Texts: John 2:13-22; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
The story of the cleansing of the temple is found in all four gospels. John places it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry while the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke— associate it with the passion narrative. Given that it is highly unlikely that this event happened twice, biblical scholars agree that the incident most likely did happen at the end of Jesus’ ministry (as recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke) rather than at the outset (where John places it). With that said, John’s placement shouldn’t be overlooked. Where John places this story makes a profound theological statement. Let me explain.
One mistake we often make in reading and understanding the Bible is that we forget to look at context. More often than not we isolate a text or a narrative and ignore what surrounds it—the stories and/or teachings that lead into the text or those that come after,both of which shape the theology of a particular writer. We, also often forget that the gospel writers, in telling the Jesus story, were making theological statements, not presenting history in an accurate chronology. So, acknowledging that John’s placement of the story of Jesus cleansing the temple is most likely inaccurate in its chronology, let’s consider for a moment what it might mean theologically that John placed it where he did. What might have been his reason for placing this story differently than the other gospel writers?
John places the story of Jesus disrupting the temple worship immediately after another familiar but quite different story—the changing of water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Although none of the synoptic gospels record this event, tradition holds that this is the first public miracle of Jesus, thus occurring at the beginning of his ministry. Listen as I read that story.
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (Do you get the feeling that we missed some of the dialogue between mother and son?) Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ”Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
So what might it mean that John places these two stories next to one another? What theological statement might he be trying to make? Consider this. John 2:1-11, the story of Jesus changing the water into wine, reveals the grace and generosity of Jesus and his message of hope and new life. John 2:13-22, the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, highlights the challenge and threat that the new life poses to the existing order. John’s theological statement, it seems to me, in placing these two stories next to one another is this: God’s care and love for humanity is intertwined with God’s justice for humanity. You cannot separate the two. They are bound together as one. God’s love is always rooted in God’s justice.
Contrary to the many sermons preached on this text of the temple cleansing, this story is not about Jesus being angry that people are doing something in the temple that they shouldn’t be doing. The people were doing exactly what was expected of them. They were securing the necessary items for acceptable worship as required by the religious establishment. And the people selling the animals and exchanging the money were also doing what was required so that the people might have what they needed to enter worship. No, Jesus’ anger was not at the actions of the people in the temple that day; rather it was at the religious establishment for collaborating with the oppressive Roman political structure. Let me say that another way. Jesus’ anger is directed at the church for all the ways the church collaborates with the dominant political and economic structures that oppress people and create systems of inequality and injustice. It is quite stunning to realize that Jesus wasn’t fighting some dark force from the outside. Jesus was angry with and lashing out at the dark forces from within the religious establishment. It is a sobering realization.
In understanding this passage, it should be noted that Jesus learned his unrelenting passion for God’s justice from the Hebrew prophets who came before him and who similarly expressed anger for the corrupt religious and political leaders of their day. Take, for example, the fifth chapter of the book of Amos, where the prophet speaks on behalf of God:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Jesus’ actions in the temple that day give witness to Amos’ words 700 years later. Both are saying that if God has to choose between worship and justice, then God chooses justice. It seems to me that Jesus is saying that our loving God and one another is bound so tightly with our commitment and devotion to doing justice that we cannot and must not separate the two. And if we do, it is our worship that becomes empty.
For the people in the temple that day, Jesus turns not only their tables upside down. He also turns their religion (their gospel) upside down. He says to them that God is not contained in a building—in a temple or a church or a mosque. But rather God resides within the human spirit—within the human heart. For a people who believed that God resided only within the temple walls Jesus’ message was a radical, upside down, out of the box way of thinking. But it didn’t stop there. Jesus was also saying that day that our worship is not a replacement for doing justice. It doesn’t matter how many Sundays you come to worship in a year, or how much money we pledge to the church budget, or how big of a church building we have, or how beautiful our stained-glass windows are, or how good a preacher or choir you have or don’t have. No, what matters is how committed you are to doing justice—God’s justice—in the world. What matters is how willing you are to stand up to the powers and principalities of this world that oppress and marginalize the most vulnerable. What matters is taking care of the orphan and the widow—in our day the immigrant and the working poor. What matters is how angry you are willing to get when you hear the news that the top one percent of people control 42 percent of the wealth in this country. What matters is how angry you get when you hear about a single mother working three jobs and still not being able to pay the rent and provide for her children. What matters is how willing you are, and I am, and we are to turn over some tables—to look utterly foolish—so that no one else in Raleigh will have to go hungry for another day or sleep in a cardboard box underneath a bridge for another night. What matters is how foolish we are willing to look so that another child in Raleigh will not have to sleep in a car and wash at a gas station before being sent off to school for the day. What matters is how angry we are willing to become and how foolish are we willing to look so that our neighbors on the other side of town or on the other side of the tracks might have enough. Enough. What matters is how angry we are willing to become before any more of our streams are polluted by big energy companies.
Both of the texts that we have read this morning—from John and 1 Corinthians—present the upside down gospel. Both defy all conventional wisdom and are, in fact, counter cultural to the extent that they can feel un-Christian and un-American, in the same way that Jesus’ message would have been viewed as un-Jewish in its day and time. As surely as Palm Sunday approaches, Jesus’ protests against the Romans are coming. But on this early morning in the temple, which John chooses to place so early in his gospel, it is his own people that Jesus is holding accountable. In a time when it would have been easy to lay the responsibility for injustice at the feet of the powerful Romans, Jesus lays it first and most pointedly on the religious establishment.
In the spirit of Jesus’ choice to look within, it seems to me that we are left with these two questions: where are we so embedded in our own rules and practices that we are no longer willing to become angry at injustice? And in what ways do we collaborate with the corporate injustice that is part of the very fabric of our culture and the present day religious establishment? With these questions we continue the Lenten journey knowing that there is more pain to come. But we do so as post-resurrection people of faith also knowing that there is hope and resurrection.