Turning the Tables: A Lenten Sermon on Jesus, the Money Changers, and #Selma50

Historic Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., loneroc / Shutterstock.com
Historic Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., loneroc / Shutterstock.com

Making a whip of cords, he 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.He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ - John 2:15,16

This is one of the most important stories in the life of Jesus. So important, that it’s one of a handful of stories that all four Gospel writers actually all share.

Even though they remember it differently.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke — they recall that this episode where Jesus entered the Temple grounds and stirred stuff up once and for all — they remember it near the end of his life. They place it as one of the main reasons that Jesus is arrested and put to death as a capitol offense against the Roman Empire.

Walking into the Temple — run by the Jewish religious elite who had been put in place by the Roman imperial oppressors — was tantamount into walking into a federal government building and blowing it up.

Except Jesus doesn’t do that. Jesus is a pacifist. Jesus is a prophet.

With zeal and purpose.

The story we hear comes out of the Gospel of John — and it is placed at the beginning of Jesus’ adult life and mission. It comes just after a grand old time where Jesus gathers the first disciples, takes them to a wedding in Cana where he is the hit of the party (turning water into wine) and then goes on a road-trip pilgrimage from Capernaum to Jerusalem.

This pilgrimage during the Passover season was the highlight journey for any observant person of faith in the land of Israel. Think of when our Muslim friends and neighbors go on the Hajj today — the Passover pilgrimage was similar.

Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of faithful would travel “up” to Jerusalem — no matter if they were literally traveling south from Capernaum — to the holiest of holy sites on earth.

The day Jesus and his band of disciples entered the Temple grounds, the Temple itself had been under reconstruction for some 46 years. It would take nearly 70 years for it to be completed — only to be torn down again by the Romans long after Jesus was nailed to the cross by them.

But we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. Let’s lean into the Lenten story.

The Passover festival was a single, 8-day ceremony between the 14th and 21st day of the Jewish month Nisan (right around March-April for us today). Jews from around the world — which basically for them, meant the Roman Empire — would journey by boat to the port of Jaffa (near modern-day Tel Aviv) and join an overland caravan for three days to Jerusalem.

They’d arrive in the Holy City with nothing but the small things they could carry and the Roman imperial money in their pockets. They’d find a place to stay in a hostel or inn. The next morning they’d make sure they exchanged their profane Roman coins (because they had images of Caesar on them) for Tyrian coins which could be used the following day to purchase animals to sacrifice.

Because during those days at Passover it was paramount to sacrifice animals. On the first day of the Passover festival, pilgrims would purchase their oxen, their paschal lambs, their pigeons, and doves and bring them to be sacrificed. And for hours animals would be sacrificed. From 3-5 p.m., the lambs would be slaughtered. And slaughtered. And slaughtered.

And remember, there were thousands upon thousands of pilgrims there, so there were exponentially more oxen, lambs, and birds to be slaughtered.

The point of the Passover and its feast were to remember Israel’s liberation from Egypt — the most fundamental moment in their shared, collective memory.

If it all went according to plan.

The day Jesus walked in to the Temple with his band of disciples, it went according to, let’s say, a different plan all together.

Why?

We don’t really know all of the details. But some think it went something like this:

The Temple was a massive massive place. As Amy Jill-Levine writes

“The Temple itself consisted of areas of increasing holiness. Outermost was the court of the Gentiles, which anyone could enter. Proceeding farther in, one reached the court of the (Jewish) women, the court of the (Jewish) men, and finally the holy of holies - entered only by the high priest on the Day of Atonement. Participation in the Temple was open to everyone: women could make offerings, as Jesus’ account of the widow’s offer (Mark 12:42, 43) … clearly indicate(s).”

The Temple was welcoming of everyone. But did it fully include everyone?

The holy of holies was entered by only one male priest one day of the year, the court of men (or as it is often remembered, simply the court of Israel). This is where all the Israelites (religiously observant, ritually clean men) were allowed to enter and witness the sacrifice and slaughter of these animals. And then there was a wall, and then there was the court of women (ritually and religiously bona fide women). And then there was another wall.

And then there was the Court of Gentiles where everyone else was allowed to stand and watch the religiously allowed enter. Anyone was welcome to come to this court no matter who you were or where you came from or what you worshipped. But between the Court of Gentiles was that wall separating the Gentiles from the Court of Israel, and inscribed above that wall was a warning that any Gentiles that entered would be killed.

You could call this a wall of hostility.

Anyone from around the world who wanted to hear about this God of Moses and Miriam, Abraham and Sarah, the God of prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah and Deborah, Hannah and Esther could come and see — yet the message of the religious elite in that day, propped up by the Imperial oppressors, however fairly indirect, however finespun, was built and communicated in the very structure and system itself. God was at the center, and only certain people could come close to the center, followed by the women of these certain people, and then beyond that dividing wall of hostility was an outer court where the rest of the world could congregate.

And it was a busy, complicated, some would say even kitschy place.

Money-changers were all around, turning Roman coins into Tyrian coins. So those Tyrian coins could then be used to purchase oxen, lambs, and birds to be sacrificed. And there were all sorts of merchants selling overpriced food and cheap, chintzy souvenirs.

