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You know, sometimes the lectionary gives me two texts and I want to preach on both of them, but they’re not really related, or I would have to do a big stretch to try to fit them together.
My mother likes to tease me that when I finally sat down to read the Bible, the first place I cracked it open to, as a young kid, was Exodus 20 to read the 10 Commandments. I think I had just sat through that early Simpsons episode where Lisa gets all righteous about Homer pirating cable and therefore breaking “Thou shalt not steal,” so I wanted to go to the source.
Anyway, what I’m going to talk about is Jesus in the temple, because I feel that has the important message for us today. But I did want to break down a few misconceptions.
First, the commandments are given twice; here in Exodus 20 and less well-known in Deuteronomy 5. They’re almost the exact same, except for the reason given for the fourth commandment, keeping the Sabbath holy. in Deuteronomy, it explicitly mentions also giving slaves a day of rest, “for you were slaves in the land of Egypt.” Here in Exodus, it is because God rested on the 7th day. This has to do with the two versions coming from different sources, but it’s important here because the essence of all the commandments is for us to be more like God. “You shall be holy as the Lord your God is holy.” We are more like God when we are loving, including taking care of ourselves and others. The Sabbath is not just about taking a day off, but more importantly giving others a day off.
“Taking the Lord’s name in vain,” does not refer to saying, “God damn it,” or “Jesus Christ” when something frustrates you, but it is about swearing oaths. If you promise something, “as God is my witness,” and do not do it; if you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help you God, and lie, you are taking God’s name in vain. Jesus tells us not even to swear oaths, not even to make the promise, because a promise is just something you make to look good, but to just do the thing you were going to promise to do, without saying anything.
And finally, my personal theological point of view is that God hates idols and graven images, not because it is inherently wrong to draw pictures of what you think God looks like, but because the real image of God is, as it says in Genesis, in human beings. The proper object of worship is not a golden statue, but the human being; your neighbour who needs help; the outcast who needs justice. These people are the statues of God we should be laying our offerings in front of. “No other Gods,” does not refer to other religions, but means no worshipping money, power, privilege, or safety. Worship only God and the image of God that is in your neighbour.
Which is how we segue into Jesus driving the moneychangers out of the temple.
Whenever you ask or someone asks you, “What would Jesus do,” remind yourself that flipping tables and chasing people with a whip is always an option. Maybe not to the point of how this scene is depicted in the Jesus Christ Superstar movie, where Jesus pulls out a semi-automatic; don’t do that.
There’s been more than one occasion where someone, usually someone new to the church, has come to me in an angry huff because the church, the church¸ was holding a bazaar and craft sale, or was holding a book sale. And they would quote this story here.
Somehow, the endless amount of “Jesus is my copilot” bumperstickers, t-shirts, “Jesus merch” sold in Christian bookstores doesn’t count, because it’s not inside the church. People will buy and wear it to church.
The text mentions two specific kinds of merchants, selling livestock, and moneychangers. These are the only merchants. No food, no clothes, no ointments, no jewellery; just cattle, sheep, and doves, and exchanging coins.
The merchants were not set up in the temple because it was a convenient place; open air courtyard, lots of people coming and going. They were there because what they were selling was religiously necessary. The laws of Moses . . . the stuff that comes over the course of three and a half books after the 10 Commandments, require animal sacrifice at various times. Those were laid down when nearly everyone was a farmer, though, but now in Jesus’ day not everyone kept livestock. Some were hired shepherds and couldn’t sacrifice their employer’s sheep, some were fishers and fish don’t count, as far as the Bible is concerned, and some were carpenters. So they had to buy animals from somewhere if they were going to participate in religious life. The gospel of Luke has Mary and Joseph offering a sacrifice of two turtledoves at the temple after Jesus is born, doves they would probably have had to buy in the temple.
Similarly, the moneychangers were there because you couldn’t use Roman coins to give a temple offering. Roman coins at the time all had an image of the emperor and words in Latin declaring the emperor to be divine, the son of God. To offer those coins in the temple would be blasphemy, having another god before God. So the people, to give to the temple, would have had to change their money to approved temple money. When Jesus holds up a coin with the emperor’s image and says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” he seems to support this. When the poor widow offers two only coins and he lifts her up as an example of faith, those two coins would have been what she had left after paying the moneylender fee.
Our money, by the way, gets out of this by not declaring Elizabeth to be God, instead the “D.G.Regina” on every coin means Dei grata regina, “Queen by the grace of God.” So, don’t think you can use this to get out of offering. I’m joking, by the way.
What the merchants were supplying was a religious necessity, a “necessary evil,” but this meant that they were gatekeepers to full participation in the religious life of the community. This meant that they could be, and were, exploitative. Like every tacky tourist gift shop, the animals were overpriced. We don’t know what the fee charged for changing money, but even if it was 10%, that was taking advantage of a service people had to access. What Jesus has a problem with here is that the rules of religious life have become a barrier to people who couldn’t pay these things, or who could just barely pay, like the poor widow.
When we offer, it is an offering on our own behalf, giving for the sake of giving because it makes us better people. But it is first and foremost a practical gift. The money pays me, because I need to live, and it keeps the church going with practical things like paying for heat, and it helps the church do the good work that it does in helping others in need. But it isn’t a necessity. I’m never going to say to you, “You have to give money” to be a part of the church. We can maybe have bazaar, but you do not have to wear this piece of Jesus merch to come to church, for me to be a listening ear, to get help from us, or to volunteer.
When I pray the communion prayer, one of the things I say as part of it is, “We offer a sacrifice not of blood but of praise.” In ancient times, you would offer a sacrifice basically as a gift to God, to make God happy, like flowers for your spouse, to keep the relationship between you and God happy. And God really likes meat. But by Jesus’ time, those rules for sacrifice were horribly out of date, and being used to exploit people for monetary gain. So he says, “The temple should be a house of prayer.” We no longer offer animals to sacrifice, instead we’re sacrificing things that are maybe a little more meaningful to us today. Our time, our energy, maybe even our dignity if you think about how ridiculous this whole thing is. I mean, look at me. But there are no moneylenders capitalizing on that; we give those things freely.
Ultimately, being in a relationship with God should have no barriers. You should not feel excluded because you are too poor to be able to pay a moneychanger’s fee, anymore than you should be excluded because you are gay or trans, or have a disability, or have a mental illness, or because of your race or your age, or anything else. This is what Jesus is angry about; God’s love and grace are free.
So what would Jesus do? Get angry about injustice, get angry about exploitation, get angry in defense of those who are the lowest and least in society. Get angry out of love, because love is at the heart of everything God does. Even flipping tables and chasing people with whips. Amen.