Whenever we read the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, I think of Howard Beale from the movie Network and his telling the viewers:
I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad... All I know is that first you've got to get mad. You've got to say, 'I'm a HUMAN BEING, My life has VALUE!' So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, 'I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!'That scene from that satirical film in 1976, reminds me of Jesus, not because the film is depicting Jesus in any way, but it is how I imagine the reaction of Jesus as he and his followers come to the temple to pray. What do they find but Roman guards everywhere nearby, the moneychangers, animals at the temple; all is not as how God intended it to be. So Jesus gets mad, he makes a whip of chords to begin to cleanse the temple.
Jesus didn’t just let things be. Jesus drives out the merchants and their cattle, overturns the tables of the money changers, all of whom have seemingly taken over the temple. He does all this because they have distorted the purpose of the temple, which in Jesus eyes had become a marketplace, not a house of prayer.
Lives have value; they were God’s creation and here in God’s holy temple, they had become just one more commodity and he refused to take it anymore. There is something there for us to think about, how things can get distorted over time.
In our first reading, the Israelites have been rescued from their captivity, they have been set free from their slavery in Egypt. It’s now the third month, and God has called forth Moses to Mount Sinai, to a holy place and there the Ten Commandments are given to help them live lives that are not distorted. To help the people understand what God has called them forth from and what is God calling them into, a new life with the commandments to guide them into that God created life.
In the second reading, Paul writing to the Corinthians for the first time, reminds them “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.”
Our faith can get distorted when we lose sight of the one whom we follow, the crucified and risen Jesus. Such distortions, such merchants and money changers in our lives, even our own selves can sometimes get in the way of seeing the value of our lives…
A rabbi had a busy week, so busy that he never got around to visiting the sick members of his congregation in the hospital. As a result, he had to cancel an outing on Sunday afternoon to make his calls. But after an hour, it was clear he had wasted his time: two of the people he had come to see had been discharged the previous afternoon (and were now probably angry that he had not come to see them); two others were sleeping and he hesitated to wake them; another had a roomful of visitors and saw the rabbi’s presence as an intrusion; and the last patient he visited spent twenty minutes complaining about her aches and pains and previous afflictions and cited them as the reasons she could no longer believe in God or value prayer. The rabbi could not help thinking of all the ways he would rather have spent the hour.The question that confronts the rabbi is what compels Jesus to cast out the money changers and vendors from the temple: we have allowed so many “merchants” into our lives that we have no “sacred space” left to celebrate God’s presence in our midst; we have so over-scheduled our time to meet all the demands and expectations made of us that the things of God are shut out of our days.
Walking back to the parking lot resenting the time he had wasted, he passed an office building where a security guard was on duty in the front. “Good afternoon,” the guard said to the rabbi, which prompted the rabbi to stop and say, “It’s Sunday. The building is closed and empty. Why are you standing here?”
“I’m hired to make sure nobody breaks in to steal or vandalize anything. But what are you doing here in a suit and tie on a Sunday afternoon? Who do you work for?”
The rabbi was about to tell the guard the name of his congregation when he paused, reached into his pocket for his card, and said, “Here’s my name and phone number. I’ll pay you ten dollars a week to call me every Monday morning and ask me that question: Remind me to ask myself, Who do I work for?” [From Overcoming Life’s Disappointments by Harold S. Kushner.]
Lent challenges us to cast out the money changers who shortchange our time and attention from the important things of life; these holy days call us to drive out the useless, the meaningless, and the destructive that desecrate the sacred place within us where God should dwell, the God “whom we [ultimately] work for.” In whom we live and move and have our being.
For our God who led the Israelites out of the house of slavery, is the same God who will help lead us out of our houses of bondage & foolishness, out of our houses of control & strength, to seek out God’s wisdom and salvation even in the darkness. We need God to help us cleanse ourselves, over turn the tables in our way, and help us recover the value and dignity of our lives. Amen.