It was not a really holy, spiritual place. It had turned into a bazaar. A shopping mall. It was far from its original intent.

And Jesus is going to do something about it.

In Mark and Matthew and Luke’s story, it sort of comes across that Jesus is in the Temple grounds and sees some bad stuff on the rise and he loses his patience, turns some tables, maybe points a few fingers, and walks out in a huff.

But in John’s telling of the story, it’s as if he was a man on a mission all along.

John literally has Jesus walking in with a whip of chords, all Indiana Jones style, ready to administer some justice.

Making a whip of cords, he 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. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

Mark picks up the story, with Jesus literally putting an embargo on any further sales: “and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. … Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

Jesus literally shut it down. He shut down the Temple that day, throwing everything into chaos. He occupied the Temple, had his disciples shut the gates, and as Luke remembers, gave further “teaching.”

This was no small feat — because on that day, it is believed there were between 300,000-400,000 people: pilgrims, priests, men, women, Gentiles, merchants. and the like.

Jesus occupied the Temple because the people in charge had lost the script and were perpetuating injustice. Jesus was not only speaking truth to power, he was demonstrating it powerfully. Confrontationally. Directly.

And why?

Because the Temple had become an exclusionary enterprise. Welcome? Perhaps. But not affirming. Not inviting. Not inclusive.

Remember: Court of Gentiles —> Court of Women —> Court of Jews —> Altar area —> Holy of Holies

Steve Chalke argues:

"In this way the Temple functioned as a gigantic filtration system — an exclusion machine that mirrored Jewish society under the boot of the priests and Pharisees. The Temple-cleansing story — Jesus battling against the unfair and unjust regime of the day — is really all about God’s rejection of, and anger at, this exclusion."

And because of this radical demonstration of God’s radical call to inclusion, the chief priests, the authorities, all those in power plotted to destroy him — to find him, arrest him, and have him killed.

#Selma50

A lot of folks want to say that Jesus fully identified with human emotions by making the case that his behavior in the Temple that day was a demonstration of real human emotion: anger.

Friends, it’s not his anger that demonstrates his humanity. It’s the Son of Man’s amazing authority, demonstrated as an embodied, God-incarnate man that confirms his solidarity with the human family. All of us.

And it’s this authority found in Jesus that gives witness to how we not simply speak truth to power, but how we might overturn tables today.

We miss this when we sanitize the work and call of Jesus on us today.

The 50th anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday’ reminds us of that call today.

On March 7, 1965, some 600 marchers, who had been organizing for months and months, planned a peaceful 54-mile demonstration, walking all the way from Selma to the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery, to demand the right to vote.

They truly believed in the American claim that “All men are created equal.” Everyone. No matter race or creed, everyone was equal in America and everyone deserved the right to vote.

Things took a turn for the worse as the marchers walked over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to Montgomery. Thinking about that inscription on the wall separating the Court of Gentiles from the Court of Israel, you can’t help but notice the not-so subtle inscription above that Edmund Pettus Bridge — a bridge named after Edmund Winston Pettus, a Confederate brigadier-general who fought on the wrong side of history against the Union at Vicksburg and in Atlanta, who, after the war, was pardoned and elected to the U.S. Senate, and who was openly known as a grand dragon in the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.

The inscription above the bridge, you could say, was just like that inscription in the Temple: enter and be killed.

The crowd entered the Edmund Pettus Bridge and kept walking, only to find a hostile wall of Alabama state troopers. Young SNCC leader John Lewis and SCLC leader Rev. Hosea Williams were told by the white racist state troopers to stop and turn around. They asked if they can kneel to pray.

And then all hell broke loose. John Lewis was pulverized. He nearly dies. Amelia Boynton, who helped organize the march was severely beaten and left for dead; her photo was on the front pages of newspapers the next morning all around the world. Seventeen marchers were severely injured and hospitalized. It would be days before any of them could pull through.

The depths of racial, systemized exclusion was forever captured in that moment on that day. And things changed. You could say that the Selma marchers, 50 years ago this past weekend, for a brief moment shut America down. And the right to vote was finally realized in the Voters Rights Act of 1965, signed into law less than six months later.

Tear down the walls

In a letter to some of the first Christians in a far off place called Ephesus, the Apostle Paul talks about how Jesus tore down the “dividing wall of hostility” and truly called us all to be one, together — no matter who we were or where we came from. One. And that in some mysterious, beautiful, but powerful way, there was peace in knowing that each one of us made up a new structure, a new living, breathing organism, a new way of thinking of God’s dwelling place, together.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God. - Ephesians 2:13-22

Selma reminds us that the work of Jesus turning tables is never over until it is fully over — until everyone is truly, radically, included.

The acts of Jesus, his authority and audaciousness demonstrated that day in the Temple, serve as a guidepost for us, this Lent and always, how we too might seek the peace that is truly peace.

Adam Phillips is pastor of Christ Church: Portland, a new church plant taking root in the Rose City.

Image: Historic Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.,  / Shutterstock.com

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