During Lent, when we worry about putting due proportion in our lives, and try to abstain from excess, of course we should worry about how we stand with regard to money. We know that we should not let making money be the be all and end all of life, because where our treasure is, there will our heart be also, as Jesus said. We know from the story of the rich young ruler that those with much money are sometimes fettered by it, so that it becomes an unwholesome attachment that prevents the freedom of religion. On the other hand, we know that we should be provident for those in our care and charitable toward the poor, all of which requires money. Moreover, we are enjoined to maximize our God-given talents, which often results in financial prosperity. Poverty we know is a bad thing. It is especially bad because it so often blights the soul. If poverty is bad, prosperity is good. So how should we think about money, when we try to find balance and proportion in life?
The story of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple does not provide an easy answer. It is told in all four gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the incident is placed at the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ life, immediately after he has ridden into Jerusalem in triumph on Palm Sunday. In those gospels, Jesus’ driving out of the animals and overturning of the money changers’ tables are presented as the trigger that turns the authorities against him so that they decide they have to trap and kill him. In John, however, our gospel for today, the incident is placed at the very beginning of Jesus ministry, right after he has called the disciples and taken them to the drunken wedding party at Cana.
Let me say a word about the structure of John versus that of the so-called synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mark was the first gospel written, probably around the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70 of the first century. Both Matthew and Luke know Mark’s gospel, and reproduce many elements of it, with their own stresses and variations; this commonality is the reason those gospels are called “synoptic.” One of the common elements in the synoptic gospels is Mark’s dramatic organizing principle. For Mark, after accepting baptism by John in the Jordan, Jesus returned to his home territory in Galilee, north of Jerusalem, and began his preaching and healing ministry. Then he slowly journeyed from Galilee to Jerusalem for his climactic last week, the events of which occupy roughly a third of each of the synoptic gospels. All the incidents of Jesus’ work and teaching are arranged around the dramatic structure of the journey to Jerusalem. It is possible to read the synoptic gospels to say that Jesus’ ministry lasted only a single season, aiming at the climactic Passover festival. It is in this context that the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple focuses the conflict of his last days, for the synoptic gospels. John, by contrast, does not employ the single journey organizing principle but says rather that Jesus went to Jerusalem many times, for a variety of festivals. His ministry might have lasted a number of years. My own suspicion is that John is probably more historical, if only because he does not have such a rigid organizing principle based on the journey. In John’s account, the cleansing of the Temple brings Jesus to the attention of the authorities at the very beginning of his ministry.
Now what was so outrageous about Jesus’ action in the Temple? Many things. First, it was violent and upsetting. Imagine all the cattle and sheep running wild through the Temple courtyards! (The kids must have loved that!) The moneychangers must have been panicked by having their coins scattered about. Second, Jesus was accusing the moneychangers and animal salesmen of desecrating the Temple, when in fact they had a legitimate business. The animals, you know, were there in order to be sacrificed. According to the Jewish religion, individuals need to make various sacrifices to atone for sins and to become clean so as to be able to worship in the Temple. In older days when the people were farmers, they would supply their own animals. But Jesus lived in an urban age, and at the festivals worshippers came from all over the Diaspora. So hundreds or even thousands of people had to purchase animals to be sacrificed on their behalf so that they would be made eligible to enter the Temple for worship. The sacrificial animals had to be purchased with Jewish Temple money, and most of the people had Roman money; so there had to be money changers in addition to the farmers selling the animals. How could this be a desecration of the Temple when that was the way the very Temple system worked?
So, third and most radical, Jesus’ action challenged the very system of worship associated with the Temple. In many other places, all four gospels depict Jesus as upholding and affirming Jewish practices, while attempting to purify them and eliminate hypocrisy. Jesus did not think of himself as anything other than a good Jew, although his definition of what means might have differed from many of his peers. He regarded himself as something of a prophet.
How do we reconcile Jesus’ apparent self-image as a purifying prophetic Jew with his attack on the Temple worship based on sacrificial cleanliness? One historically sensitive answer might be to say that all of the gospels were written after the Temple had in fact been destroyed, and that the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple was embellished to indicate that Jews should move beyond Temple-based worship to synagogue or congregational worship. Thus, whatever Jesus’ own motivations for his violence in the Temple, the gospel writers used the story to distance the Christian movement from Temple Judaism and promote the emerging form of Christian-Jewish congregational life. This is anachronistic, however, and cannot explain Jesus’ own motivations. Another answer to the puzzle is suggested by the text itself, namely, that Jesus was “consumed by zeal for God’s house,” which quotes Psalm 69. The problem with this answer is that God’s house, for which Jesus and the author of Psalm 69 had zeal, was the Temple with the sacrifice system.
