Sunday, March 7, 2021
Turning over our tables
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal
Katy TX 77493
This third Sunday in Lent we have an interesting paring of readings between our Hebrew Scripture and our Gospel. We hear the 10 commandments from Exodus and then the cleansing of the temple from John. What do these have to do with each other? Well, quite a bit.
When asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus replied which we call the summary of the law that was not completely original with him. There is a legend that Rabbi Hillel who died when Jesus was about 7 years old was asked by a young man, “Can you teach me the Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hillel replied, “Love God, Love your neighbor, everything else is commentary.” The other variation is, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor, the rest is commentary go and learn.” Now hold that with the statement that “On these hang all the law and the prophets” and let’s look at the temple and today’s gospel
The cleansing of the temple appears in all of the gospels, but John places it all the way at the beginning in Chapter 2. It is set directly after the first of the seven miracle stories in John that show Jesus’ divinity. Please remember that John’s gospel is written about 70 to 80 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is the least historical of the books, but the most theologically mature. The early church is in their final breakup with the Jewish world. In fact the Council of Jamnia somewhere around 90- 95 had declared that anyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah is not Jewish and banned them from the synagogue. This piece of information is crucial to understand John’s gospel.
I said that this is the most theologically mature gospel and possibly book in the bible. Jesus is portrayed knowing full well of his relationship with God is teaching us about what is important to God. The focus of John is the divinity of Jesus and his relationship with God and the end of the temple system. In short it is a message of love over law.
I need to take a moment with some important background information. What was going on at the temple and what was Jesus so upset about? It is crucial to understand that the money changers and animal dealers were essential to the function of the temple. People were expected to come to the temple and offer sacrifices. They could be thank offerings say after the birth of a child or a sin offering, to make atonement for sin or transgression of the law that they had made.
The temple system that existed when Jesus was alive had far more than 10 commandments that we heard earlier this morning. There are about 615 commandments mostly found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The temple worship was based in a large part on these holiness codes and the focus was on purity and righteousness. The Pharisees were famous for the strict observance of the law and their demands that everyone do so as well. It had become an economy based on quid pro quo. Do X and God will be happy and reward you. Do Y and God will press the smite button unless you offer the proper sacrifice to appease God.
It was all a very simple system, but one that had lost the real point of religion, if you accept that a loving relationship with God is the starting point. It was also an economic system that the priests depended upon for their rather comfortable living. Because of all this there was a lot of inertia regarding any change.
Let me give you an example from Jesus’ own life. If you will remember that in Luke, Jesus’ parents come to the temple to make the thank offering of two pigeons or doves after his birth. Where did they get them from, the dealers of course. Animals offered as a sacrifice had to be perfect, without blemish and the dealers were really the only source. Now that required money, but most of the people arriving at the temple would have Roman money. Roman money is unacceptable because it had the face of the emperor on it and a Latin inscription that said that Caesar was a god. That’s blasphemy in the Jewish world. That meant they had to exchange their Roman money for temple shekels. Hence the need for the money changers. All of these people had their booths set up in the Court of the Gentiles where anyone could enter.
There is speculation that some of the money changers charged exorbitant fees and some of the dealers in animals gouged people who had nowhere else to go for their sacrificial animals. That is not what Jesus was upset about. Jesus was upset about the entire temple system. He is telling the priests, the scribes the pharisees everyone that their entire worship system is wrong and not what God desires. To gather the enormity of what he did, imagine a prophet coming into the Vatican on Easter and throwing everything off of the high altar at St. Peter’s!
We are at a point in our world today where the pandemic has overturned some of our tables and changed how we have done things. The question I want you to consider is what are tables in our world that need to be overturned today? What have we learned about some of the systemic issues in our society both here in the US and across the world that need to be examined.
This is something that each of us needs to look at both individually and corporately. The point is what are we at St. Paul’s called to work to change. There are certainly areas of hunger and poverty that we can do something about. There are areas of systemic discrimination including issues we may not even be aware of because they are not part of our experience.
I use a blessing at the end of the 10:30 every week and occasionally use it at 8:00. It is known as the Franciscan Blessing although the source is disputed and includes anything from early followers of Francis to a Benedictine sister in 1985. However it is the best barometer I can think of for examining tables that need to be overturned in our world today.
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and
superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
What are the easy answers, the things in our life that we just skim the surface on because going in depth takes hard work and energy. Life lived on the surface is shallow and may seem easier.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
What are those things you see in life that are just plain wrong? Some of them may even benefit you at the expense of others. What are these things? I would encourage you to turn the baptismal promises in our prayer book. The five promises that we reaffirm at every baptism are the best guide I know of.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.
Something that is missing in our world today is empathy. The ability to put yourself in the shoes of another and share their pain. This is more than sympathy which sounds like “I’m sorry” and changes it into I feel, I share your pain. If there is one thing out of this entire blessing I would encourage you to try, it is empathy. So many people just need someone to acknowledge their pain and listen without trying to make it better.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can
make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.
This is the make it better part. This may be the biggest challenge of all. Believing that you can make a difference in our world today. The problems we face are so vast so huge that it is easy to think, what difference can I make. Helping one person, changing how you act one day at a time, calling out somebody in a loving way when they are wrong are all hard, but they are doable.
We are at a point where we have a unique opportunity to put this blessing into action over the next year as we come out of the pandemic. I will be working with the vestry and you to make this a parish that truly lives this challenging blessing.