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The Market and the Temple

John 2:13-22

· Lent

John 2:13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

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Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. Can you imagine what that would have been like? It’s Passover, the great festival, when Jews from all over the world gather in Jerusalem to worship and sup together. As a holiday it would’ve had all the significance that Thanksgiving, Easter, and the 4th of July hold for us all rolled into one. It was a pious time, a patriotic time, a time when the people remembered who they are by remembering what God had done for them.

As a part of the festivities, everyone who came to Jerusalem went to the Temple to offer their sacrifices. And at the Temple, they made this easy for you. You could bring your money to the moneychangers, and, for a nominal fee of course, they would exchange it so that you could buy an animal from the Temple vendors. So you would go to the vendors, who if you were particularly well to do would sell you a cow or a lamb, or if you were poor like most people, you could buy yourself a dove. And then you’d take your animal to the priests, who would offer your sacrifice for you. The whole thing is all set up. It’s convenient and efficient and hard to imagine it working any other way. After doing this year after year, the whole process—lenders, vendors, priests—becomes habitual. This is how worship works.

And then all of the sudden here comes this hick “rabbi” from the North, hollering at people, driving out the vendors, throwing over the tables of the money lenders, just ruining everything. What is he doing?! You can just imagine the peoples’ disgust: “That’s completely inappropriate! Does he have to resort to violence? I understand he’s upset but there are appropriate channels to go through to voice that kind of thing.” Jesus comes to town and basically starts talking politics during Thanksgiving dinner, protesting the war during the 4th of July parade, ranting against consumerism while everyone’s opening their Christmas presents. It’s bad enough that he’s interrupting worship. It’s worse that he’s doing it on purpose. Who does he think he is?

And in this moment, Jesus places himself within a long tradition of prophetic action directed against idolatry and injustice, especially at the Temple. The prophet Isaiah stripped naked and ran around Jerusalem to show that God’s blessings would be stripped from the people in exile. Ezekiel cooked dinner over a fire made with excrement to show that the people would be eating unclean food in their exile. Jeremiah smashed pottery in front of the religious leaders to show them how hard hearted they’d become. The prophets gave dramatic signs to shock the people into repenting their idolatries so that they would repent and start looking for instances of that kingdom now. So when Jesus steps into the Temple and starts flipping over Temple tables and whipping moneychangers, he’s showing us that this prophetic work is at the heart of his ministry. He hasn’t just come to be meek and mild. He won’t let us say peace, peace, when there is no peace. He’s come to overturn our convenient arrangements with the gods of our age in order to make way for something new.

Those Temple tables—where the moneychangers translate currencies, and take a little extra off the top, where the vendors sell sacrificial animals for a fee—those tables are the place where Israel’s worship is bought and sold at Market. Maybe you remember those maps of trade routes from your high school history class, where the world is depicted as crisscrossed by lines of circulation, where goods (and slaves) travel back and forth. Those tables are the place where the Temple links up with those patterns. At the tables of the money changers, you could come with your coins bearing Caesar’s face and give them over for the Temple’s currency, and so the world of the Empire and the world of the Temple found continuity in that exchange. And you don’t worship without that continuity. You don’t worship without buying and selling. To go to the altar table you’ve got to go through the market table. Those tables bring the Temple within the economic patterns of this world.

The Temple is supposed to be set apart, but markets have a way of enclosing what was originally set apart. Anything that’s not already bought and sold represents a possible new market, so if people don’t say together, “This isn’t for sale!” markets have a way of working as though everything should be for sale. When people let buying and selling take life over in this way, the Market takes on a life of its own. Today, we are accustomed to talking about the Market as something that has agency, even benevolence. The Market has its own truth (in the value it ascribes to our work), its own good (competition), its own beauty (spectacle), its own freedom (consumer choice). The Market is the god of our age. When left to the workings of its own invisible hand, the Market solves problems, the Market drives down prices, the Market makes products available so that everyone can afford them. The Market teaches us what is possible and impossible, what is viable instead of doomed, what is wisdom and what is folly. Praise Market from whom all blessings flow, praise the trickle down here below, praise capital above you working folks, praise bank, and bond and profits grossed!

