Text: John 2:13-22
While I was in seminary, I spent a summer working at a church in my hometown as youth minister. And I remember a controversy that broke out in that church. A local hospital wanted to increase its community outreach by offering wellness classes. Our church was approached and asked if we would be willing to host aerobics classes. The hospital would pay rent for use of the building.
It sounded like a win-win, right? Opportunities for health and wellness would be extended in the community and the church would be a partner in a worthwhile program. It would be good publicity and good stewardship of the space, and there would be some income, not a lot but enough to pay for utilities and cleaning and maybe a little more.
So I was taken aback when there was pretty strong opposition voiced at the monthly business meeting. Why were people so opposed to this idea? Were they concerned about wear and tear on the facilities? Had there been a bad experience with the hospital’s programs? Did they think the income might be a headache for tax purposes?
No, nobody was concerned about anything like that. The problem was, Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the temple. And if money was changing hands in the church building, it was wrong. Period.
Being a young seminary student and not knowing any better, I spoke up and advocated for the plan. But as you might guess, the proposal did not pass. Later, one woman told me she should have spoken up but she was too stunned to say anything. She told me that she had been in a terrible depression a few years before, and as far as she was concerned, aerobics had pretty much saved her life.
All of this is to say that I have a history with this passage, and it has been interpreted in various ways over the years, not all of which are especially helpful. To be fair, it is not an easy story.
I think what we notice first - what really grabs us – is how angry Jesus is. This is not the way we generally think of Jesus. So far in John, there haven’t been any big controversies and Jesus has not encountered opposition. His disciples follow him gladly and then he turns water into wine at a wedding. It’s not like his patience finally wears out or that he just snaps from the constant opposition.
It’s Passover. The biggest celebration of the year. Everyone is thrilled to be at the temple at Passover. The cheerfulness of the crowd is in stark contrast to the anger of Jesus. What is Jesus’ problem? Why is Jesus so angry?
Now, the temple was an enormous complex. There were four parts. The most outlying part was an outside court, the Court of Gentiles. Anyone could go there. For a Gentile who was drawn to God, this was as far as one could go. Closer was the Court of Women. Closer still was the Court of Israelites—only the men could go there, and this was where worship took place. And then there was the Holy of Holies, where only the priests could go.
Jesus was observing what was going on in the Court of Gentiles. Everyone who came to worship had to pay the temple tax. People brought their Roman money with them – it was the coin of the realm. But a Roman coin, bearing the image of Caesar, was considered a graven image, and the temple tax had to be paid with temple currency. And so, as a public service, a person could exchange one’s money for temple currency.
The Talmud, the Jewish commentary on the law, said that when worshipers came to exchange their currency for temple shekels, the moneychangers had a right to some gain. This was their livelihood and they were providing a useful service.
And then there were the animal sellers. Offering a sacrifice was a part of temple worship. For many, it would be difficult to bring an animal with you, especially if you were traveling a long way, and according to Leviticus, animals for sacrifice had to be perfect and unblemished. If you brought your own animal it might not pass the inspection. And so a lot of folks would purchase an animal at the temple.
Why did Jesus get so upset? Some have argued it was because the moneychangers and animal sellers were ripping off people, charging exorbitant fees and getting rich off people who were simply trying to do their religious duty and come to the temple for Passover.
Now I expect Jesus didn’t approve of shady business practices concerning selling animals and currency exchange, and that he had an issue with those who took advantage of those who had come to worship. But he doesn’t say that.
Imagine what it must have been like at the temple and how many animals there must have been there. Even if the vast majority were poor families who only offered a dove as a sacrifice, this was still a massive operation.
Archaeologists have uncovered a large dump outside the walls of the ancient city of Jerusalem, dating from around the time Jesus lived. The dump contained an unusually large proportion of animal bones, and analysis showed that the animals came from a wide geographical area. (You’ve got to love modern science.) Basically it confirmed the image that we get in scripture of this very large animal sacrifice operation. Animal sacrifice was a huge economic driver in ancient Jerusalem.
