Gospel Lection, Third Sunday in Lent 2015 : John 2:13-22

This is one of those times when the lectionary seems eerily appropriate. My three-month suspension for officiating at a same-sex marriage begins on Sunday, March 15 and ends June 15. The gospel lection for the last Sunday before my suspension, March 8, is the account in John’s gospel of Jesus turning over tables driving the merchants out of the temple.

I did not seek out a “political” text anymore than I sought to officiate in a “political” marriage. In both cases, this is what the providence of God and the wind of the Holy Spirit graciously offered me to bear witness. The amazing couple in their need (DeLyn and Sarah) and this powerful text are both gifts.

Most frequently this event in the life of Jesus is referred to as the “Cleansing of the Temple,” but I think this is misleading way to refer to what Jesus was doing. “Cleansing” suggests that what Jesus was primarily concerned about was the purity of the temple. Indeed, in John’s gospel Jesus appears to be angered by the commercialization of Jewish worship. So, we can be forgiven for thinking this passage is about protecting true religion from the corrupting influence of commerce.

John places this event early in his gospel to bear witness to the divine authority of Jesus based on his resurrection from the dead. When the authorities asked Jesus for a sign to justify his rough disruption of ordinary temple practice, he answers, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” There is nothing hidden about Jesus’s divinity in John’s gospel. This event serves the evangelist’s purpose, but to get to the root problem behind the commercialization of religion, we need to turn to the synoptic gospels. There we learn that the real issue is not temple purity or commercialization but the denial of access to God. To see this with clarity we will need to go back to that most ancient gospel, the Gospel of Mark.

In Mark’s gospel Jesus justifies his provocative action with this quote drawing on Isaiah 56.7 and Jeremiah 7.11. “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” (Mk 11:17 NRSV) The Hebrew word for “nations” is goy, also meaning gentiles. The temple was designed so that Jews and gentiles could worship there, making it a house of prayer for ALL people. But over time the authorities had turned the Court of the Gentiles, which should have been a place of prayer, into a marketplace to sustain the sacrificial system that supported the temple and its priesthood. As one author notes,

Making animals available for the sin-offering and changing money so pilgrims could pay the temple tax had begun as a service to facilitate worship. Over time, it degenerated into a booming business for merchants and moneychangers. Their trading activities were carried out in the courtyard reserved for the Gentiles, hindering them from worshipping God. That’s what made Jesus so mad. [1]

But, it was not only that. Throughout his ministry Jesus showed a special concern for the poor. The temple tax and the sacrificial system were especially burdensome to the poor. Jesus apparently believed “the temple should pose no financial burden on the poor at all. Those with money should give; those without should be exempt.”[2] In fact Jesus reserved his harshest condemnations for those who laid heavy burdens on the poor and lead to their alienation from God. Speaking to the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus said, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Mt. 23:4 NRSV)

We need to go back to the prophet Isaiah to see the radically inclusive temple worship that Jesus had in mind.

Here is the longer passage from Isaiah that Jesus has in mind.

3Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
    “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
    “I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
    who choose the things that please me
    and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
    a monument and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
    that shall not be cut off.

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
    to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
    and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
    and hold fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
    and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
    will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.

Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.
(Is. 56:3-8 NRSV)

Notice the radical inclusiveness of God’s acceptance and blessing! There is a special invitation to faithful foreigners, eunuchs, and the “outcasts of Israel.” In fact God will give them a “name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”

No wonder Jesus is offended when he sees the promise to the gentiles denied by the incursions of the marketplace and when he sees poor people unable to make the appropriate sacrifice to secure atonement with God. Jesus will not accept temple business as usual if it denies access God’s grace for the poor and the marginalized. After pouring out coins and overturning tables, he demands: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” So, this passage is not about cleansing the temple; it is not about the purity of the temple.

This event is about RE-OPENING OF THE TEMPLE to the poor, the foreigner, and the outcasts of Israel.

The concern of the religious authorities was to keep temple business as usual, but Jesus will not allow it, and neither should we! We cannot act like everything is fine when people are excluded and told they are not acceptable to God.

