Lectionary Sermon for March 8, 2015 Lent 3 B (on John Ch 2 : 13-22 Clearing the Temple)

How much of our religion really matters and how much are what the philosopher A.N. Whitehead dismissed as trappings?

Perhaps we could reflect on his list: Whitehead said and I quote: “Collective enthusiasms, revivals, institutions, churches, rituals, Bibles, codes of behaviour are the trappings of religion, in passing forms.”

I guess I would like to suggest a few more. How about denominationalism, Church hierarchies, vestments, archaic superstitions, formalized ceremonies and heresy hunts?

Notice that none of these has to be particularly harmful by itself if kept in strict moderation and indeed we might even argue that the trappings help us gain a degree of perspective and focus on our faith. Where however there may be a problem is when these trappings take over to the extent they cause us to forget what the gospel is supposed to be about.

One of the key turning points of the gospels is Jesus’ attack on one aspect of these trappings, the event of the clearing of the Temple.

Because the Lectionary cycle tend to focus a little more on the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke it almost comes as a surprise that John places the clearing of the Temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – whereas Matthew Mark and Luke see this as towards the end during Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem. There is good argument for both. In John’s record of the significant events in Jesus’ ministry, by placing it at the start of his mission, it underlines his uncompromising honesty and courage and sets the scene for his eventual collision course with the establishment. For Matthew Mark and Luke it is no less significant yet is presented as an important part of the climax of his ministry and as with John, explains perfectly why the temple leadership would have been unable to tolerate his challenge.

Some say the apparent contradiction in the record is because it must have happened twice, once at the beginning of his ministry and once at the end. For what it’s worth I don’t find this plausible because in my view it would extremely unlikely that Jesus might have got away with clearing the temple twice, in that the first time such a dramatic event happened would have identified Jesus as a trouble maker who should not be allowed anywhere near the Temple after such an act. From that point he would have been a marked man.

I can also well believe that as such a story is handed down over the years it is more than likely that details such as the date might easily become secondary to the story itself.
Of far more importance is why Jesus might have come into conflict with the temple authorities in the first place. I suggested at the start Jesus had taken offense at what had become an obsession with a particular aspect of the trappings of religion. In this case it was what had happened to the custom of sacrifice and specifically what was occurring in the Temple courtyard in the area reserved as the closest a gentile might enter the Temple grounds.
Remember the Temple was constructed to reflect the Jews cultural pecking order. In the centre was a small room – the Holy of Holies. God was in that space. Even the High Priest was only allowed to enter the Holy of Holies only once a year.

Next came the courtyard of the priests.

Outside that was the courtyard for male adult Jews….

Then outside that the courtyard for Jewish women….

then finally the courtyard for the gentiles. It was in this courtyard that the money changers and animal traders were to be found.

As with the way modern Muslims require sheep to be killed, the custom of sacrifice had been laid down in the ancient scriptures and had gradually become formalized and ritualized until it was almost an obsession. That there were money changers in the Temple was hardly surprising. Because travelers and pilgrims would come from afar for the Passover festival, it would have been most impractical for all of them to carry their own animals for sacrifice. Accordingly the temple officials would supply a number of the animals for sacrifice but there was a catch. Because the animals had been chosen for sacrifice, the custom had developed that ordinary non Jewish money was considered too base for the purchase of the animals for religious purpose. Accordingly, the pilgrims were required to exchange their non Jewish money for the required coins to pay for the sacrifice. If they were paying at the standard rate of half a shekel per person as laid down by the Talmud, this was expensive enough since half a shekel was the equivalent of two days wage.

There was even a bit of a problem even exchanging shekels for half shekels because the money changers were expected to take some profit. Where the real problem came was when non Jewish coins were brought to exchange for the Jewish shekels. The exorbitant exchange rate had grown over the years until it had become open profiteering.

The other way in which corruption had taken over was that only perfect animals could be sacrificed. For those choosing to bring their own animals for sacrifice, there were special inspectors called mumcheh, who for an appropriate amount would inspect your animal – but alas the custom had changed over the years so that virtually no animal from the outside would pass this inspection and the pilgrim would be required to buy a temple animal for sacrifice. Are you surprised this turned out to be expensive? A pair of doves sold at the Temple cost the equivalent of 24 days work.

That the Temple had become excessively wealthy through this sacrifice money and money exchange was not in dispute. Even some years previously when Crassus captured Jerusalem in 54 BC the historians said that he took the equivalent of something like 5 million dollars in today’s money from the Temple without anywhere near exhausting the wealth.

Jesus’ fury at what was before him probably had several causes.

