When our children were young and we were living in Tokyo, our son made friends at his international school with a both named William. William’s mother was American, and his father was Japanese. His mother, Bernice, had moved to Japan shortly after college to teach English. Over time, she and a Japanese woman founded and ran a communications and public relations firm. This was highly unusual in Japan at the time – a woman owning a company, and a foreign woman, to boot. I never saw Bernice in that light, however. I knew her as William’s mom, who came to volunteer at school when she could – reading stories and baking cookies with the children. As time went on, Bernice and her family started coming to our church, and so we got to be better friends – hanging out together with our two-year olds, whose tolerance for sitting still in church was short-lived.
Eventually, Bernice determined that the type of education her children needed was not available in Japan, and that she would have to return to the US, which meant selling her company. She invited John and me to the farewell dinner – and what a different side to Bernice I saw! Completely bi-lingual, highly respected and admired by her employees, polished and in command of the event – even though it was her leave-taking. That aspect of her was there all along, I just never had the occasion to see it when we were running after pre-schoolers on the playground.
Jesus is the same way. We are, I think, so used to focusing on his compassion, love, healing, and teaching that when we encounter Jesus in the light we see this morning, we are a little shocked. Turning over tables in the Temple? Driving out the money changers with a whip of cords? Is this really the Jesus we know and love? And in case we think that this passage is an anomaly – it’s also repeated (with different details) in all four Gospels. And while it may be one of the clearest examples of Jesus’ anger or disturbing abruptness, it is certainly not the only one.
On and off over the last fifty years many Christians, and the Church as a whole (at least main-line Christianity), has worked really hard at expanding our picture of God so that we aren’t thinking of God as an angry Zeus throwing down random thunderbolts at human beings. That’s a good thing, because to limit our understanding of God to anger and punishment alone is not true to the way God is revealed in Scripture – either in the Old Testament or the New Testament; God is so much more than that. However, we’ve been a bit too successful in that project, and in focusing on Jesus’ compassion and mercy we can all too easily forget God’s anger at unrighteousness and oppression, we can forget that God grieves over our sins, and so we feel shocked when Jesus turns over that tables of the money changers.
What was that about, anyway? After Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he went to the Temple – the seat of spiritual presence and power for God’s people, but an institution and a symbol that had also become enmeshed with the ruling authorities who were colluding with the Roman overlords. The money-changers had a legitimate business; when people came to worship in the Temple, they were to sacrifice a lamb or a dove. But to transport a lamb or dove or some other animal from out in the country-side fifty or more miles away was not feasible, and so animals for sacrifice were available for purchase in the Temple. But there was another wrinkle. Roman money, Gentile currency, could not be used in the Temple compound, and so there was a system of currency exchange from Roman coins to specially-minted Temple coins which were then used to purchase the sacrificial animals. But the exchange rate was exorbitant, and worshipers really had no choice, they had to pay those rates. So Jesus wasn’t anti-commerce, particularly, but there was no way he was going to allow worship to be the venue for usury and highway robbery, and taking advantage of others. That made him angry.
And there was something else going on, as well. The Temple was the locus and the symbol of God’s presence with his people. But Jesus was saying that now there would no longer be any need for the Temple. He was the access to God, and he was the sacrificial animal – the Lamb of God, and he was also the presence of God in the hearts of God’s people. Where ever two or three were gathered together, Jesus said, I will be in the midst of them…not the minyan of ten needed for the synagogue, not the whole Temple infrastructure, but the intimacy and immediacy of knowing the Lord and Creator of the Universe in and through the presence of Christ.
And what was the result of all this? It’s what finally pushed the religious authorities over the edge. Jesus would have to go. Not only was he a thorn in the side of the Temple establishment, but he was upsetting the power structures, the not-so-delicate balance of power between the empire and the local rulers. Jerusalem was enough of a tinderbox without allowing more upheaval. The powers-that-be were threatened, and so Jesus would have to go.
And yet, as Paul makes clear in the epistle, the only true power is God’s power – it’s not in the sophistication of Greek philosophy, nor in signs and wonders that were important to the Jews of the time, nor in the politics or governments or business dealings of our own day. Paul squarely identifies power as belonging to God, and it’s a power that reaches its greatest point in the Cross – in Jesus’ death and resurrection. In the crucifixion it was not only our own individual sins that were nailed to the Cross and transformed, but over-weaning power structures, out-of-control ego, oppression, violence, and degradation towards others. All of these are shown by Jesus’ death on the Cross to be null and void, absent of any real meaning or clout. They have power to offer death, but they do not have power to offer life. Only God has that power, and that is exactly what happens on the other side of resurrection. Because Jesus defeated the power of sin and death, our sins, our short-comings and character defects, our emotional and spiritual chains can be transformed by the grace and power of God. Those things need no longer bind us, imprison us. That is true power.
And so, we see Jesus for who he truly is – God incarnate, the Messiah, the power of God and the wisdom of God – who is all righteousness, all goodness, all mercy, and compassion and justice and loving-kindness. Take that image of Jesus to heart, and you will find strength to help in time of need, rest for your soul, and courage in your rock and redeemer.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. ~ Collect for Third Sunday in Lent, Book of Common Prayer
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Third Sunday in Lent
March 8, 2015