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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

What Makes Today's Temples Unclean?

John 2:13-22
What Makes Today’s Temples Unclean?
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church PCUSA
Sunday, March 19, 2006

In verses 21 and 22, John the Gospel-writer explains the very difficult passage about Jesus turning over the tables in the temple. But then John continues. Reading carefully, I think John summarizes better what motivated Jesus in verses 23 through 25, which the Lectionary leaves off, but which John seemed to want to include.

Verse 19:
Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."
The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?"
But he was speaking of the temple of his body.
After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Here are the verses I think are the final word on Jesus in the temple.

23 When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.
But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people
and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.


I read about Jesus in the Temple, and wonder if the Bible couldn’t have given us more details. What was it like? How did it happen? Why couldn’t God have sent Anderson Cooper to do a segment on some of the people who were there? Maybe the report would have sounded like this…

Joshua ben Israel is making his way along the hot, dusty road to Jerusalem. His wife, Sarah, and his four children – two sons and two daughters – all under the age of ten, are headed to the Temple for Passover. It’s an annual pilgrimage for their family. Sarah is very devout, and insisted they make the five-day walk again this year, even though she’s seven months pregnant. Joshua grips the bridle of their donkey, whose aging back is drooping under the meager load of their packs.

“I told my wife God would understand if we stayed at home just one year,” Joshua explains. “But she is very devoted to worship. She says, ‘If Moses and our ancestors could wander in the wilderness forty years, we can walk five days to Jerusalem.’ I told her, ‘Then at least ride the donkey.’ But she says no. She says it would kill him. She says the walking is good for the baby. I say, ‘Yes, good for the baby, but bad for your feet.’ We are going slowly.”

Sarah ben Israel won’t tell her age. However old she may be, the lines around her eyes give her the appearance of wisdom beyond her years. Her dark eyes are quick, moving in straight lines from the path, to each of her children. With a sharp hiss through her teeth, she commands them back into their little caravan, should they begin to stray from her sight. Sarah is determined that nothing will break her and her family’s annual Passover connection with God and God’s holy Temple.

“I make the journey because my parents made the journey,” says Sarah. “And their parents. And their parents before them. They all did this. So I do it, too. My husband thinks I’m crazy. But God makes the crazy and the sane, alike. I do this because I have respect. And because I want to teach my children respect. Moses taught us to honor our fathers and our mothers. Someday, I want them to make this same walk with their children. I want them to know that the fear of God is more important than the ache of their feet.”

Passover is the annual Jewish festival that brings tens of thousands, just like the ben Israels to Jerusalem every year. The commemoration of the angel of death sparing the lives of the children of Israel when the firstborn of Pharaoh’s Egypt were stricken down. It’s fitting that sacrifice is the genesis of this festival that takes Joshua, Sarah, and their family on a path of willful suffering. But seeing Sarah, so late in her pregnancy, enduring the afternoon sun, one has to wonder if God’s mercy might just once outrace the call to obedience. When questioned about these seemingly competing virtues of God, Sarah, true to her name, laughs.

“God’s mercy,” she explains, “is for all who pay attention. Sacrifice gets our attention. Suffering is like the rocks on this road. They aren’t mad at me. It does me no good to get mad at them for being rocks. If a rock cuts through my foot, is it because I have offended the rock by stepping on it? No. The rock is just being a rock, and my foot is just being a foot. I should watch where I’m going. But if I don’t watch out, and even if I do, the pain of the rocks reminds me of God’s mercy. I should be grateful for the steps when I don’t cut my foot on a rock, instead of angry when I do.”

All of this is too much for Joshua. He pats the donkey, as if to sympathize with its burden. “If God were merciful,” he says, “He would have us live closer to Jerusalem.”


Five days later, we caught up again with Joshua, Sarah, and their children. They had been to the Temple the same as every year before, and had found it in much the same condition. An unfinished structure, a building project of Herod, crammed to the gills with sacrificial livestock and repentant pilgrims. But this year’s visit had clearly been different. During the height of Passover, the rabbi of a small but growing religious community brought chaos to the Temple. Jesus of Nazareth, with twelve of his disciples, had disrupted the festival, overturning tables and chasing livestock with an improvised whip of cords. And while the disruption may have been brief, it appeared to have made a lasting impression on Joshua and Sarah.

Now, trudging their way home, Joshua’s tired but patient humor was replaced with anger and resentment. “Who does this Jesus think he is?” Joshua asked. “To come into God’s Temple, to come to holy ground, and desecrate the ways of his own people? How is that honor? How is that useful to God? How is that useful to my wife, who has walked these many days? To my children who have walked with us? I have but one donkey, and now I don’t know if this one will even make it home. And for what? We couldn’t pray. We couldn’t sacrifice. This Jesus is very bad. He hurts people like my family who are only doing what God commands us to do. I have no respect for a man who flies about in rage.”

