A Reflection on John 2:13-22
The Gospel for March 8, 2015
The Third Sunday in Lent
By David Somerville+
Iconoclastic writer and radio commentator, Henry Rollins, holds the opinion that “The prison-industrial complex, like the military-industrial complex, is here with us and is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. We can make more money off a kid [in places like Riker’s Island] if he’s a criminal instead of a scholar. It’s business.
“For profit” organizations like Such-and-Such Corrections, Inc., or, perhaps, a certain missile manufacturer, can be good at creating demands for their products. They do this with their lobbyists to influence public policy in order to guarantee millions in government contracts. What do these facts about today’s society and its business have to do with Jesus’ anger in the temple, and, more importantly, can they show us what really got our Lord so ticked? And, finally, what are the implications for us, baptized as we are, for our witness and mission to our God’s world? Let’s take a look.
Jesus’ cleansing of the temple resulted from both the temple’s geopolitical reality in the first century, and a special problem the writer of the Gospel According to John had some twenty-five years after the temple’s destruction. In addition to a faithful portrayal of the person and work of Jesus Christ, the author had to select his community’s memories of Jesus, and then record them, so that their presentation would make sense of The 70 A. D. Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple. This was very important because the bedrock symbol of that which is both ultimately holy, and eternal, had become a smoldering heap of ashes.
The original mythos of the temple was that Jerusalem would be the center of God’s society in service to all humankind. The society would be protected, so long as the people were faithful to the divinely initiated covenant. There in the Promised Land, and in one location only, which tradition held to be the site where Abraham took his only son, Isaac to be sacrificed, the ancient priesthood of Aaron would perform its ministry of God’s unity with his people in perpetuity. But the temple was gone! Is it possible to imagine the spiritual trauma of this loss? Not easily.
There had to be an acceptable reason why the unimaginable happened. So all four gospels give special emphasis to memories of the things Jesus said and did that suggested that the messiah had a prescient awareness that the temple had no future purpose. So John recalled an occasion of Jesus’ rage over what “my Father’s House” had become, a profane market place that exploited the children of the Exodus with a profit gleaning ritual that cheated the people also into believing that they were doing something meaningful. But what they were really doing had become a ritual opiate convenient to the Roman occupiers.
With a good look at how the temple had angered Jesus, we have a model for our life in today’s contemporary church. It enables us to see how the church needs continuing reformation and renewal so that it can always be truly the body of Christ, the mediator, the new Moses, and not an instrument that prudently accepts the way things are, protecting the offices of privilege, while keeping the marginalized people of the world in their places, because that is where they serve convenient purposes — like Henry Rollin’s “kid” as a criminal instead of a scholar, a slave to an economy convenient to others. It was not convenient for the “kid” to be given opportunities to develop as a man in movement toward his truly proper place, being perfected in the image of God, as a companion light-bearer to all who are without the light of human divinity.
Some traditional institutions adapt creatively to the evolving cultures that produced them. Others do not. Is the church one such body that can evolve in such an inspired manner as to accommodate the “kid”?
I would suggest looking at two little parables, one bright, and the other dark. Both stories are about a fictional, family-owned manufacturing concern, the Ajax Buggy Whip Company and its confrontation with the twentieth century. One story is the version of how the company thrived and has a future even into the twenty-first century. The other is the version in which the company ended in bankruptcy before World War I. Both stories would begin with their CEO and trustees in crisis. Horse drawn carriages were on their way out. The world may no longer have a need for buggy whips the way it did at the time of the company’s founding in 1840. With an enlightened CEO, however, the company adapts creatively to become the Ajax Horseless Tool and Appliance company with a new mission statement: to provide good up-to-date implements for the modern horseless automobile. This would lead the company to prioritize their activities in a manner that would progress toward its ultimate vision: the establishment of premier tools, software eventually, to make the horseless carriage into a self-guided, passenger-moving automobile, capable of delivering its occupants to wherever they want to go without a driver!). So ends the brighter story.
The darker story involves the Buggy Whip trustees choosing a CEO with a reactionary mindset. He decided to protect the company’s original purpose for being by engaging lobbyists to enact laws requiring every licensed driver to have in his possession at all times a buggy whip in addition to the usual photo ID and Proof of Insurance. The rationale: The buggy whips would continue to assist the driver-head to be a consistent defender of the good, wholesome family values, that have always been the heritage of their travels together. It would continue to remind the driver that he is entrusted with what was handed over to him, the noble tradition of being in charge of wherever he wants his automobile to go – to say nothing of the whip’s utility in keeping control over the kids in the back seat.
The result is that what once was a successful company meeting a legitimate need of the people becomes a propaganda-supported entity enslaving its constituents to a nonsense vestigial pattern of behavior.
How shall we apply the buggy whip stories to our vocations as Christians? The theology of the Christ driving out the moneychangers suggests that the temple in Jerusalem, with its priesthood, had become something like the darker of the two buggy whip parables. That is what ticked Jesus, the leader of the New Exodus off. The temple had become part of what we could call the Sadducee’s religio industrial complex. It guaranteed employment and security to an elitist caste of Jewish priests who used their mythos to serve their security needs as collaborators with the ambitions of Rome, not the Kingdom God, by running a business that subjugated their fellow Jews with ritual busy-ness, compliant not on God, but for the convenience of the emperor – an idea that ultimately ceased to work anyway. Seventy-five years after the builder, King Herod died, The Romans, led by the future Emperor Titus, besieged Jerusalem and razed the temple to the ground.
When Jesus said that the temple would be taken down, and then be back up in three days, he was playing cryptically with the word, “Temple”: Two things were on their way out. First, the brick and mortar temple would be destroyed in the war; and then, second, the flesh and blood temple of Jesus’ body. The carpenter/rabbi of Nazareth would be crucified. In three days, the Christ, in his higher way of being, would rise from the death of Jesus’ flesh and blood, and then begin the cosmic expansion of himself until the new body on earth would come to be the Church with Jesus as head reigning eternally in heaven. With that, there would be no need for a temple, and also, whether or not one would be a son of Abraham in the spiritual priesthood of the new chosen, had nothing to do with the ethnic matter of the cut foreskin.
Physically circumcised or not, we, the baptized, are the people of God, commissioned by God to be what the circumcised son’s of Abraham were for the brick and mortar institution in Jerusalem, for God had “…freed us from our sins by [Jesus’] blood, 6and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father ….”
Our callings as individuals in the priesthood of faith in service to Christ and his Church will take as many forms as there are gifts of the spirit. To arrive at the best form of ministry that is truly yours, Dear Reader, and mine as well, will require us to know well our motives – for prophet or profit. Pray without ceasing. Pray for the “kid”.
Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:
- SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching http://www.sermonwriter.com/
2 Oxford Biblical Studies http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/