Homily: As Subtle as a Sledgehammer

How easily we domesticate and tame our Gods. We create Jesus in our own image so that we can then confine him for our own purposes. The reading this week from John’s Gospel challenges all such self-centered attempts to limit Him to acting in ways we approve. To call it “the cleansing of the Temple’, is to belittle the only really violent act of Jesus,

It occurs in all four Gospels. It is an unnerving story that reminds us that there is no such thing as “business as usual” with Jesus, and that all who come to him must come on his terms, not ours.

In the three synoptic writers this story is situated at the end of Jesus’ ministry, sandwiched between his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the parable of the ungrateful tenants.

John, however, whose version we listen to today, places the story at the beginning of Jesus ministry, except for the wedding at Cana, it looms as Jesus’ first public act.

It’s a little like the way people flock to our communal penance services in Holy Week of Lent. But there is a first penance service in Lent, the very first week, although not as well attended. But we, like St John, prefer to think of Cleansing as a Beginning Experience, not a final one.

Crowds of pilgrims were coming to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover at the temple. The temple constituted the essence of Jewish faith in both a literal and symbolic manner.

When Jesus entered the temple he encountered men selling lambs, doves and even cattle to the pilgrims who needed them to make their obligatory sacrifices. They also needed to exchange their Roman currency with their images of Caesar into Jewish money in order to pay the temple tax in the coinage that did not bear such a blasphemous graven image.

And here, we read, Jesus also met the money changers. And, all hell broke loose. Incensed at the sacrilege of it all, Jesus improvised a whip, drove the animals from the temple, scattered the coffers of the money changers, and overturned their tables: “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” Later his disciples remembered Psalm 69 verse 9 and attached a sense of prophetic fulfillment to the event with its line: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

It’s not clear whether Jesus objected to any and all commercial activity in the temple out of principle, to even the honest transactions that were necessary for pilgrims to fulfill their religious obligations, or whether he was galled at the fraud, exploitation and greed of the religious authorities who controlled these means of ritual purity that presumed to be the only  access to God.

When asked to justify his violent actions with a sign, Jesus refused; instead of giving any explanation, he responded with the puzzling saying: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again.”

In his dramatic outburst Jesus joined a violent act with an enigmatic saying that has been interpreted as referring to his own impending death and resurrection.

No doubt the disciples tossed and turned a long, sleepless night that evening; it must have been terribly disconcerting to witness Jesus unhinged, throwing furniture, screaming at the top of his lungs, and flinging money into the air. Perhaps they ran for cover with the crowd. I would have. Did they look him in the eyes the next morning, or shuffle their feet, stare at the ground, and make small talk?  I liken their experience to the “crazy uncle” syndrome—who could predict the next outrageous act or violent outburst?

I don’t read the cleansing of the temple as a great ‘Aha!’ against raffles and festivals or even sermons about money and fund drives or any other financial or fund-raising issue. Obviously I wouldn’t; I’m a pastor! I know how much financial support is necessary to sustain our buildings and our work.

But I really do read the cleansing of the temple as a stark warning against any and every false sense of security: Misplaced allegiances, religious presumption, pathetic excuses, smug self-satisfaction, spiritual complacency, nationalist zeal, political idolatry, economic greed: all in the name of God.

These are only some of the tables that Jesus would overturn in his own day and in ours. Church is more than a place to enjoy a Casino night or to reinforce my many prejudices and illusions. The words that end Psalm 19 are what speak to us today: “Clean the slate, God, so we can start the day afresh! Keep me from stupid sins, from thinking I can take over your work.

© Dan Clendenis       Journey With Jesus


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