Exploiting the poor was of course an extreme and glaring injustice, and to do it in the name of God must have seemed particularly upsetting.
Jesus may too have shared the revulsion of a number of the prophets who had pointed out time after time that it wasn’t sacrifices but rather changed hearts which were required. To give two of many possible examples: Isaiah with his: To what purpose are your numerous sacrifices to me? Said the Lord …..bring no more your vain oblations. (Isaiah 1: 11-17) or They sacrifice flesh for offerings and eat it: but the Lord does not accept. Hosea 8: 13.

The version of this story in the gospel of Mark includes an intriguing phrase “My house shall be called of all nations, the house of prayer”. The all nations part suggests Jesus may have been referring to the gentiles’ position in the Temple. Gentiles were allowed and even expected to get as close as possible to the Temple to offer their prayer – but it was in the gentiles’ courtyard that the cacophony of sound, with the bleating of sheep – bellowing of frightened calves – the shouts of the bargainers and no doubt the raised voices of those disputing their treatment at the hands of the money lenders would all combine. This in effect made a mockery of any attempt of the gentiles to offer prayer. Given Jesus’ reported sympathies for gentiles, this may have given further reason for his indignation.

I am reminded of the old story about the man who died and went to the gates of heaven. There he met St Peter and asked to be shown around. St Peter showed him the many courtyards. “This one he said is for the good Buddhists, this one is for the Muslims, over there is the courtyard for the Hindus” – and so on.
“What about that very high walled courtyard over there where I can hear singing and organ music coming from?”, the man asked. “Well that’s where the Christians are,” said St Peter – “but I wonder if I might ask you to be very quiet outside their wall. You see they think they are the only ones here”.
To know with certainty about heaven is beyond my pay grade yet I suspect that story fairly describes many people’s attitude not only towards Christianity, and even towards their particular version of Christian faith. At the last high school where I taught I once had some exclusive Brethren pupils whose parents would not allow them to eat lunch with the other children. I might have been able to feel superior towards them for their prejudice except that at primary school I can remember chanting a rhyme aimed at the Catholic children required to go to a separate Catholic school.

If we keep the story of Jesus driving the money lenders from the Gentiles’ courtyard at a comfortable distance by forgetting what our modern equivalents might be we might miss part of the significance of this incident. It is true that in most versions of Christianity sacrifice at the temple has no place. However if we are honest with ourselves we can allow other trappings of religion to grow in significance until they make a mockery of our faith.

Take the trapping of religious art. Placing the occasional icon – or even stained glass window in a place of worship as a focus for thoughtful religious response is another way of reminding ourselves that events remembered in the history of the faith matter significantly. To continue to collect such items until the place of worship is groaning with opulence is bordering on the obscene particularly when the Church acts as if it is blind to poverty in the community and in the world. I remember being shown a small section of the Vatican museum in Rome by a guide and being told that if a visitor was to spend ten seconds in front of each priceless work of art it would take something like ten years to see all the works of art owned by the Vatican.
Perhaps by some mental gymnastics this can be reconciled with Jesus injunction to take no thought for the morrow – and the bit about not storing up treasures on Earth … but we might ask ourselves if Jesus would really have been pleased at such a display of opulence.

Religious clothing for Church leaders is another area which might cause us to stumble. I certainly can follow that there is significance in the stole, a simple strip of material intended as the mark of ordination and intended as the symbolic version of the yoke of servant hood. Somehow however this has morphed through the centuries. The stole has become more elegantly embroidered and the simple gown into gowns of jeweled and brocaded splendor to the point where the notion of the humble servant somehow becomes lost in the visual trappings of power and significance.
It is odd isn’t it that it is hard to imagine Jesus arrayed like an archbishop in a Cathedral.

Dare I suggest that even Church ceremonies like communion need a time of re-evaluation. This simple shared meal by which Jesus disciples were ask to remember him so often can become formalized so that the leaders become the star turn. For some churches only the initiated may partake and so the simple act of remembrance evolves to a highly formalized and stylized marathon of liturgy where the notion of a shared meal is submerged with high sounding religious jargon. More to the point, if we think of communion as a stand-alone ceremony yet never get round to offering hospitality to strangers, have we really grasped what Jesus was on about? Remember that Jesus was often accused of eating with the undesirables. If we truly want to be reminded of what he stood for, can we act as if some are not worthy to share real meals?

I don’t think for one moment that there was a particular instant when the Jews in their efforts to please God would have been aware that their customs had gone too far. The Temple ceremonies became corrupt gradually over a period of some hundreds of years. In the same way, oh so gradually, an obsession with buildings and with the minutiae of Church administration can take over our meetings until the day perhaps we finally realize that mission and issues of justice and Christian responsibility have become tacked on the end of our agenda merely as a token, and it is then that there comes a need to clear our own temple.

Lent is the traditional time for self-examination. Today on this third Sunday of Lent we might do well to pause to wonder if we too are in danger of losing our sense of focus. Perhaps, even here, there is a need to check the practices of what for us passes as today’s Temple. AMEN

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