Tables overturned. Coins scattered on the floor. Animals intended for ritual sacrifice, driven out. Those responsible for such atrocities, chastised. This graphic event even has its own special names: the cleansing of the temple, or, overturning the tables of the moneychangers. In a fine sermon last Sunday, Erin Klassen at Scarboro United Church in Calgary stepped back from some of that language, but clearly stated that whatever the motive and size and symbolism of the incident, it recalls the day when Jesus went into the Jerusalem Temple and caused a disruption.
Causing a disruption. By nature, the word “disruption” is an irritant and an inconvenience, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a break or interruption in the normal course or continuation of some activity [or] process,” everything from a twenty-minute power outage to the holy disruptions of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.
Oh, and then there’s that disruption that started one year ago this week, as the global pandemic was declared on March 11th, 2020. Disruption sets our context, and not just one disruption. In this past year or so, in addition to the ever-changing COVID disruption, we have experienced the Wet’suwet’en and their allies standing their ground, and Black Lives Matter demonstrations declaring that enough is enough. And then there are other disruptions, such as the one at the US Capitol, with very different agendas. Whether positive or negative or just the way things are, disruptions interrupt our usual ways of being and create a situation where some kind of response is needed.
Which brings us back to our opening scene in Jerusalem. Tables overturned. Coins scattered on the floor. Animals intended for ritual sacrifice, driven out. Those responsible for this marketplace, chastised. Whether at the end of his ministry, as remembered by Matthew, Mark and Luke, or as a tone-setter near the beginning, as per today’s reading in the gospel of John, Jesus came to the Temple and caused a disruption.
In order to grapple with the wherefore and why of this scene, some background information about the Temple is in order. While acknowledging the key role it played in Judaism 2000 years ago, Amy-Jill Levine, a Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, tells us of additional roles played by the Jerusalem Temple. She writes, “Politically, it represented the relationship between Rome and the Jews, for the high priest could serve only with Rome’s approval…. The Temple served as the basis of power for the party of the Sadducees; the Pharisees adapted the holiness signified by the Temple altar to the domestic sphere, such that the home became also a locus of sanctity”. So in addition to its role as the high-holy place in Judaism, the place for pilgrimage and prayer and sacrifice, the Temple had all these other political attachments.
Could this be what Jesus was metaphorically overturning, the political interference of Rome in Temple life, the status gained by Pharisees and Sadducees at a place that should have been focused on devotion to the God of Abraham and Sarah?
And if we look at a reconstructed floor plan of the Temple, we see a clear delineation of who was allowed where, delivering clear messages about who was allowed to be closest to the dwelling-place of God: Gentiles could gather in an outer courtyard, then inside the walls women, then men, then priests, then one solitary priest. Specialized zones were reserved for those suffering certain diseases, and those undertaking religious vows.
While some of those divisions simply reflected societal opinions and scriptural regulations, there is this tendency within religious community – both back then in the days of Jesus, and at this very moment – to invite some members of the community to the inner sanctum, while limiting the place of others. Members of the LGBTQ2S community have a thing or two to say about being “welcomed” to Church but barred from serving on the Church Board or teaching Sunday School; women in Ministry are in many cases kept from assuming “senior pastor” positions; the physical design of many Churches, including our little white Church on Main Street, are not particularly accessible if you have mobility challenges.
So might this stratification between insiders and outsiders be one of the things that Jesus was overthrowing in the temple? The walls, physical and metaphorical, that welcomed some but not all? Elements of hypocrisy, as the purchase of sacrifices was a lot easier than a true change of heart? Rejecting such things would certainly be consistent with his repeated choice of table companions regarded as improper or unsavoury by the Pharisees and Sadducees, pushing common class distinctions.
And then there is the common and well-founded interpretation, that Jesus was upset by the amount of commerce and profit-taking that was going on at the Temple. By the Temple rules, worshippers from afar had to exchange their currency for Temple currency, and birds and animals for ritual sacrifice could be purchased only at the temple, creating quite the monopoly for those doing the selling and exchanging. Is that what Jesus was overturning?