Would it not be tempting to say that Jesus’ attack on the Temple sacrifice system was just an uncharacteristic bad day for a man who was usually so peaceful, forgiving, and loyal to the truest elements in his tradition? Alas, all the gospels make this episode the pivotal incident that sets Jesus in opposition to the authorities who eventually kill him. So it must be significant.
Perhaps we can get some purchase on understanding this incident by asking what it might mean for us, far removed from Second Temple Judaism and the cultural and psychological assumptions that killing an animal might make us clean. What can we learn from this text for Lent?
Taking seriously the radical rejection of the heart of his own tradition’s religious practice, I think Jesus’ act means that we should be prepared to set our religion aside and begin again with God. A crucial part of penance is that we free ourselves from dependence on our religion. Now what a crazy thing this is for me to say! I urge upon you, as a Lenten practice, the freeing of yourself from religious practices of the very sort I am urging upon you. You would think that I had never studied logic! ( I did, but did not get good grades.)
Here is the paradox, however, expressed in Jesus’ outrageous behavior in the Temple. On the one hand, our religious practices are the only things that allow us to engaged God and the ultimate conditions of our existence. Without ideas and symbols of God, we cannot think God. Without the emotions of cultivated piety such as love, confession, and forgiveness, we cannot feel God. Without participation in the community of God’s people, faulty as that is, we cannot model living with other people as social beings before God. Without the deliberate practices of justice and charity toward all, we cannot be holy before God. Without the patterning of our lives with prayers and gestures of awe and respect, we cannot organize ourselves to live through ordinary affairs as redeemed sinners in search of sanctification. We all know people who think they can get along without cultivating a deliberate pattern for their lives for living in light of ultimate things. They withdraw from organized religion and think it is fine to be “spiritual.” When the crises of life descend, however, their thoughts about God are likely to be at the 5th grade level, unless they have cultivated their theology. Their emotional reception of God is likely to be sappy, unless it has been disciplined through practice. Their love of neighbors is likely to extend only as far as is self-serving, unless they are committed to a religious community or some secular substitute for that. Only in justice and charity are people who distance themselves from deliberate religious practice likely to do as well as devoutly religious people, because those obligations attend everyone in the human condition. In the other issues, facing ultimate matters without organized religious practice is opting for a kind of perpetual immaturity where commitment extends little farther than immediate interests. Serious religious practice is absolutely vital for mature living before God and the ultimate matters of life. So much for why we need religion!
On the other hand, religious practice can become a substitute for God rather than the means of engaging God. We think that if we wrestle with ideas of God, we do not have to use those ideas as names and prayers by which to approach God. We revel in pious feelings and ignore the thousand and one ways that God makes unscheduled demands upon us. We throw ourselves into church activities, with worship services, social gatherings, and good works, including care for the poor and sick, and forget the God for whom we do these things, and the real identities of the other people whom we love and serve. We can devote ourselves to justice and charity like the famous person who loved humanity but hated people. Religion is the most powerful seducer to attachments that turn us away from God. Because religious practices all bear references to ultimate matters, we can become so attached to them that they imprison us. Instead of being windows to God, they become mirrors, so that we see ourselves and our deeds and think ourselves ultimately important. From time to time, we need to take a whip of cords and drive out the beasts of our religious attachments. We need to overturn the tables on which we have carefully sorted the duties of our pieties.
On the one hand, we cannot get along without serious religious practices if we are to live maturely before God. I advocate the Christian practices, recognizing that Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and low and high church Protestants have rather different practices. On the other hand, we ought not become so attached to those practices that they become substitutes for God rather than means to engage God. So we need to free ourselves from dependency on them. We need to see that our religious practices are mere means to the end of living before God. Who are we to say that the practices of Jews and Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, Daoists and Confucians, are not also windows to the ultimate? Those of us who have chosen the Christian life need to live it fully and passionately, but also with a sense of humor and humility regarding how it can become a damning end in itself.
The Lenten practice I urge upon you today is the discipline of learning to sit easy with religion, wholeheartedly embracing it as the way to live before God, and yet to not get caught by it. Religion is a lot like money. You can’t live well without it, but it becomes a deadly snare if you forget its purpose is for something else.