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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent 03/04/2018

The people who make movies about Jesus must get down on their knees and give thanks for this story of Jesus cleansing the temple. I’m not a big fan of the Jesus movies because I think they tend to portray Jesus as pretty boring and uninteresting, lacking emotion, kind of above it all, sometimes leaving you to wonder how and why anyone would have set their fishing nets aside to follow him. Then you get this scene and finally there’s some action as Jesus loses it, shouting “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace,” and then goes nuts tipping over tables and spilling coins everywhere, the doves escaping from their cages, Jesus scaring the heck out of everyone taking a whip to the sheep and the cows, driving them out of the temple. The movie makers utter a collective “Thank you Jesus,” and have fun with how they portray this scene before they return to boring Jesus.

The popular interpretation of the scene then has to do with Jesus anger and hence his humanity: he does have emotions after all. We then can take his righteous indignation as permission for us to sometimes get worked up about things. It tells us that we don’t always have to be nice! In the face of things like injustice and hypocrisy we too can express righteous indignation. The trouble is, that’s not really what Jesus is doing in this story. Injustice and hypocrisy are not the targets of his indignation. Instead, it has something to do with worship.

Our tendency might be to think that the people Jesus was angry at had set up a convenience store in the narthex. In reality, Jesus wasn’t anywhere near the temple worship space, the Holy of Holies. The Jerusalem temple wasn’t a church type building as we think of it but was more of a massive walled compound, kind of a campus made up of various buildings and courtyards. The cleansing of the temple took place in the large outer courtyard known as the courtyard of the Gentiles. King Herod was conscious of who his constituents were so he included this courtyard as a place where even Gentiles could go most likely to find a place to escape the midday heat in the shadow of the walls. It was in the Courtyard of the Gentiles that the buying and selling and money changing took place, the activities that were the presenting issue concerning Jesus’ indignation.

But it wasn’t a convenience store. People came to the temple from great distances to make the sacrifices, the burnt offerings for atonement and purification as prescribed by Jewish law and it was easier to buy the necessary animal on site rather than to bring it with you. In addition there was a temple tax to pay and it had to be paid in temple coinage so money changing was necessary. From that, it could be argued that the people Jesus was upset with were just providing a necessary service for faithful Jews. Clearly though, there was something about it that offended Jesus.

It’s here though, that we have to remember that especially in John, there is likely to be more than one layer of interpretation. There is righteous indignation here, but at a deeper level what Jesus was taking on and challenging was the whole sacrificial system which was an integral part of temple worship. Especially in John’s gospel that is full of symbolism, in disrupting the trade necessary for sacrifice, Jesus symbolically foreshadows the fact that in his own death he will replace the existing system and become the necessary sacrifice for everyone. We recall what John the Baptist said when he saw Jesus coming toward him, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” words that we repeat as part of every worship service; the Lamb of God imagery is familiar, right now front and center on the altar paraments.

So…coming as it does as we approach the mid-point of Lent, the symbolic nature of this text serves to continue our journey toward the cross of Good Friday; that’s one layer of interpretation and an important one, definitely part of what John is doing with this text. On another more basic level though, in all of the gospels there is Jesus’ anger to deal with.

Symbolically replacing the existing sacrificial system and making himself the necessary sacrifice doesn’t require anger on his part so there is more to interpret here. For Jesus, the buying and selling in the courtyard were also a symptom of worship gone wrong. His violent and uncharacteristic actions accompanied by statements like “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” indicate that like an Old Testament prophet he’s calling the people out for straying from the way of the Lord.

Perhaps the appointed sacrifices had become an empty ritual that made them think that those sacrifices were all they had to do so that prayer and praise and care for others was being neglected. It’s not unlike what bothered Martin Luther 1500 years later, for him the idea that simply performing ritual actions like buying indulgences or viewing relics or making a pilgrimage would make you right with God. This angle of interpretation also leads us toward the cross as this event and the challenge to religious authority it represents is always understood as a key to the religious authorities conspiring against Jesus. Jesus was seen as a threat and would have to be dealt with. The makers of the Jesus movies are correct when they highlight this episode; it is an important part of the story.

Whenever this story comes up, I always want to flash forward to the present and think about things like, if Jesus showed up in church today, are there things that would make him go nuts because we have strayed from his way? What tables, literal or figurative would he overturn? Who or what would he chase out of the building with a whip?

Now obviously there are a wide variety of churches Jesus could enter. I gave you a few statistics back on Reformation Sunday: at least 40 different Christian denominations in Marquette County, nationwide roughly 45 different Lutheran denominations. Recently I read that worldwide there are about 40,000 different Christian denominations. So clearly Jesus has his work cut out for him. Actually those numbers might be the first thing he would take offense at, saying, “My message and what I represent aren’t that complicated,” and maybe he’d quote Psalm 19, “The testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the simple; the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes. How could you come up with 40,000 points of disagreement?”

I suppose we all have our own ideas of which churches Jesus might take offense at and which ones he might think are closer to having it right; I certainly have my ideas, especially about who’s doing it wrong making me perhaps not righteously indignant, but self-righteously indignant. Self-righteousness however isn’t what Lent is supposed to be about. Instead of pointing fingers at others, this text provides an opportunity for any church to reflect on how Jesus might view what they do.

That made me think about what criteria Jesus might use. Obviously we can’t know for sure but as I thought about it, the words I kept coming back to were words that were part of a three year synod emphasis a few years back: worship, witness and welcome.

So, first of all, Jesus might ask, “Is worship the central activity of your church?” Of course you know that every church is going to answer yes to that but it is easy for other things to take precedence. Churches are also social groups that provide fellowship. Some churches have lots of programs that may provide important ministry but does worship then become secondary? Is raising money to make sure the budget is balanced the top priority? All these things are important, but does worship come first?

Then, what does your church witness to? Does it witness to God’s saving grace as revealed throughout scripture, first in the story of ancient Israel but most notably, God’s grace as revealed in and through Jesus Christ? Does your church clearly witness to the fact that in the death and resurrection of Jesus what needs to be done has been done, that our broken relationship with God has been restored? Is proclamation of this gospel message central or, does the primary witness of your church seem to be about something else. Is it more about being on one side or the other of various social issues?

Then there’s welcome; again, you know that every church thinks it is friendly and welcoming but does your church put obstacles in the way of making everyone welcome? The obstacles can be about inflexible, unquestioning adherence to certain points of doctrine, they can be ethnic or cultural, economic or social, having to do with gender or orientation. We can’t know with certainty how Jesus would react in every situation because some of today’s hot button issues weren’t on the radar in first century Palestine. But the gospel witness concerning Jesus welcome and care for the stranger, the outcast and the marginalized is pretty clear.

Jesus’ action in the temple is more complicated than it might first seem; the issues aren’t exactly clear but what is clear is that he was upset. Being as upset as he was should put us on notice, calling us to think about our own practice and what Jesus would think if he walked through our doors. Thinking about worship, witness and welcome is a good place to start.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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