I trust you made the connection between our scripture reading and the decoration of the communion table. Not as dramatic as what Jesus did in the Temple, but still a jarring image of our status quo turned upside down. And, if we wanted to summarize Jesus in the Temple then that might be it: turning the status quo upside down.
This is one of the familiar stories of our Christian imagination. We can’t have a bake sale in the church without at least one person reminding me of the “money changers in the temple.” And yet: we hardly ever read it. The story never appears on the lectionary for a Sunday. And even less: we hardly ever press from reading to see how this story might upset our own tables.
So this morning I want us to read this very closely. And then I want us to look inside at how Jesus might turn upside down our own status quo.
This story comes in between Palm Sunday - when Jesus entered Jerusalem to the loud acclaim of the crowd - and Good Friday - when he was arrested, tried, and killed. I’ve often wondered about those two events. At first, the crowd proclaimed him as Messiah. And then, days later, the crowd denounced him as a pretender, mocked him as a false king, and abandoned him to death. What happened? Some people postulate two crowds in Jerusalem, as if the city were as divided politically as we often are in America. But I’ve come to wonder if this event - the cleansing of the Temple - actually turned the adoring crowd against Jesus. Certainly this story became the ‘criminal charge,’ the reason for the authorities to arrest Jesus and accuse him of sedition. And so this story matters as a turning point in the Gospel, the moment that moved Jesus from teacher to traitor, from rabble-rouser to rebel-maker, from outlandish to outlaw.
It began dramatically, “Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves.”
We’d be mistaken if we imagine the Temple as a large version of our church or even like a modern Cathedral. The Temple was large and physically imposing in Jerusalem. But unlike a modern church, it was full of activity, not all of it religious and certainly not serene or quiet. As the largest open air square in the city, the forecourt of the Temple served as the grocery store and general market of the city. Herod the Great even built covered arcades around the square to support this function of the Temple and Temple administrators sold licenses to vendors. All of this commerce, plus the need to buy sacrificial animals and pay the Temple tax, required money-changers. Money-changers existed at every religious site as the picture in your bulletin shows. Our word “bank” and “bankers” derives from the money-changers sitting outside temples; in fact, the words for bank and banquet are both derived from the word for table. Religious shrines served as the first banks; tremendous wealth was stored in temples, including the Temple at Jerusalem; not just the money given to the priests but also money deposited for safe keeping under the watchful eye of a deity. So the Temple in Jerusalem was a cross between a grand cathedral, a Metro Market, and a BMO Branch - one stop shopping for goats, gold, and God.
A grave relief sculpture of a money-changer working in a Roman temple from the same era as Jesus.
Jesus strode into this spiritual-financial-commercial district. Matthew spoke of him knocking over tables. Doves flew free. Money bounced on the ground. A scramble, a scrum; merchants chased their money, shoppers picked up items discounted by disorder. Why this red-faced Jesus? Why this anger? What made him so mad?
Josephus, a historian writing about the same time as Jesus, fills in details we don’t have in the Gospels. The Temple authorities had increased the per-person tax. Originally, devout Jews made a once-in-a-lifetime offering of a shekel, a small coin. But the priests changed this to an annual tax; the same amount. A shekel donation once a lifetime or once a year didn’t matter much to most people; but to the very poor it represented a burden. Tax-collectors would go from the Temple to shake down people for their shekels; Josephus even makes a pun of the tax-collectors come out to the threshing floor to thresh the poor, separating the shekels from the chaff.
To add to the problem of the poor, the Temple only accepted Tyrian silver or gold coins. So the poor had to exchange their meager money for the right coinage. Money-changers, from the Temple then to the airport today, charged exorbitantly for the exchange.
I think Jesus got mad because of what happened to the poor at the Temple. The detail about the doves underscores this concern for the poor. All sorts of animals were sacrificed at the Temple. The emperor sent cows to be ritually slaughtered; the wealthy sent them too. The middling sort sent lambs and goats. But the poor made due with doves; pigeons really. Doves were the offering of the poor. Jesus’ anger focused on the money-changers and the dove-sellers; that is, Jesus focused his anger on the very people disadvantaging the poor.
He got mad because of the hucksters preying on the poor. But this isn’t the normal interpretation of the story. Normally we treat it as if Jesus is angry as the mixture of commercial activity with spiritual activity, as if Jesus wanted spirituality to have some sacred retreat from everyday life. Read that way, then the church ought to be focused on ‘high’ concerns, purely ‘spiritual’ matters.
Jesus didn’t live that way. Last week we heard a story of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. Work on the Sabbath broke one of the spiritual laws. But it didn’t bother Jesus. And Jesus didn’t change his mind when he came to the Temple. He kept focused on earthly concerns; most especially, the treatment of the poor and vulnerable.
