Text: John 2:13-22
I wonder if you’ve ever had a friend give you advice on your golf swing or your baseball swing or maybe even the way you were hitting a volleyball. I’m not thinking of the annoying, nagging ‘advice’ a backseat driver might give you, but the kind of advice that’s actually helpful. Maybe you knew you were having a hard time hitting the ball squarely, but you couldn’t figure out what the problem was. Something didn’t feel right, but you couldn’t see the issue. The same kind of thing could apply to playing an instrument. You know the piece doesn’t sound right, but you can’t figure out what’s wrong. And then, a friend or a teacher, just says it: keep your front shoulder in, keep your eye on the ball, slow down. You could receive it as an insult, but you knew there was a problem.
In our reading from the gospel of John today, Jesus says, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” My hope is that we can take these words as helpful advice, like a friend or a teacher getting the root of a problem we sensed but couldn’t solve on our own.
The passage in front of us is John 2:13-22. This is the story of Jesus cleansing the temple. It’s a story that most of us probably know. It’s a story that has been referenced quite often, sometimes in rather dubious ways: both Augustine and John Calvin used it as rationale for why the state should use violence against so-called ‘heretics’. So this is a contentious passage, but even so, I think God’s Spirit has something for us here.
Here’s the story again: Jesus entered the temple at a busy time. It was the time of preparation for the Passover celebration. People from other towns and cities had journeyed to Jerusalem to take part. The city was full and the temple was busy. The temple was busy, but not just with rituals and prayers. It was busy with the buying and selling of things needed for the Passover celebration. People needed to exchange their money for the currency used in the temple, so there were money changers. And people needed to buy animals for their rituals and ceremonies, so there were cattle, sheep and doves.
None of this was necessarily bad in itself. These practical kinds of things are always necessary for maintaining culture and living one’s faith. And yet we know that Jesus saw a problem. The place of prayer had overtaken by the market. More specifically, we think, the place of prayer used by the gentiles had been taken over by the market needs of the insiders. Jesus would have none of it. He disrupts the markets.
This story shows up in each one of the gospels. In the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—this event is described as happening shortly after the triumphal entry. Matthew (c. 21) tells us that after clearing the temple of vendors, Jesus went on to heal people. Children began to shout “Hosanna to the Son of David.” The temple echoed with the sound of these shouts, and the chief priests and the scribes “became angry.” Mark (c. 11) and Luke (c. 19) both tell us that the religious and cultural leaders began looking for a way to kill Jesus. This connection to the cross is why the lectionary gives us this reading from John in the season of Lent.
John’s version of the story is a bit different. First, John places the story near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, right after the wedding of Cana. It’s possible, of course, that Jesus conducted this prophetic exercise twice. It’s more likely, though, that John simply ordered the events in his biography in a way that he thought would best display Jesus’ character. That was something ancient biographers did.
But there is a second aspect to John’s telling that makes it stand apart from Matthew, Mark and Luke. It’s only in John’s account that Jesus is described as making a whip, probably with the cords used to tie up the cattle. Here is verse 15, where John says this: “Making a whip of cords, he [that is, Jesus] 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.” Let’s add verse 16 to complete the picture: “He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
One of the reasons John’s version of the temple cleansing is so widely referenced is that it appears Jesus used violence against other people. Listen to the way verse 15 reads in the older King James Version: “And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables.” Did you notice the difference? In the older translation, it looks like Jesus uses the whip on the people. If you do a Google search, you’ll notice that a lot of paintings from the Renaissance depict the scene like that: Jesus is whipping people who cower in fear and stumble over each other as they flee the lash. So, throughout history Christians have referred to this passage as a rationale for all kinds of violence.
So, where is that helpful advice? Where is that insightful word?
Well, what’s important to realize is that many of the earliest interpreters of John’s account didn’t see this story as an example of violence. Scholars tells us that it isn’t clear in the Greek original who the “them” refers to, as in the “them” whom Jesus drove from the temple. It’s entirely possible that Jesus simply used a bit of rope get the cattle moving and had no intention of giving license for his followers to beat their children or attack civilians with drones. It may well have been only his voice that dispatched the merchants. After all, we see quite clearly that he only spoke to those selling the doves. He didn’t rage all over the bird cages. Ancient readers of this passage knew the nuance of the Greek; they also knew that an image of Jesus beating people to make a point hardly fit with the rest of Jesus’ ministry.