This is all happening in the outer court of the temple, the court of Gentiles. Remember, if you were a Gentile drawn to the Hebrew God, the only place you could go for worship was in the midst of this vast religious marketplace that must have been like a zoo. I mean, almost literally.
Jesus becomes angry. But he doesn’t just suddenly go off, impulsively; he seems very purposeful about this. The text says that he made a whip of cords. He takes cords and braids them together into a whip. There is drama. There is spectacle. There is a theatrical component to this.
Jesus uses the whip to drive the cattle and sheep from the temple. Then he overturns the moneychangers’ tables, with coins going everywhere. It is pandemonium. Jesus is livid. He is out of control.
Frankly, we are kind of shocked by Jesus’ behavior. What is his problem? He says, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” He drives everyone out. And John tells us, “He was motivated by zeal for his Father’s house.”
Jesus’ concern had to do with the temple itself - his Father’s house. Jesus wasn’t simply protesting economic exploitation or unfair trade practices; he was protesting the entire sacrificial system. He is protesting the way the entire temple operation. And to make it clear, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” People are scratching their heads, wondering what in the world Jesus is talking about. “It took 46 years to build this temple, what do you mean you will rebuild it in three days?”
John tells us that he is talking about the resurrection, and the implication is that Jesus himself would be the temple where God’s Spirit dwells. Of course, nobody knew what he was talking about at the time, but later they looked back and remembered.
Sometimes, to change things, you have to upset the tables. The prophets had spoken against transactional religion for a long time. Samuel said to King Saul, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice.”
And the prophet Micah had asked, “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil?” And the answer was, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God?”
The sacrificial system had not only grown to overshadow doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God, it had become big business. It had become the tail wagging the dog.
By Jesus’ actions, he was saying No to the selling of salvation. What had once been a symbol of one’s commitment and repentance had become a matter of buying God’s blessing. And a person should not have to have material resources in order to worship God.
With the worship taking place at the temple, belief or action or change of heart and life are not really a part of the equation. Commitment and involvement and service and mission have nothing to do with it. Doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God could be forgotten with this transactional, Marketplace Religion.
This weekend we are remembering the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. King pastored the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, a sister American Baptist congregation. Dr. King led our nation to move toward racial justice and equality. Lord knows we have a long way to go on that dream, and King faced opposition and hatred and violence along the way. But what really got King in trouble was when he questioned economic systems. And we don’t hear about that so much.
Speaking at the Riverside Church in 1967, Dr. King said, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing‐oriented’ society to a ‘person‐oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered… A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”
King spoke those words over 50 years ago, and they sound as though they could have been said yesterday. Like Jesus, King called us to put people first.
That church back in my hometown had it right that Jesus did not want the church to be a marketplace. But they completely missed the point of Jesus’ actions and the kind of religious marketplace he was protesting. Jesus doesn’t really care about our car washes or rummage sales or pancake suppers, or renting a fellowship hall out for aerobics classes. Actually I think he might like a good pancake supper. What Jesus was really worked up about was putting up barriers to keep people from worship, and creating religious systems that can actually keep people from living faith in God.
For us it can be a lot more subtle than it was at the temple in Jerusalem, but we can create our own sacrificial system. Get out of bed, come to church, sing the songs, try to stay awake, stand for the benediction, go back home. We made our sacrifice and God is lucky to have us on God’s team. We fulfilled our duty and as a result we will be blessed.
When we have rules about who is welcome in church, we are basically saying that if you pay the price of admission by dressing a certain way, then God accepts you. When we give the message that those of certain education or with a certain sophistication or with a certain cultural point of view are more welcome than others, we are setting a price of admission to worship and making God’s house into a marketplace.
When we give off the message that you need to have your life together, at least to a certain extent, before you can really fit in here, we are setting a price of admission and making God’s house into a marketplace.
And as Dr. King warned us, when we by our action or inaction support systems that widen the gap between those who can afford a bull and those who can’t even afford a pigeon, we have turned our backs on God’s justice, and our worship is empty.
This is a tough passage of scripture, but here is what I think it is really about: this is Jesus’ angry, loving disruption drawing us back to the heart of God. Amen.