jesus wasn’t referring to literally destroying and rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, rather he was referring to his own death and resurrection. What probably gives us pause in this story is Jesus’ use of the word “destroy”. It evokes in our mind violent images. My imagination goes straight to every Michael Bay movie made – giant orange and black fireballs, cars and buildings being exploded to smithereens – maybe an anthropomorphic robot or two causing the destruction. Instead, we can imagine Jesus intention as a reforming – a reformation – of the temple. Rather than the violent image, I see a child with Lego blocks who meticulously takes apart a creation, piece-by-piece, then puts the pieces back together creating something more beautiful, and more perfect. This is what Jesus means when he says that he will rebuild the temple. No longer will animal sacrifice be necessary for a chance to interact with God – Jesus will be that sacrifice, giving humanity a permanent bridge to God.
Novelist Arundhati Roy writes, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
This world that is on the way is made through us acting as God’s hands on earth and Jesus promises that our temples will be rebuilt in this cause. We may see atrocious happenings in places such as Syria where protesters who crave freedom are being killed for saying “Enough!” to a tyrannical regime. But it’s these people who are working toward the Kindom of Heaven here on earth. They are dreaming of a more just and fair place in which to live their lives.
In our own lives here in Canada, we discover that it is through God’s love that we find ourselves able to make amends when we have wronged another person despite all the neurons of our mind telling us that we can’t let go of the pride we so carefully cultivate.
In those moments when we reach out to those who need us, or when we’re the ones in need – in whatever way… be it a listening ear… a helping hand… or cradling arms – it is God who is working through us. Rebuilding us. Reforming us and our ways. Piecing us back together one block at a time.