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Understanding God's View of Justice
based on John 2:13-22
by Carolyn Bingham

I have a kitty cat named Prissy. She has long hair. She is black and orange on top and white underneath. She is not all that bright, but she has a lot to say about what happens at my house. I order special cat food over the Internet. Prissy tells me when to go to bed, and then she sleeps on me. I brush her and pet her and let her curl up in my lap. But sometimes I throw a wrench in things. One warm lovely day this week I put her outside. I know it is good for my sedentary little feline to get some fresh air and sunshine and to have the opportunity to chase little critters. Wouldn’t you think she would appreciate my thoughtfulness? Wouldn’t you expect her to joyously embrace the great outdoors? You’re probably already running ahead of me here. Prissy was not impressed. As far as she was concerned, I had disrupted her happy life. I upset her little applecart. I was totally outrageous. What right did I have telling her she needed to be more than a couch kitty? Well, you may think Prissy needs to broaden her horizons. (Actually, you probably think I need to get a life.) I am majoring on minor issues. Because like my cat, I sometimes need a wake-up call. I get in a rut. I find myself doing things that have no value—sometimes I even find myself doing things I should not do at all. I forget what it is I’m really supposed to be doing. You do it too. And so did those guys who worked at the temple in first century Jerusalem. Listen to happened to them:

The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for thy house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign have you to show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he spoke of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.

You have to understand that this started out as a normal day for these fellows. Passover was a busy time of year—like Christmas is for us. People came to the city of Jerusalem from all over. They came to the temple to offer sacrifices and pay monetary offerings throughout the year, but during Passover, everyone came at the same time. Just imagine what it would be like for you today if you needed to go to Jerusalem to offer up a little lamb as a sacrifice.

 Here in America, we would need to fly to get there. First, you would go to the pet store and by a pet carrier. Then you would go to a farmer and purchase a lamb, unless you raised sheep yourself. You might need to go see Perk to get a tranquilizer for the poor little thing—flying is pretty stressful for some animals. You would buy plane tickets for every member of your family and pay a fee for the lamb. You’d have to be sure that your travel agent got you a hotel room that allowed animals. Wouldn’t it be easier if you could buy your lamb when you got there? Especially if you could get it right at the temple. Well, obviously, our concerns are not identical to the problems of a family in first century Israel. But the conclusion is the same. It was difficult to travel a long distance with your family. Dealing with the lamb made it even more complicated. Part of the point of sacrificing this perfect little animal was that you had brought it into the family and treated it as a pet. The sacrifice had an emotional component, as well as financial. But traveling all the way from your home with the lamb, and then having the kids squalling about it… Well, as you can imagine, it was a lot easier to buy your lamb when you got to the temple. There were merchants right in the temple, ready to help you out with “all your sacrificial animals. Just step right up.”

Even the half-shekel temple tax that every adult man must pay required assistance from the money-changers. If you have ever crossed the border from one country to another, you have been to a money-changer. Canadian stores expect you to pay for merchandise with Canadian dollars.. In England you’ll need pounds. At the temple, you needed shekels.

But couldn’t the priests have taken the other coins and changed them later? Well, there’s a little more to this than currency exchange. You see Greek and Roman coins had pictures of gods on them. Even Caesar was believed to be a god. You couldn’t take a coin with the image of an idol into the temple. You had to exchange it for a more appropriate coin and, of course, you paid a fee for that privilege. That’s what money-changers did. As far as we know, this was an ordinary day at the temple. It’s true that the selling of animals and exchange of coins exploited the people. But this was nothing new. It was business as usual. So what was Jesus all upset about? Why did he get so angry? It looks to me like it was same-o same-o. The merchants and money-changers had been doing business at the temple for some years. Everyone knew how the system worked. There is no indication that anyone was complaining. People knew that was just how things were.