I am immensely grateful for Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), which is inviting Jesus’s followers to overturn tables through active resistance to the derogatory language and discriminatory practices in the Book of Discipline. RMN will not let the church act like everything is fine until everyone is invited and welcomed to the table, to representative ministry, and to the enjoy the blessing and support of the church for their marriages.

Just this week, the Rev. Andy Oliver, wrote a blog reflecting on President Barak Obama’s speech commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Selma/Bloody Sunday. He highlighted this portion of the speech:

“Loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what’s right and shake up the status quo.”
~ President Barack Obama, speech at Selma/Bloody Sunday 50th Anniversary

Applying this reasoning to the one-sided emphasis of some Bishops on the Unity of the Church, he writes:

The Unity of the Church requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what’s right and shake up the status quo.

Jesus shook up the status quo when the poor, the foreigner and the outcast of Israel were denied access to the God.

Martin Luther shook up the status quo when the access to God’s grace and mercy was turned into a financial transaction.

We shake up the status quo today when our church tells LGBTQ persons they must commit themselves a lifetime of celibacy to be compatible with Christian teaching, but that heterosexual persons are free to marry. I do not know of one heterosexual United Methodist who has committed him or herself to celibacy, but we make that mandatory for others.

It deeply saddens me to see how our derogatory language has affected a generation of young people, many now alienated from our church. A colleague wrote to encourage me and shared this story with me. She wrote:

I firmly believe we have to take a stand and have my whole adult life.  However, the issues became much more personal when my daughter, 14 at the time, came out to me. I had been gently pushing her to participate in confirmation class and finally she said, “Mom, I can’t, I’m gay.” My immediate response was, “So what?”  but clearly, that was not the message she had gotten from the church. So for her, and other friends and colleagues, and all of us, thank you for your commitment to carry this work forth. My daughter, now a sophomore, is doing great, but she is not a part of any church community.

We cannot continue temple business as usual and act like this is acceptable!

During my suspension I am to use this time for reading, prayer, and reflection. Though my suspension doesn’t start till Sunday, I decided to get an early start. What better place to start than on John Wesley’s sermon “On Conscience”! It was my baptismal vow “to accept the power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves” that quickened my conscience and got me into the business of turning over tables. Wesley tells us that to ignore that quickening is to blind and deaden it:

I have now only to add a few important directions. The first great point is this: Suppose we have a tender conscience, how shall we preserve it? I believe there is only one possible way of doing this, which is, to obey it. Every act of disobedience tends to blind and deaden it; to put out its eyes, that it may not see the good and the acceptable will of God. . . . What he enjoins may be painful to nature: There take up your cross. So true is our Lord’s word: “Except a man deny himself, and take up his cross daily, he cannot be my disciple.” (Read more here)

We have seen in the gospels that Jesus refused to accept a situation that hinders anyone’s access to God. For John Wesley, Jesus’s actions should guide our own. His last paragraph “on conscience” begins this way.

Think, and speak, and do what you are persuaded Christ himself would do in your case, were he on earth. [Christ is] our absolute pattern. (Read more here)

I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone else how to “overturn tables.” If I was a mid-career pastor, like my colleague, Rev. Amanda Garber, I doubt I would have had the courage to risk my ministry and my livelihood by officiating at a same-sex marriage, but I would support her (and I do by supporting RMN). Our resistance can take many forms: becoming a Reconciling congregation, writing letters, signing petitions, sending money, organizing, . . . There are many ways to resist short of officiating at a same-sex marriage, but what we cannot do is act like the status quo is acceptable!

May God speed us in our work for justice and for a truly inclusive church that embodies God’s all-embracing love in Jesus Christ. Amen.

. . .

Photo credit: BrickTestament.com

[1] Tanya Ferdinandusz, in “The Word in Season” a daily devotional published by Augsburg Fortress, March 11, 2015

[2] Jonathan Klawans, Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism. Oxford University Press, 2006. p. 239.

Rev. Dr. John D. Copenhaver

Rev. Dr. John D. Copenhaver, Jr.is Professor Emeritus of Religion and Philosophy at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia. He is a Reconciling United Methodist and a board member of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. You can email him at jcopenha@su.edu.
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