Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Third Sunday in Lent

Overturning the Tables

The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

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Ishmael: “He is he gone yet? (Ishamael is behind the altar out of sight.)

Mark: Is who gone?

Ishmael: The crazy guy. (Ishamael sticks his head up and looks around)

Mark: What crazy guy?

Ishamel: You know the one that came charging through here with a big whip, yelling crazy things and turning over all our tables.

Mark: Oh, you mean that guy from Nazareth. I think they said his name was Jesus. Yeah, Ishmael, he’s gone. You can come out now.

Ishamael: Are you sure? (Ishamael stands up)

Mark: Yes, come on out. Are you ok?

Ishamael:  I think so. I was reaching for my money box, you know the one I keep my temple coins in, when he whacked me on the hand with that whip. That left a huge mark, but I don’t think anything is broken.

(He looks at the congregation) I don’t understand. There I was just doing my business in the courtyard of the Gentiles and this nut case comes in. I mean how is the temple supposed to function without the other merchants and myself. Especially me. I’m a money changer and people come from all over and have all kinds of coins. Most of them can’t be used to pay the temple tax or buy the sin and thank offerings. They have pictures of Caesar whom the Romans claim is divine and that violates several commandments. So people have to come to me and get proper temple money. Now I do charge for the service, I mean a guy has to make a living doesn’t he?  But without all us money changers, the temple could not function.

And what about poor Isaac over there. His doves have all flown away when the cages got smashed. He had the best doves, there are always perfect. You know people have come from a long way off and most of them only get to the temple every few years. So when they have a chance to make a sin offering they want the best. That’s important to offer a perfect sacrifice to God. That’s how the system works.

And will you look at the mess. My money is all over the ground.  Some of it is mixed in the Abraham’s money who had the stall next to me. I don’t know how I’ll sort it out. You know he is a bit of a cheat. He charges more than I do and doesn’t always give the right rate.

Mark: Well it’s ok now. Pick up your money and set your table back up. Don’t worry the people will be back soon. It is close to Passover and regardless of that nut case the temple needs to keep going.

Ishmael: Well thanks I’ll get back to work. Oy what a mess!”

Ishmael then leaves.

Yes our friends the moneychangers and merchants in the temple were totally confused and the priests were livid with Jesus. For Ishmael over there was right, they were just doing business as usual. There is a version of the Tanach the Jewish bible that includes the Torah, that a neighbor gave to us in Cleveland, , that has listed inside in an appendix a list of all the sins and required offerings. This is what the business of those in the court of the Gentiles was and it was absolutely necessary for the entire temple structure to function. These offerings were required for a person to be “right” with God. Some commentaries have remarked that the moneychangers were charging exorbitant rates, and that might be so, but this is not what Jesus was worried about. So yes our friend Ishmael was just doing what was expected. It was Jesus that acted in an unexpected manner by upsetting the system.

That however was the point that Jesus was making. John in his gospel offers the most complete story of the cleansing of the temple and places it early the story rather than in the context of what we now call Holy Week. Why?

Historically the other three gospels probably have the sequence right, but John is not about history, but about theology. In John’s gospel Jesus knows exactly who he is and what he is to do. At the top of his agenda is upsetting the status quo in a variety of ways. Jesus is attacking not just the poor merchants, but is turning over the tables on the entire temple system. The temple system is no longer needed after the three days when he is crucified and resurrected. Jesus in this action is seeking to overthrow the entire basis of Jewish temple worship. John places this statement early to frame everything else that Jesus does. Jesus is calling for nothing less than the total reform of Judaism in John’s gospel.

Please remember that John’s gospel was written in the late 90s after the council of Jamnia where the Jewish leaders declared that anyone who professed Jesus as Christ was no longer considered Jewish. John’s community has been kicked out of the synagogue, excommunicated if you will. This plays into the spin that the author of John uses.

The pairing of this story with the 10 commandments in our lectionary was not done by accident. Jesus came not to overturn the law, but to fulfill it. Jesus was upset because the worship of the temple was all about form and doing things correctly. Follow the commandments (all 615 of them) and all will be right. If you break them, then do the proper offerings and all is right again with God.

The problem was that for many what was in the person’s heart was not important. The ritual was everything. This is why in John, Jesus compares the Jewish leadership to white washed sepulchers, shiny and gleaming on the outside, but filled with decay and death on the inside. Jesus was saying that what is inside is what is important. Sin offerings mean nothing without true repentance.

Richard Rohr wrote on Sunday this week, “The temple has become totally aligned with King Herod, with the collecting of taxes and money, and the selling of forgiveness. Whenever religion gets into the business of the “buying and selling” of God, or of requiring sacrifices to earn God’s love, we have a problem…. We see Jesus making this great revolution, transforming religion from a concern for sacrifice to earn God’s love to trust through which we know God’s love.”

Religion had become a business and when religion is a business there is a problem. Jesus was calling out the powers of the day in a very public way. Our relationship with God cannot be a quid pro quo relationship, one that is all business. That was what prompted the Reformation 500+ years ago. God is in the love business and that love does not need to be bought.

The concept of sin is also important. Sin is not about following all the rules without considering the cost. Sin is breaking of relationship with God, creation or another person. Something is a sin when it does one of these three things. Mindless following of rules is what Jesus is complaining about. This is because often just following the rules denies the humanity of others. Following the rules can be cruel and hurtful even if on the surface it is “right.”

There is an option in the Penitential Rite that we began the service with to read the summary of the law instead of the 10 commandments. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Now there has been a lot in the news over the past two years what the bible says about some of our laws. I believe that this lens with which to view the law, this way of measuring laws is the biblical part we need to look at. Not which of the 615 religious laws of the Torah are being cited.

The world is changing quickly and dramatically and for many of us this is most unsettling. What if the problem is that organized religion has organized the Spirit out of itself? As we move forward as a parish, as a national church, what if we step back and ask, what tables need to be overturned. What do we need to do differently now than in the past. What an opportunity we have, to make major systemic change as the temples that we have known have collapsed.

The world has radically changed in the last few years. In our post-modern world there are great opportunities for churches that are in the business of developing spirituality and faith. We are in a world searching for meaning. Meaning that we find in Christ’s call to us as Christians. What are the tables that Christ is overturning in our temple? That is a question worth contemplating.