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Cleaning up the Temple

Fr Dennis Smith, 11 March, 2012

Cleaning up the Temple must have been quite a job. It must have been an awful place at the best of times, but at its worst at the great festivals. Terrified animals bleating and howling; birds trapped in cages fluttering and calling; smoke from the fires, blood from the carcasses, and every where people pushing and shoving, arguing and shouting, wheeling and dealing. The smell, the smoke and the noise must have been more like a vision of hell than a glimpse of the holy: not a bit like the home life of our own dear Church of England.

There was separation: women and men separately, Jews and Gentiles kept apart. Even the coinage was separated – only Temple coins for Temple offerings and Temple business. The outside world was officially excluded, but there it was, wearing its ugliest commercial clothing. And into it Jesus strides, turning it upside down and throwing it all out. Out go the animals, up go the tables, off go the money changers.

St. John puts the story right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry; St. Mark puts it in the last week of his life, but beginning or end, the chronology isn’t that important. What matters is what he did and why, and how people reacted to what he did – and why.

Both Mark and John are quite clear about what it all means, even if the disciples and the crowd weren’t.

Sometimes it takes a long time for the penny to drop, whatever the coinage, and nowhere is it more true than in the affairs of the Kingdom of God and the story of Jesus of Nazareth, its Good Shepherd.

It wasn’t just the cheating, the con-tricks and the cruelty which offended Jesus: they were in every town and he never gave the shopping malls the clean-up treatment. It was human nature whenever commerce takes place, whether it’s barrow boys on the treet or bankers in the City, and Jesus had other ways of dealing with that. Nor was he making a stand about animal welfare (although quite possibly the condition of the poor creatures may have distressed him). He wasn’t standing for President of the RSPCA. He was cleaning out his Father’s house, and he used the scriptures as his detergent: “My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations”.

Not just for men, not just for Jews, not just for women, not just for Gentiles. For every one. And everything that was happening in front of his eyes was about exclusion. Only men here, only women there, no Gentiles beyond this barrier, no coming to God without a sacrifice, some poor terrified creature whose death was somehow going to keep God happy. No thanks. Not for me, and certainly not for Jesus.

He turned their world upside down and told them that the God whom they worshipped was the God of all people, all creation, inclusive not exclusive. God was to be found in prayer and Spirit, not in butchery and commerce. There was to be only one true and living sacrifice, and that was something none of them understood – yet.

“Give us a sign, Jesus,” they said, “What/s your authority for all this?” No doubt if Jesus had done some amazing trick, performed some impossible feat, they would have been impressed, but not believing nor understanding. It was only later, in his death and then his resurrection that the penny dropped. “In three days” he had said and in three days our Gospel was signed and sealed.

Jesus was angry; not for the first time and certainly not for the last. We’re not good at appreciating or understanding an angry Jesus, but we ignore his wrath at our peril. He was often angry; he was angry about the abuse of Sabbath rules which were used to disadvantage the weak and the frail. He was angry about the religious posturing of the religious leaders, which ignored the poor and vulnerable. He was angry about the way an alleged love of God was used to make your neighbour’s life a misery. He was angry because the law and religious observance were used to dishonour his Father.

It’s all there in John’s story of the Cleansing of the Temple. And before we sit back and not our heads in comfortable agreement, we ourselves might take a look at the ways in which we overlay religious faith with layers of custom and practice long past their sell-by date and subvert the scriptures to serve our own interests.

Jesus wasn’t a hippy, animal-loving professional protestor. He was a rigorous theologian, a brilliant and charismatic teacher and an uncomfortable Good Shepherd. He had seen the religious faith of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob turned into a tacky souvenir shop. No wonder he was angry, small wonder he’s still angry at the way we’ve diluted the faith and obscured the message. Jesus didn’t reject the Law and the prophets.

Exodus Chapter 20 he would have learnt by heart, and Isaiah’s call to hear the good news was his text when he preached at Nazareth. it should also be ours, and we might do well to write the 10 Commandments in our hearts as we used to do on our church and chapel walls.

If this is our calling, then we’re not very good at it; but this is a timely moment to remember it, living in a world turned upside down by events which seem beyond our control, and faced by problems which defy easy solutions.

We live in a time which cries out for us to be faithful to our reformed and radical truths. This is a time for rigorous theology which doesn’t mistake sentiment for truth and is prepared to put substance before woolly clichés and theological truths before political correctness.

Sometimes, one fears our religious practice is as shabby and unworthy as any thing which happened in the Temple courtyards, and which so angered Jesus.

Jesus striding into the Temple is a reminder of our calling to be inclusive, to be brave, and to find in the death and resurrection of Jesus the key to the love of God and the love of our neighbour – the two commandments by which our life together is judged. We remember these things, in remembrance of him and what he did, for us.

That is what our ministry, our worship and our religious faith is all about. Anything less is selling the gospel short and a form of cheating every bit as indecent and grubby as the Temple money-changers and their commercial companions. It is the Good Shepherd who is our hope and love, not the Best Buy.

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