It’s always annoying when you know you are being taken advantage of, but we’ve all learned to tolerate a certain amount of exploitation. We buy Christmas presents and Easter eggs and scary costumes. Our purchases line the pockets of the storeowners and manufacturers. Nowadays, the stores prefer that we pay them with a plastic credit card, and we pay for the privilege of spending our money. We’re used to that stuff. So, what’s the big deal? Why did Jesus get so mad? When I read this story, I can’t help but think of the sixties. I was a teenager in the sixties. We talked a lot about the evils of “the establishment.” It was clear to the young people of America that the world hadn’t turned out right and we wanted to do something about it. We championed the causes of social concerns—poverty, racial prejudice, unjust war, gender inequality. We were angry that big business and big government and even big churches had failed the poor, the disenfranchised, the powerless. Demonstrations were held, we burned flags and brassieres, we marched on Washington. (I confess I’m using the word “we” in the most general sense.) Mostly, we were frustrated. Of course, a lot dropping out and drugging out occurred. But to start with, idealistic young people found themselves coming to grips with a very fallen world—and we were angry. It was a world that needed fixing. But no matter how many ideals were lifted up, I don’t think anyone ever really expected to be able to completely fix that broken world—no one but God could do that. And since we didn’t see any recent evidence that He was mending our world, and some people claimed that, for all practical purposes, He was dead, we mostly just got mad.

The scene at the temple, with Jesus turning over the tables of the money-changers and driving out the animals—well, it looks a lot like one of those sixties kinds of experiences. Just like in the sixties, the establishment people didn’t have a clue what was really wrong. They had gotten used to things being the way they were. It was pretty comfortable.

Then all of a sudden, here comes this Jesus guy, and he starts tearing things up. Who does this character think he is? When the Jews at the temple asked him to show them a sign, they weren’t asking for one of his miracles. Maybe they didn’t even know he could do miracles. After all, they hadn’t seen his picture on CNN. They wanted to know what kind of authority this man had to act like Jesus was acting. Probably the Jews sensed that Jesus was acting like a person in authority—but who. Basically, they were saying, “We want to see some I.D.”

It always seems to me that Jesus never answered anyone the way you’d expect him to. He often left people trying to figure him out. Maybe that’s not because he wanted to be mysterious, but because our own thinking is so different from the way God thinks that Jesus’ words just seem mysterious. Anyway, Jesus told them if they destroy this temple, he will raise it up in three days. If you take his words the way the Jews did, that sounds ludicrous. But in fact, Jesus had a different temple in mind. He was referring to his own body. They didn’t know it, but he was saying, “Kill me, and I’ll rise again. This is why I am here—I’m the Messiah and that’s what I came for. My death and resurrection—that’s my I.D. That’s why I have a right to throw the money-changers out.” Of course, these guys wouldn’t have recognized Jesus’ mission as that of Messiah. He did not even remotely resemble their idea of Messiah. The Jews wanted a Messiah-king—not a sacrificial lamb. They wouldn’t recognize the Messiah if they saw him. And they did, in fact, see him.

Jesus knew they wouldn’t understand his words to them. But that’s really the point. They didn’t get it. They didn’t know who Jesus was and they didn’t know what kind of Messiah to expect. You know, I have to tell you that this particular picture of Jesus is one that I’m not very comfortable with. He was acting like a sixties kind of guy, and those sixties guys specialized in making establishment people uncomfortable.

All that the Jews at the temple knew was that this man had disrupted the normal order of things. How would people go about the business of making their sacrifices and paying their temple tax now? There were a lot of practical concerns. What was this guy doing? Who was he?

