3rd Sunday in Lent
3rd Sunday Lent 3.21 “Zeal for the House” John 2:13-25
A tempting choice for our bulletin cover art for today was a fake Renaissance painting of Jesus brandishing a whip, like Indiana Jones, flipping over tables, chasing the money-changers from the temple with this caption: “The next time someone asks you: ‘what would Jesus do?’ remind them that freaking out, flipping over tables, and chasing people with whips is always within the realm of possibilities…”
But, art that has to be explained is not great art; yet, you want an explanation, don’t you? Because it is kind of troubling to see the Prince of Peace like this, all “ate up with zeal” as the King translates the phrase, first making the whip, with leather thongs, probably little bits of bone or metal at the tip to really make it sting, chasing the money-men out of the house. He’d never come after us this way? Right?
Uhm… well!; why did he come after the money-changers? I know you probably learned in Sunday School that it was because they were charging too much for the sheep and goats and birds and stuff. They were making money off the people in a way that was completely unauthorized and unbiblical—in a way that makes bake sales always uncomfortable for Lutherans; makes us set the prices absurdly low.
But what if I told you that explanation is wrong? What if we found a bible passage authorizing and encouraging the very thing the money-changers were doing in the house of God? Would that surprise you?
Well, brace yourself for what should have been the OT reading: the law of God through Moses, Deuteronomy 14:23ff which I quote: “And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock… And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves [like plants crave electrolytes]. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household…”
Hmm! So, the money-changers with their tables and diverse wares were not breaking the law at all, but in fact were obeying it, making it easier for the people to keep it! Nothing suggests they were charging too much—Moses doesn’t say they can’t put a convenience fee on it like Ticketmaster does; nor does Jesus rebuke them for being compensated for their service. Maybe they weren’t carding for the strong drink? Uh, sorry, that doesn’t seem to have been the problem either.
So, what was the problem that got Jesus so mad, he made a whip and drove these law-abiding citizens out of the house where they weren’t doing anything against the letter of the law of Moses? The only clue we get is in this cryptic little phrase in our Gospel, vs. 16: “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” Now, you maybe know this story from Matthew, Mark, or Luke who recount a cleansing of the temple at the end of Jesus’ ministry rather than at the beginning as John does. Jesus seems to have book-ended his public ministry like this. And on the second occasion, Jesus says: “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers.”
That’s where the idea comes from that they were charging too much, ripping the people off—that this was the difficulty that brought out the whip. But if you put the two phrases together and recall this was all fully authorized by Moses, and attend carefully to what Moses says, you see it’s a different kind of robbery than over-charging for a pigeon…
In John, Jesus does not say “selling stuff in the house of God is wrong”. Because Jesus is God and he authorized this very thing through Moses long ago. That simply cannot be the problem here! Jesus keeps his own word! The problem is the purpose and spirit in which the money is exchanged and the wares dealt.
You will notice [I tried to emphasize it] that in Deuteronomy, God says through Moses the purpose of this traveling to the distant house of God, and bringing the tithe, or selling it back home for money and then buying similar stuff there, is not to sacrifice—not to make a trade with God: a sheep, goat, pigeon, and a fifth of Jack for him, in exchange for forgiveness of sins for us! No! The purpose was not to sacrifice, not to trade with God, but to rejoice with him! The purpose of the tabernacle worship was to feast with God to share his food, his life, joy, kingdom—to swap some spit, sweat, blood, and so become his blood brothers and sisters!
You kinda need to read the whole bible to really get all the little parts. Because God is in the details: “you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice!…” But that joy only comes by Jesus’ sacrifice—not ours.
It seems clear Jesus is upset in our Gospel today because we’ve missed the point of Divine Service—that it’s not a transaction, buying God off, getting him to look the other way at our sin, but it’s a transformation: rubbing shoulders with God, sharing his feast, his living, his dying, in order to become just like him!
The priests, Pharisees, and money-changers were robbing Israel(!)—not of their money, but of their Joy. Sure glad that doesn’t happen in the church, today!
But, seriously: how is your zeal for God’s house? Mine’s nothing like Christ’s! We’re always teetering on the edge of turning the house of God from a wondrous wedding feast into the Chicago Board of Trade—turning joy into drudgery is the signature move of human sinfulness.
When we doubt (and who hasn’t?) that Jesus is really God, or that his body and blood are the medicine of immortality, divine protection against sin, death, and all evils, our faith falters. Our zeal for God’s house is easily replaced by fear for our own survival, comfort, safety—even though times of peril, death, and danger make his Service (paradoxically!) more vital, not less!
I’ve wondered if maybe last year was God’s way of shutting down houses of trade, driving out the money-men—resetting his table?
In this last year, faith has faltered, to some degree, for all of us—myself included. We haven’t kept the doors open and the lights on in God’s house the way we should have. We have found excuses for this: concern for public health, fear that others might think we’re crazy preferring communion with Christ over personal safety. But hey; is the Lion of Judah safe? Is feasting with him risk-free?! The last year revealed the hearts of many; but: “every silver lining has a cloud…”
I don’t think any of us (myself included!) can be entirely happy about what we’ve seen in our hearts over the last year. But it’s OK: Jesus doesn’t wield the whip to drive us out of his house, but to drive the money-man out of you and me—to restore a clean heart, a right spirit; the love from sin set free.
It’s all here for you, now. The Table is set. All is forgiven. So “you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice!” In the Holy Name of Jesus. Amen.