March 6th 2021 – Lent III Ex 20:1-17; John 2:13-22
The Temple’s Petting Zoo
It is one of these magnificent English Cathedrals; neo-gothic is this one. The exterior is so impressive, that by the time you reach the entrance, you are already humbled. You enter and the enormous space, flooded by light, even in typical English weather, and the beauty of the stained glass… It takes your breath away. You let your gaze wander, the pillars—pure miracles of masonry—the old wooden pews, in the distance the crucifix reflecting the light from the high windows, each of which tells uncountable Bible stories in its stained glass and the big sign advertising “today’s Steak&Ale Pie Special for Lunch and Cream Tea from 3-5pm. Book in advance.” Some pews were taken out to give space for advertising lunch specials and cream tea in the Cathedral’s own Café. Next to it some stands with post cards, which can be paid in the kiosk that sits prominently with its cash register making this satisfying ringing tone.
Is this addressed in Jesus’ actions in today’s Gospel story? Does this story address our Fair Trade Table here at St. Clements? (—which by the way will receive new stocks in the coming week?—) Does this address annual church bazars, Advent markets and bazars in churches, or that one church in England that couldn’t pay for maintenance anymore and rented its Narthex out to the local post office during the week which needed a new office location. Is that all wrong and condemned by today’s Gospel?
Well, let’s have a closer look. Why is there a whole petting zoo in the Jerusalem temple anyway? Jesus drives out sheep and cattle, he tells them to bring the doves out and who knows what other animals were around! Jesus’ fellow Jewish siblings in faith would have made regular trips to the temple in Jerusalem during their life-time. There were a number of occasions and customs when you were supposed, if you lived in the Holy Land and somehow in reach of the temple, to sacrifice animals for a number of reasons. The temple authority would observe the religious laws and rules around these sacrifices strictly. The offered animals should be completely healthy and as “perfect” as possible. A white lamb with spots…not good. A dove with one blind eye, nope. They would watch the quality of the offered animals with such strictness that people got frustrated and stopped bringing their own but buying the expensive “perfect” animals from the temple authorities. So, the temple did not only receive the temple tax from the Jewish people but also make a surplus with the selling of animals. On top, they found yet another source of income. The money that was in use, was Roman money and the Roman coins would have the image of the emperor. Now, Jews are very strict with the commandment not to have graven images and this money couldn’t possibly be used to by a sacrificial animal that was to be used as an offering to God. So, the temple authority offered a money exchange where people, first, had to change their money into a special temple currency, with which they, then, could buy the temple approved animals, which they could give to a priest to have him doing the sacrifice (and, of course, this priest needed to live as well and expected something). People who simply wanted to follow the religious law, were financially drained 4 times each time with a surplus for the religious authority and the institution. Jesus was not amused.
The temple had become a marketplace where profit was being made by selling services that God offered in God’s grace for free. Now, what do we do with our Fairtrade table, the bazar, the Steak&Ale Pie? This question is a tough one. The church as institution has the need to gather funds to maintain the place of worship, as did the temple. A Fairtrade table and a bazar are, additionally, not looking for profit but try to help and be part of the ministry of social justice. A church that has no other choice but to rent its space out to the local post office during the week to keep the doors open, is not trying to become rich, but to offer the basic services which they are called to provide.
Personally, I don’t think the Gospel manifests a law against all these activities. I believe that Jesus was against the outrageous way in which the enormously rich institution of the temple tried to make money of every little bit. I don’t think it is a general condemnation of religious institutions trying to find creative ways to be sustainable. In another Gospel, Jesus praises the poor widow who puts money in the collection in the temple for the poor. So there is no general no. We are reminded, however, that money and religious institutions is a topic that needs constant careful discernment. There are two more things we can learn from this Gospel:
1. There is something to be said for the House of God to be a sanctuary where the true God of all the world is worshipped and where the false God, namely money, does not have a place. In practice that is a tough call, since even the sanctuary needs money to exist, but it is good to be very aware about money handling and how it is done in a sanctuary. So, the text acknowledges the importance of a house of prayer, a sanctuary. 2. But it also goes beyond that. Jesus speaks about tearing down the temple and rebuilding it in three days. He is talking about God’s true temple on earth, which is the Body of Christ. While the text acknowledges physical sanctuaries, it also makes the point that God is where the Body of Christ is, which again is so much more than the body of the man Jesus. Where there are two or three gathered in God’s name, no matter whether, whether in the building, on the field or next to the Creek, God is right there and a physical place can never be more but a help to focus on this presence which is always there, everywhere.
What a promise in a time when we cannot gather physically in this sanctuary here but worship in our home temples, separate but still united as the Body of Christ.