You know, when we read about people in the Bible, we always want to identify with the “good guys” and distance ourselves from the “bad guys.” We’re kind of like that. We don’t like to think of ourselves as being like the Pharisees. We act like we’d be so cool if Jesus were to disrupt our lives. Well, we’re not. And he does disrupt our lives. I was busy living my life when God told me it was time to enter the ministry. Jesus disrupted my life. Some of you have had experiences in your life where you were headed in one direction and suddenly found yourself stopped in your tracks or even turned around and headed in another direction. Even if you never told anybody, you always thought that this was somehow God’s doings. God may choose to disrupt our families, our jobs, even our church. Most of us do not take God’s disruptions very well. We pout and rant and rave and just plain sit down. You know, our little tempers don’t have much effect on God. We might as well learn how to embrace those disruptions. Maybe you can recall a big disruption in your life, and maybe you can’t. If not, maybe that means you’ve been more obedient to God than I have, so you don’t need a divine disruption. Some disruptions are major. Others are more like our scripture story—only a few hours were really disrupted, when the Lord gave some good Jews a good shake.

One church member related a story to me recently about a time when she was getting ready for work and felt strongly impressed by God to do a charitable deed. She pointed out that she was already late for work and thought that surely this could wait until the next day, but the urging of the Holy Spirit was so strong that she gave up. Quickly, she gathered up some children’s clothing and took them to her son’s teacher. “How did you know I needed these?” the teacher asked. “I have a little boy whose house burned last night and he doesn’t have any clothes.” This mother thought that what mattered was getting to work. But God had a higher priority. Her life was disrupted by Jesus that day.

The Jews in our story had no idea that something unusual was going to happen. They were into their routine. It was just another day—a day to make a few shekels off the pilgrims who had come to worship God. At some level, they must have known that the sacred temple of the living God should not have become a marketplace. But they had lost touch with the greater truth that the temple was built for the sake of God’s relationship with the people of Israel. They didn’t understand how much God hates exploitation. When the other gospels tell this story, they quote Jesus as saying that the temple is a house of prayer.

The temple in Jerusalem no longer exists. When the Holy Spirit came to dwell among God’s people, each one of us became a temple. Our own personal temples are to be houses of prayer—built by God so that we might serve and worship our Creator. But we kind of forget that sometimes. We think destructive thoughts and do destructive things. We have lost touch with God’s original purpose for our lives. And just when we get comfortable, Jesus comes in and shakes things up. He drives out the evil that has taken up residence in our hearts. He reminds us that God has better things for us than that.

In spite of the feeling of disruption that we have when God gets hold of us and turns over our tables, we would be wise to accept God’s disruptions as an occasion for dialogue. In other words, when God messes with your life, don’t buck, and don’t just go with the flow. It would be a really good time to start talking with God about what’s happening.

Maybe we have “missed the point”—or forgotten it. For example, if worship is nothing more than habit, if you are making mental grocery lists during the sermon, or planning your afternoon during the offertory—maybe it is time to rethink why we come here on Sunday.

Perhaps worship isn’t your issue. Maybe you have let your job become merely the means to a paycheck, forgetting your place of service. And what about our families? Is your spouse still the object of your love or has he or she become a person to meet needs in your life?

Jesus calls us to a place of integrity. That means we worship when come to worship, we work when we go to work, and we love those whom God has placed close to our hearts. And we never, under any circumstances look upon other people as the means to an end—that is the essence of exploitation.

There are a lot of complications in our lives, but integrity is simple. If the priests and Jewish leaders at the temple had been men of integrity, they would have realized that the Passover should not be turned into a commercial enterprise exploiting the religious faith of the traveling worshipers. And they certainly would never have allowed any existing trade to be carried on within the temple courts.

Some of you have worked for companies that were so focused on bottom-line profit, they ignored the concerns of employees. Jesus wants to disrupt that kind of thinking. He does understand our anger when we are the objects of exploitation. And he will not tolerate our becoming the exploiters of others.

All of us have some power in our lives—even though it may seem pretty limited. Use the power you have to bring your life into a place of integrity.

The Pharisees were sticklers for doing things right. But that doesn’t mean they always understood God’s view of what was right or important. But don’t worry—God loves us. You will not be left alone in your ignorance or in willful sin. You better get ready—you’re going to be disrupted by Jesus.