Sarah, however, is less anxious to cast blame. It’s hard not to be confused by the change in attitude in this still very devout woman, who only a few days ago was espousing the grace of sacrifice. Now, it seemed, she was preaching the sacrifice of grace.

“My husband is a good man,” she explains in Joshua’s defense. “He only wants to see us making a worthwhile trip. He is defending me, and my purposes for wanting us to make this journey.”

Exchanging a glance with her husband, Sarah continues. “This Jesus of Nazareth. I had never heard of him before, but he is apparently well known in some circles. Some say that he performed signs and miracles, but I never saw anything but the day in the Temple. He was consumed with rage, like an animal. I’m grateful the children didn’t see it. He was shouting and causing a horrible scene. ‘My father’s house! My father’s house!’ he was shouting. My first thought was to want to say, ‘It’s my father’s house, too.” I mean, that’s why we’re all there. It’s our father’s house, and our mother’s house. The house of all our ancestors. ‘Tear this house down,’ he says, ‘and I will build it back in three days.’ It’s crazy talk.”

But when asked if she thinks this Jesus of Nazareth is crazy, Sarah laughs. “I keep telling my husband, God makes the crazy and the sane. Who’s to say? Can a man build a Temple in three days? Or thirty years? Of course not. So, at first, I think it’s a sacrilege. I think he must be some sort of Roman conspirator, sent to destroy what’s left of our ways. Egyptians, Romans, Pharaoh, Herod – what’s the difference? With one hand they give, and with the other they strike. But I don’t think this Jesus is like that. I think he’s one of us, you know?”

When asked how Jesus is like her, Sarah is reflective. She watches her swollen feet in their threadbare sandals, picking her way along the path, her toes curving over the stones beneath. After a few moments of silence, Sarah speaks. “This Jesus. Is it possible that he is like one of the stones in this road? Is it possible that his anger is a sharp stone sent to wake us up? We do what we do year after year. But is this what God wants?

“After they took Jesus out of the Temple, I started looking around. I saw the men on their knees, gathering up their precious coins. I saw them put their tables back, and go on like nothing had happened. I saw the little groups of people in the corners, looking at the other little groups of people in the other corners. I saw the rich people gathering around the rich people. And the poor people gathering around the poor people. I saw both the rich and the poor looking down their noses at each other, more interested in their little groups than God. I saw lonely people come and go, with no one talking to them. I listened to the sellers of animals talking up their livestock, as if what they were selling was more blessed than the other. I smelled the animal feces, saw it sticking on the shoes of the faithful. I saw these things, these same things that happen day after day, year after year. And I got mad. I got mad because everything that was going on inside the temple was the same as what goes on outside. I got mad because the temple looked and smelled exactly like the marketplace. The only difference is that in here they’re selling faith. And I remembered what that Jesus said, that if you tear down this temple he would build it up again in three days. And I thought, that’s about right. You tear down one building, you tear down one market, and in about three days they’ll just build another. So everyone can go on doing what they’ve always done, and feel good about it in the name of God. It makes me mad. Maybe I understand a little of what this Jesus was thinking.

Sarah’s husband interrupts, annoyed. “Is this my wife? Is this the same woman who walks with an aching back for five days to go to Passover? I think one of those rocks must have hit her in the head. Don’t let my donkey hear your talk, or else we might have to stay at home next Passover. And then what would God do without us?”

Sarah shushes her husband with a waving hand. “You hear that?” she asks. “He thinks of his donkey before he thinks of God.” She pauses. “If Jesus was wrong, wouldn’t God have stopped him? He disrupts the Passover, and nothing happens. Life goes on. And now, this Jesus is going to get a bigger following. And maybe next year they’ll want him to turn over twice as many tables. Maybe his followers will take over the temple. And then they can start breaking into little groups. They’ll look down their noses at other followers of Jesus. They’ll make their own version of the very same marketplace. Isn’t that the way of the world?”

As if considering the answer to her own question, Sarah sighs, marching along on her slow journey home. “I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe this Jesus is like the sharp stone that makes us thank God for the smooth path. Maybe God sent him to open our eyes. A person can get mad at Jesus for disrupting our business. Or we can thank him for showing us God’s mercy.”

Evening is falling on the road home. Joshua looks for a patch of softer ground for his family to pitch their tent. Their donkey is walking more slowly, and Sarah’s footsteps are becoming unsteady. Watching the backlit silhouettes of these pilgrims whose religious journey has either been ruined or enlightened, one can’t help wondering about the mercy, and the hope, that keeps them going. Whatever form that mercy takes on their way home, it’s not the same as the mercy that brought them out. Perhaps that’s the whole meaning of Passover. And maybe, that’ll become the meaning of Jesus of Nazareth. At least in the lives of Sarah and Joshua ben Israel.