So, if Jesus words and his prophetic performance weren’t intended to show us righteous anger or baptize religious violence, what are we to take from this passage? Are we only left with jokes about not conducting financial transactions in a church building?
Remember Jesus’ words: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
I’ve recently been listening to the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Kimmerer is a well-regarded, university biologist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. The Potawatomi are an Algonquin speaking people who were forcibly moved west from their homelands in Indiana during the 1830s. One of the themes of Kimmerer’s book is the observation that a lot of things, many aspects of life, have been sucked into the marketplace. This, she says, makes it harder for us to live with joy and gratitude.
Kimmerer describes the experience of a ceremony leader that she knows. Leading traditional Potawatomi ceremonies often requires lots of sweetgrass. Sometimes at large events, the runs low and needs to ask for additional supplies. The difficulty is that he can’t pay for additional sweetgrass. Kimmer writes, “He cannot pay for it, not because he doesn’t have the money, but because it cannot be bought or sold and still retain its essence for ceremony.” She says that part of what makes sweetgrass significant for her people is that it is a gift from the earth, not a commodity to be purchased.
That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Jesus might not be going quite as far in cleansing of the temple, but he certainly shares the same spirit. It’s likely that many of the animals used in the ceremonies at the temple were purchased. It’s likely that much of the coinage used to pay the temple tax was purchased too. But Jesus’ point is not unlike that of the Potawatomi leader. When the marketplace takes over everything, something very significant is lost. It’s hard to find meaning in an exchange of commodities. As our leader, Jesus is stridently pushing back against the encroachment of the market-place into the prayer-place.
In my own work I see this encroachment in the newfangled title some speakers and writers use for themselves: “spiritual entrepreneur.” I see it in the way a whole parallel industry has been created around Christian subcultures. And, to be honest, I see it in the conversations pastor-groups have. Some pastors feel as though they need a union to better protect their interests. They feel as though their interest and the interests of their congregants are in competition. And some congregants see it the same way.
I wonder how you feel the encroachment of the market-place into the prayer-place. Do you feel as though your spiritual life requires the swipe of your credit card? Do you feel as though church is an experience you buy . . . whether with money or with volunteer time? Do you feel as though your interests and those of your community of faith are in competition? When you discern together, do you listen for the Spirit’s voice or do you feel pressure to play politics?
I don’t know if you noticed this, but further along in our passage Jesus made a connection between the temple and his own body. The connection is that God’s identifiable presence is in the temple and in Jesus’ own body. The communities of the New Testament then extended this to their own shared life. They believed that together they were Christ’s body. We see this in a number of Paul’s letters, including I Corinthians. If the temple was intended to welcome people into grace-filled communion with God, so was the life of Jesus and so is the life of the gospel community. Conversely, if the market can encroach on the temple, it can encroach life of the gospel community.
The marketplace tells us that our interests are opposed, that nobody gets something for nothing, that everything is an exchange. I once saw an ad for a course on negotiation: in the intro the professor said that all of life is negotiation. He meant that we’re always angling to get something better from someone else and that someone else is always angling to get something better from us. What a caustic way to live. What a hollow way to see our relationships.
I find solace in the perspective of one of my favourite theologians, Kathryn Tanner. She says, and argues quite forcefully, that even though Christianity may well be partly responsible for the rise of global capitalism, Christian beliefs now demand a deep critique of the way markets have encroached on our lives.
Jesus says, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” I think this is one of those statements, one of those bits of advice, that isn’t burdensome. This isn’t just another thing to do. This is a statement that liberates. It draws our attention to something that was holding us back—something we perhaps could not have seen on our own.
If you were in that actual historical moment when the temple was “cleansed,” you probably needed to hear Jesus’ words directly: get your cow and your cash register out of the court of the gentiles. To us, though, Jesus’ words are a reminder that before there is any marketplace at all, there is God’s grace. Before we have anything to spend or any debt to repay, there is the gift of life.
And all along, from birth to death, there is mercy and forgiveness. Prayer is free. It’s a gift. A cash exchange can’t make it any better. It can destroy it, but not make it better. God waits to welcome us and connect with us. We don’t need to make appointments or worry about taking up too much space on the divine calendar. There is enough for us all and enough for all of each of us.