And yet this idea of a separation of church and society, of spirituality and everyday concerns, of faith and public policy, runs strong in our culture. Why? At its root, the word “holy” means “different” or “other.” To be holy means to be set-apart. So our desire to see spirituality, the holy, separated from worldly concerns and debates is intrinsic to the word itself.
But Jesus didn’t understand “holiness” this way. One of the very oldest titles for Jesus - Emmanuel - points to a different understanding of holiness. Emmanuel means “God with us.” How can God be with us and set-apart at the same time? Both Emmanuel and Holy? Both present and removed?
Another word we use a lot might help: religion. Many people don’t like the word religion or religious these days. It sounds stuffy. But the word itself, at its root, means to “re-bind” or “to tie together again.” When Jesus saw the hucksters in the Temple preying on the poor, he felt the fraying of society. To see the widow turned away because she couldn’t pay the tax; to see the barely-making-it shepherd buy an overpriced dove for his offering, to see the poor taken advantage of: it infuriated him. Jesus bound himself to the poor. It was a religious moment; he tied himself to the vulnerable.
What would our faith look like if we saw defending the poor as the most faithful thing we could do? Even at Plymouth, where we engage a lot of justice work, I think we see this as the spiritual equivalent of extra credit. But what if we took the care and advocacy of the vulnerable as central to our spirituality?
It might make us redefine the word “holy.” I said a moment ago that the root word of holy can mean “different,” “other,” and “set-apart.” Often this means equating holiness with moments separate from the everyday word, separate from the mundane world. But what if we saw “holiness” as “otherness.” If we saw people treated as “other” in our society as holy; and therefore, found holiness in solidarity with anyone treated as different, other, and segregated out in our society? It would make overcoming segregation a holy pursuit.
At the Temple, when Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers, he was doing that holy work, solidarity with the vulnerable, making a “preferential option for the poor.” And as he did so, he thundered out, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”
Overturning the tables of the money-changers attacked the class system of his day. But in his thunderous shout he contradicted the nationalists of his day. Extensive Old Testament traditions speak of the Temple in Jerusalem being a place for all the nations. When King Solomon dedicated the Temple, he prayed that God would not just hear the prayers of his people but all people, the foreigner and the stranger in the land. Isaiah related a vision he had of God; in the vision God spoke and said, “And the foreigners… I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
The harder to interpret line is what comes next, “you have made it a den of robbers.” Translated that way, it matches a condemnation of the extractive and manipulative practices of the Temple, the robbing of the poor. But reading it this way ignores the political situation at the time when the Gospel was written. Revolutionaries took over the Temple in 66 AD, several years before any of the Gospels were recorded. A multi-year rebellion ensued, starting at the Temple and then ending there with its destruction in 70 AD.
What our translation called “a den of robbers” could be better translated as “hive of rebellion.” Josephus, the historian writing at the same time as the Gospel authors, used this same kind of language when describing the rebel forts and hideouts.
The rebels were nationalists. They wanted to overthrow the Roman governors, to have a Jewish exit from the Roman Empire, a “Jexit.” The nationalists shared Jesus’ concern for the poor. In fact, when the rebellion did come, one of the first things the rebels did was to tear up and burn the debt agreements of the poor; that is, they canceled all the loans. So the nationalists shared Jesus’ concern for the poor.
But the nationalists couldn’t embrace the inclusive and internationalist vision of the Temple. Jesus spoke against them: This shall be a house of prayer for all people. And behind his declaration we can hear all his conversations with Samaritans, Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, and even the visit with the foreign Magi.
And so, in the first moment of this story, Jesus bound himself to the poor and vulnerable, those segregated out as “others.” And then in the second moment of this story, Jesus bound himself to foreigners and strangers, creating an inclusive vision of the world.
In the first moment, Jesus offended the wealthy and those who profited off of the poor. In the second moment, Jesus offended the nationalists and those who wanted to rebel. So in this story he turned the crowd against him. And yet he offered us a vision of what true faith looks like: solidarity with the vulnerable as we build an inclusive society.
One last thought: while the Old Testament doesn’t have any stories of a prophet overturning tables, lots of these kinds of stories circulated in the Roman and Greek world. In the pagan stories, the prophetic leader overturned the tables in a corrupt temple and then established a new table, a new tradition. In the pagan stories, whenever one table got overturned, the audience knew to look around for a new table being set up. We ought to do the same with Jesus.
Jesus overturned the tables in the temple. But he also set up a new table, the communion table, where all could be fed, all welcomed in, a table for the vulnerable of all the nations.
Jesus challenged the status quo of his society by overturning the tables in the Temple. He made clear - true holiness comes from solidarity with the poor and vulnerable. And God still calls for a house of prayer for all people, an inclusive, expansive house. This day, at whatever table you find yourself, I want you to look around that table with Jesus eyes. What’s going on with the poor and vulnerable at this table? Who’s there and who’s not? How can you make that table a more inclusive and expansive table for all people? Amen and Amen.