March 7 St Ambrose
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild. I don’t think so! I don’t know what Bible the writer of that hymn had read, or if they were merely trying to contain the behaviour of their children by giving a supposed example of Godly behaviour. But they badly missed the boat with this one!
Jesus takes rope, and braids a cord, and uses it as a whip to drive the animals, and those who tend them, and the money-changers out of the temple!
This story shows a Jesus who is incandescent with anger at what is happening in the temple. There are many reasons for his anger, but let’s first look at the impact it had on those around him!
The temple was not just any little corner synagogue. If someone came in here and angrily threw us all out, and turned over the table, it would be annoying, upsetting and a nuisance, but it wouldn’t really impact the whole of Christianity would it? We would just pick up the pieces, pray for the disturber of the peace, and take up where we left off.
But the Temple in Jerusalem was the mother-ship, if you like of the whole Jewish religion! It’s like St Peter’s in Rome, for the Catholics! Or like any major cathedral in its city, only more so.
Not only was the temple the centre for religious life and worship, but it was also a place of ‘politics and society, of national celebration and mourning’, in the
words of Tom Wright. It was the very symbol of what it meant to be Jewish, and it had already been destroyed and rebuilt several times. It was a holy place.
Ah, a holy place. This is what Jesus’ objection was to the way the temple was being used. ‘Stop making this holy place a marketplace!’ he shouted. In other gospels he says that the people have made his father’s house a den of thieves. Very strong language!
Why were there animals in the temple, and money-changers anyway?
People came from far and wide to offer sacrifices in the temple, according to their law. Some would bring an animal with them, but others needed to buy one. There was a corrupt practice around this that went on – the animal presented had to be perfect, and the people would bring it up to the priests to be inspected. The scam went that the priest would say, ‘no, it’s got a blemish, you can’t offer that one. Here, buy this one, it’s all good. By the way, that will cost you a hundred dollars.’ Then they would take the animal that was brought in originally, put it in the pen with the rest, and flog it off to some other poor unsuspecting worshipper, and make even more money! Dodgy, huh?
How about the money-changers? Again, because folk came from many nations to worship at the temple, they might not have the right currency. There was a special coin that was designated for temple offerings, and you had to use these ones. OK, if there’s a fair and consistent price. But the money-changers had full control as to what exchange rate they were offering for the foreign coins.
I heard about a similar scam last year in Lyttelton, yes, just over the hill from here. The seafarers come off the boat with American dollars for their coinage, and the local shop keepers do accept these. But some of them were taking them dollar-for-dollar for NZ dollars! But, you say, the American dollars are worth more! Yes, the seafarers were being ripped off. I was ashamed of our city when I heard about this practice, and glad to know that the chaplain to the port was dealing with the issue.
When we look back into our first reading, we can see some of the reason why Jesus behaved as he did. The first commandment is ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;you shall have no other gods before me.’
Maybe the money-changers and the animal-sellers had another god before God – the god of greed and corruption.
The second commandment expands on the first – ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol,…You shall not bow down to them or worship them’.These days there are not so many literal golden calves that people worship, but many things can become idols and take our focus off God – work, sport, family, grandchildren, video-games… anything which we give all our time, attention, money and love to can be an idol if we let it.
The people in the Temple were not putting God first.
But there’s another commandment that is being broken here, and it’s one that is a warning for the world, the fourth commandment.
‘You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.’
I used to think that this meant using God’s name as a swear word. Yes, that is one way to interpret it. God’s name is holy and doesn’t fit in a sweary sentence, especially a violent and harmful one. But making wrongful use of God’s name can also mean doing things in God’s name, which go against the nature of God.
For example, we know that God is all-loving. Behaviour that isn’t loving, is hurtful or discriminatory, is not Godly. Therefore claiming that it is being done in God’s name is misusing His Holy name, and breaking the fourth commandment.
Many awful things have been done in the past in the name of religion – people have taken power on themselves by invoking the powerful name of God, and their actions have not reflected the nature of God, or shown them to be representatives of Christ on earth. As we let our Holy Spirit radar tingle and twitch, we can call out this behaviour. Hate speech against various groups of our society is therefore not a Godly thing, and not something serious Christians should ever participate in.
Now let’s look at why Jesus cleansed the temple. The Jews asked by what sign he was doing this, but he didn’t tell them much! Instead, he gave this cryptic statement: ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’
But Herod had started rebuilding this temple 46 years before, and his son was still going on with the work! How could it be rebuilt in 3 days? Now, with 20/20 hindsight, we can think, ah, three days, Jesus is referring to the resurrection! The temple he meant here was the temple of his body. Instead of needing to offer up animal sacrifices, Jesus was pointing to himself as the one perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world, the ultimate passover offering. The animals would not be needed any more!
Take Jesus’ example from this story to heart this week, and look for aspects of your life where there might be idolatry, not putting God first, not acting with Kingdom values. Bring them to God in prayer, and remember that this is not the end of the story, because Jesus’ death and resurrection takes away all our sin, and accept that forgiveness.