We know the Market is a god because there is nothing that we won’t sacrifice to it. Nothing should be set apart. We sacrifice our work to the market, so that physical labor and service aren’t as “valuable” as sitting behind a desk typing emails. We sacrifice our friendships to the market, so that if you’re going to gather with a group of people it’s either going to be in the privacy of a home or at a place you all pay to be. (There are very few truly public spaces to gather, where you can just be a person without paying for the privilege to be somewhere.) We sacrifice our health to the market so that the quality of your medical care is based on your income (Don’t worry, the Market will drive down costs. Don’t ask whether heart surgeries and hip replacements are the same kind of thing as iPhones and Volkswagens). We sacrifice education to the market so that schools treat students as profit centers and teachers as liabilities because the big money is in capital campaigns and prestigious “institutes.” We sacrifice church to the market so that as Christians we must let advertising and entertainment and management strategies give us a future we’re not sure we have otherwise. Sacrifice to the Market, serve God and Mammon, what could go wrong?

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Now, at this point in the sermon, I’m supposed to switch gears. The passage describes a prophetic act, so I’ve been speaking in a prophetic vein, naming the powers at work in the world, and I know that’s all a lot to take in (especially right before lunch on a Sunday). So now I’m supposed to be pastoral. Maybe you’re sitting there thinking, “Yeah but what do we do about this? What does it mean for me? How do I consume this?” (Because maybe the Market has taught us how to read the Bible, too.)

To be honest, I don’t have a way to resolve all this to make it more palatable. I think putting a nice bow on this passage or our world would be untruthful to what the scriptures want to show us. Sometimes the most faithful way to read Scripture is to resist fitting it into what we think is possible, and instead asking God to use our discomfort to stoke our desires for new possibilities.

But I do think Jesus’ prophetic act in the Temple is good news in itself. The Market is crushing us and our neighbors, but we worship a God who looks at us and says, Stop making a marketplace of my Father’s house. Jesus smashes the money lenders tables, pours out their coins, and drives the vendors from the Temple. In righteous anger, he gives the people a sign of a Temple without a Market.

So maybe we need to ask what it means to give such a sign in our own time, in our houses of worship, but in all of creation, too, because creation is in its own way the House of the Lord. In this country, to be a Christian is often to be a polite, quiet citizen (many of us don’t like to think of ourselves as brandishing whips and tossing tables over), but Mammon will probably not leave us alone if we just ask nicely. There’s very little change that ever comes without conflict. I’m sure many of you know this from your personal relationships. In your friendships and your marriages, sometimes you have to disrupt things you’ve gotten used to and even fight a little bit to set things right. It’s not the couples who fight that you have to worry about, its the couples who have stopped fighting because they’ve given up on each other. And the same is true for societies. The most oppressive societies are the ones where there are no protests happening. But when Patriots are throwing tea into Boston Harbor, when Suffragettes are marching, when workers are striking, when black communities are boycotting busses and assembling in the streets, when people are identifying the sources of sin and injustice and organizing against them together, then you can begin to look for something better. Maybe as Christians, as people who follow a God who cast out moneylenders with a whip, we need to ask how we can help the people who are disrupting our own world’s idolatries.

And at the same time, God calls the church to live as a prophetic sign of God’s kingdom, too. When the people ask Jesus what the justification is for his prophetic action, what it all means, he says, “You can tear down this Temple and in 3 days I’ll raise it up again.” But Jesus was talking about his Body. The act of turning over tables to reject unencumbered Markets is a sign of the resurrection. In the Body of Christ, there are no money lenders.

Just as the Temple was made to be set apart, the church is called to be set apart, too, as a space that can’t be bought, that doesn’t consider profit our good, that doesn’t let the Market teach us what is true and good and beautiful. The early Christians, who said that they lived in Christ, made all of their members give up their possessions and hold all things in common so that each had according to their need. They took up offerings not to fund institutes or NGOs, but to give directly to the poor all over the world. They fed the hungry, walked the hillsides to take in babies who’d been left to die. The rich gave up their properties so that communities of Christians could live together, so the poor could have housing, so that the sick could have a place to rest. From the very beginning churches experimented in ways to do justice and love mercy and live together within the Body of Christ. That was the “new Temple” Jesus described, a Temple without moneychangers, a true fellowship. And for that, the rest of the world looked upon them, to borrow one writer’s description, as “civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent.”* When Christians truly live in Christ, turning over some tables comes with the territory, but so does holding all things in common.

Are we willing to flip over some Market tables? Do we have the courage to hold all things in common?

My friends, in so many ways the moneylenders are in the Temple, in our congregation and in the Temples of our hearts as well. But Jesus comes and comes again, in the tradition of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel, wild and unpredictable, very good, but certainly not safe. Jesus comes to cast out Mammon, to reject greed, to remind us that it is not money that makes the world go round, but the love of God that moves the sun and the other stars. May God disrupt us with that love, so that we can disrupt our world with grace, grace that flows when we stop charging each other to belong. May zeal for God’s house overcome us so that we can turn this world’s marketplaces into houses of God once more. Amen.

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