Amy-Jill Levine is among those who wonders if this scene at the temple happened at all, suggesting that Jesus’ “condemnation of certain Temple practices [may have] metastasized through legendary development into a full-blown scene of disrupting Temple activities?” Is the point of this story not so much the money-changers bit, but rather Jesus’ declaration about his body being torn down by human motives and rebuilt by Divine grace?
My sense is that all these interpretations have merit. There was and is a lot that needs overthrowing in our personal and political and religious lives. And in addition to all these things, this story causes us to reconsider one aspect of Jesus’ personality and practice.
As Erin Klassen pointed out, about two months ago, at Christmastime, we sang songs about an infant so placid and peaceful that he didn’t even cry, and that sense of gentle presence may have created for us a very soft-focus image of Jesus. So when we see him not just active, but angry in this scene, it may set us on our heels.
Throughout scripture, Jesus is not shy to confront. He rebukes Peter, he chastises the powerful, he speaks parables with angry overtones and yells at spirits in his healings. Yet even with these things, it is jarring to envisage Jesus holding a whip, driving out the animals at the Temple. And while there isn’t much suggestion that the whip was used against the money-changers, I can’t imagine that they would have known that, they must have imagined that this weapon would be turned on them. This scene of Jesus physically upsetting things, righteous anger turned into disruptive action, may well overturn our thoughts of a Jesus-the-gentle-one.
As I’ve alluded to in recent weeks, following in the path of Jesus doesn’t just call us to be walked right over, or to stand idly by as others are walked over. There are things in this world that diminish human dignity, threats to the lives of the earth and all living things, and anger is a legitimate emotion in response to such injustices. As we look to Jesus, I hope we can imagine him being angry, rather than denying or suppressing that. And even as we imagine that anger, we and he draw a line between anger and violence. Between anger and rage. Between anger, and belittlement and debasement and abuse. Jesus, well aware of how easily those lines are crossed, stepped into a situation that, seen through his eyes, needed disrupting… and disrupt it, he did.
So, what might be the take-away from all this? You may already have a thing or two that have clicked for you this morning and if so, great. But what I would suggest is to invite this event in, to allow it to spur us to questions about those things in us and around us that need renewal, renovation, disruption.
What are the places in your life, where intervention is needed, where tables need to get overturned, where coins need to be scattered on the ground? Are there places that need disruption and change and if so, how can God help you to begin and sustain such changes? Are there renovations already underway in your life, that you can own as being good things, and pray for gracious guidance as you stay the course?
Where are the places in our Church life, where the floorplan – actual and metaphorical – is askew? Especially as our two congregations, Ralph Connor and Rundle, imagine a shared path, what barriers can God help us identify and address, both in the physical structure of these Church buildings, but also in the way we reach beyond ourselves into the needs of the surrounding community? And what steps and programs that are already expressing outreach, do we need to celebrate, support and encourage?
What are the places in our society where exclusion is still encouraged, where the needs of the self are lifted above the greater common good? Where have we allowed commerce to have the upper hand over health and wholeness and the addressing of need? What aspects of recent disruptions have been particularly meaningful, even revelatory to you?
Whether this story in the gospels is primarily an event of righteous anger, or socio-religious commentary, whether it is a time of disruptive confrontation of how we live our lives, or theological foreshadowing of Christ’s own death and resurrection, I invite you to stay with the emotions that arise today. This journey of Lent is not easy and it’s not particularly pretty, but it is real, and it does impact today and tomorrow and the horizon beyond. As we stand with the disciples watching this unfold, as we stoop with the moneychangers to pick up the coins from the floor, we enter into a time of discernment and decision and change.
May God be present in that process, for me, for you, for us, for all. Amen.
Klassen, Erin. Sermon, 28 Feb 2021 https://www.scarborounited.org/life-here/sunday-sermons/
Levine, Amy-Jill. http://assets.press.princeton.edu/chapters/i8265.pdf p.19
Merriam-Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/disruption
Other resources consulted:
Brubaker Davis, Laurie. https://jwwmedia.s3.amazonaws.com/fpcmarshfield/sermons/2019-03-24.pdf
Crossan, John Dominic. Jesu: A Revolutionary Biography. HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. Esp. pp. 130-133.
Fredriksen, Paula. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/portrait/temple.html
© 2021 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.