Cleansing the Temple

John 2:13-17                                                                                                                                          When the Passover Feast, celebrated each spring by the Jews, was about to take place, Jesus traveled up to Jerusalem. He found the Temple teeming with people selling cattle and sheep and doves. The loan sharks were also there in full strength. Jesus put together a whip out of strips of leather and chased them out of the Temple, stampeding the sheep and cattle, upending the tables of the loan sharks, spilling coins left and right. He told the dove merchants, “Get your things out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a shopping mall!”

What does this text mean? How do churches interpret this? Churches are forever caught in the tension of raising funds and offering people worship space and direction. We take up a collection in the worship service. We advertise fundraising events in our bulletin and verbalize these in the announcement section of the service. We sell tickets to our fundraisers in the church sanctuary and in the Hall. Some churches make sense of this by not exchanging money in the sanctuary itself. But if money is changing hands in the Entry Way of the church, in the Hall and money is being solicited in the announcements and in the bulletin is there really worthwhile distinction to be found?

I turned to my favorite preacher, The Rev’d Dr. William Willimon, recently retired as a Methodist Bishop and a prolific author of more books than most clergy have read in their lifetime. Here is his take:

"Jesus comes to the temple, encounters the vendors selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and goes ballistic. Why?  All of this is religious! The livestock are for the necessary, biblically prescribed temple sacrifice. You can’t make a sacrifice to God, can’t get your sins forgiven, can’t get right with God without a sacrifice.  The rich folk brought oxen to sacrifice. The upper middle class brought sheep, and the poor folk brought doves. Take your sacrifice to the priest up at the altar and get right with God. “What if you don’t have enough money to buy a dove” you ask. Well, too bad. It takes money to run an organization, even a religious one. 

Jesus makes a whip, kicks over the tables, destroys the birdcages, stampedes the cows, dumps out the cash drawers of the money changers, and throws the rest of them out the door. “Stop making my Father’s house into a megamall!” he screamed to them as he popped the whip on their backsides. Isn’t it a shame that our beautiful places of worship that we so lavishly, lovingly furnished can become a barrier between us and the poor, a barrier to the poor who are beloved by God but don’t know how to return that love in such an extravagant, beautifully adorned temple.  If even the very house of God can become an idol, a substitute for, a way of evading God, what next might we make our idol?

The good news is that Jesus is just as consumed with passion for God’s house.  Jesus loves us, but loves the righteousness, truth, and holiness of God even more. He will purify God’s house, transform our little play church into his very body. He will, with whip in hand, drive out the idolatry in us. He will cleanse us until we shine like the sun. He will take our church and our fumbling attempts to praise, and transform them into a purified acclamation of the true God. So, this Sunday, amid the rubble of our religion, we pray:  Lord Jesus, drive out our self-contrived demons, whip us into shape, clean us up, dust us off, until we are able to worship you – in word and in deed, on Sunday and on Monday – as we ought. Amen."

Amen indeed! Thanks Will.