Just Two Steps
A Meditation on John 2: 13 – 22
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop March 4, 2018 Grace Presbyterian Church
We have journeyed through the mortality of Ash Wednesday. We have explored the wilderness of Jesus’ temptation, as well as surveying our own wastelands. Last Sunday we witnessed Peter attempting to have an intervention with Jesus, when it was Peter who needed the intervention. We asked ourselves where we need God’s intervention in our lives and how God might already be breaking through to heal us. From intervention, we take the steps to recovery. We begin a program of recovery.
This morning we have witnessed another of Jesus’ interventions. Last week, I wasn’t so sure we could say Jesus was angry at Peter. But this week? Jesus is really angry. Red in the face angry. The man stops what he is doing to make a whip; he is that angry. I knew this as “dad’s going to get the paddle” angry. Some of you may know it as “go to your room and don’t come out until you’ve figured out what you did wrong; I don’t care if you miss supper” angry. This is what the Son of the God of justice and mercy looks like when he sees so much injustice and mercilessness at one moment that he cannot control himself.
Flipping tables, setting animals free, cracking a whip over his head. This is passionate Jesus. This is righteousness unleashed. Why? Why is he so angry? What would cause Jesus to freak out like this? Had he not heard about what went on here? Or…had people been telling him? Had they been trying to prepare him for what he would see? Had he wanted so deeply to believe it was not true, could not be true? God’s house a marketplace?
What Jesus saw flew in the face of how God desires for us to live in community. God had said to God’s people: remember these two practices: Love God, and love each other. The two practices are inseparable. You cannot live out one and not live out the other. If you honestly love God, you cannot help but be propelled forward in your love of people. When you love people, you enact your love for God.
In that Temple space, Jesus saw a complete absence of love, and he stepped in to flip over the tables, to scatter the coins, to set free the sacrificial animals and to say, “you do not need to suffer under this system anymore.” Of course it wasn’t intentionally set up to be an abusive system; it was created to assist worshipers in acquiring the sacrifices they were required to bring to the temple each year. But like so many things that start out with good intentions, the foundation became a slippery slope. The imperfect system was broken beyond repair. It was time for it to be replaced, and Jesus had come to do just that.
Stan Duncan, writing on the Jubilee Justice blog, reminds us that “the ‘spinal cord’ for ethical behavior for Hebrews was that God liberated them from slavery, and now their task was to do the same for others. This was the basis for the Sabbath and Jubilee legislation: God freed us, so we must now free others.” What Jesus saw here, on his return to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, was anything but freedom. What he saw was an oppressive economic system which was breaking the backs of the poor.”
Jesus isn’t here to “cleanse” as some Bibles title this passage. He isn’t breaking out a mop and a bucket of water. He is breaking out a whip! He is here to do much more than cleanse; he is here to disrupt and re-create. He is here to usher in a new way of restoration and hope, a new path of forgiveness. A program of recovery for oppressed and oppressors.
Animal sellers and money changers. These were the businesses going on at the temple. The sellers sold offerings at exorbitant prices and the changers converted the money from Roman coins for an exorbitant fee.
Again from the Jubilee Justice blog:
“The sellers (tous pōlountas) were those who sold animals for the offerings made at the temple… People were required to make sacrifices for a variety of festivals and rites. If you were wealthy you gave a large animal, like a cow or ox. If you were poor you gave doves or pigeons. However, to ensure “unblemished” animals, you were required to purchase your animals at the gate of the temple where the prices were higher than the country-side. And, as with any regressive tax or price system, the costs tended to be felt more by the poor than the wealthy. To purchase one pair of doves at the temple was the equivalent of two days’ wages. But the doves had to be inspected for quality control just inside the temple, and if your recently purchased unblemished animals were found to be in fact blemished, then you had to buy two more doves for the equivalent of 40 days’ wages!”
And the money changers? Also corrupt.
“They would not only exaggerate the fees they had to charge for the transactions, they would also inflate the exchange rate. The result was that for a poor person, the Money Changer’s share of the temple tax was about one day’s wages and his share of the transaction from international to local currency was about a half-day’s wages. And that was before they purchased their unblemished animals for sacrifice and then had to buy them again (at an enhanced price) because the inspector found a blemish or otherwise inadequate for the offering.”
Now do you see why Jesus was so enraged? What should have been a simple religious practice, a practice of bringing a gift to God’s house had become an oppressive and broken system enabling the rich to become richer and the poor to suffer. The suffering was both economic and spiritual. Who would long to make the journey to Jerusalem knowing the price that it would cost the family? Who would want to worship a God whose very worship equated with their suffering and the suffering of their children? Jesus didn’t intend to clean up this mess, he intended to get rid of it. It was a sick and broken system.
With coins scattered at their feet and animals running loose around them, the religious leaders ask Jesus about his credentials. “What authority do you have to create all this chaos? Will you show us a sign?” They are willing to accept his authority if he will show them a sign. Right then. Right there. But Jesus doesn’t do tricks on demand like a trained animal. Jesus, in his untamed, disruptive and mysterious way, says: “Here’s a riddle for you. Here’s a sign. Tear down the temple. I will build it back in three days.”
Which of course he did, ending forever an oppressive system of sacrifice, reminding us that God does not want our sacrifices. As the prophet Hosea had spoken so long ago: [God] desires faithful love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God instead of entirely burned offerings. (Hosea 6:6)
Jesus intervened in a broken system, demonstrating with the full force of his passion, how much oppression grieves God’s heart. He cracked a whip to wake them up to the injustices in which they were participating. He cracked a whip to snap them out of their cooperation in the oppression of the poor. He cracked a whip in hopes that they would remember the words of prophet after prophet who had preached that to love God means to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God. He cracked a whip knowing that one day a whip would be cracked against his own back, against his own skin, by the people who couldn’t face the truth about the world they had created.
He cracked a whip and he sent coins rolling across the floor. How those money changers must have scrambled to gather those coins before someone else picked them up. How the animal sellers must have made fools of themselves trying to recover their fleeing commodities. The Temple had to experience chaos.
You know how it is when you need to clean something out: first you make a mess. Like when you clean out the refrigerator. First, everything has to come out. The counter tops are covered in mostly empty salad dressing bottles and three jars of the same kind of pickles. Just so, any program of recovery begins with a mess. The healthy eating plan begins with throwing away the junk food. The exercise plan begins with finding those walking shoes. The sobriety plan begins with getting rid of the addictive substances. You begin with a mess, and you start from there. A fresh start.
Which is what Jesus implored the religious leaders to consider. A fresh start. The invitation would come on Easter morning, with the promise of rebirth, but there is still a long journey to get to that day. Jesus has walked it before us. He knows the suffering, he knows the despair. He has felt the whip. Never for a minute wonder if he understands your wilderness. He is in it with you and he will never leave you orphaned. Thanks be to God. Amen.
May the God of peace make you whole and holy, may you be kept safe in body, heart, and mind, and thus ready for the presence. God has called you and will not fail you.
1 Thessalonians 5: 23