Cleansing With Zeal

[]There are times when we are overcome with a passion, an excitement, or an anger that takes over who we are, sometimes to our benefit, and sometimes to our detriment. In this case, in his pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover, Jesus has righteous indignation over what has been happening in the Temple, possibly for centuries. He sees that the holy Temple of God has become a place where the poor are exploited. They must go to the moneychangers to buy Temple coins, the only coins legal to purchase animals for sacrifice, and often at an unfair exchange rate. Seeing this, and the lack of wealth for the majority of people coming to the Temple to buy something as simple as a dove (what paupers would offer as sacrifice), Jesus becomes offended. The people who made this pilgrimage were being robbed at the moneychangers table as they purchased animals for sacrifice by the priests for the forgiveness of their sins.

Jesus, in his ministry, started to teach people about different ways of forgiveness. And Jesus would tell people, when they confessed to him, "Go and sin no more." At the stoning of a woman caught in adultery, he said to those gathered, "Whoever is without sin may cast the first stone." The people dropped the stones and left, realizing their own sin. And Jesus said to the woman, "I find no fault with you; go and sin no more." The forgiveness of sins in the life and ministry of Jesus was that simple. And Jesus healed people and brought them into community even though they may have been considered outcasts because of sin.

Jesus becomes consumed with anger and attacks the moneychangers, flipping their tables, and driving them and all the animals out of the Temple, yelling at them to not to make the Temple a marketplace or a den of thieves. As you can imagine, the Temple priests, seeing all this wealth going out the doors (because the church made money from this process) are not too happy with Jesus. They approach him and say, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" And Jesus, instead of responding with Old Testament rhetoric or showing them God's ways, in his fit of righteous anger says, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up." Probably not the best answer. For those of us with rational minds, we might say that he could have quoted the Scriptures or talked to them about what they were doing. But Jesus, in a moment of zeal and passion, probably didn't have it all together, just as we might find ourselves sometimes not being able to say just the right thing. But Jesus does point to what's coming as a Passion prediction for him.

Jesus also points to a different theology. The Temple was a holy place for God, but it was not the 'only' place for God. As Reformed people and Christians in the modern day, we also say, "The Kingdom of God is within us and each of us is a holy temple of our God." Jesus places that out there, which probably would not have fared well if the priests and the Temple authorities had understood what he was actually talking about. But the way that the Gospel records this, it is a foreshadowing of things to come. And it will help the disciples in understanding what has happened after Jesus has departed.

What about this particular passage can help guide us as modern-day Christians? Well, it's nice for once to see Jesus get angry. In the church, we talk about the peaceable Jesus who healed people, who said all the right things, and who explained things to his disciples when they didn't understand. That is the side of Jesus that we like to teach and preach, but we don't usually talk about the angry Jesus, possibly because of the violence in this story, and that is unexpected about Jesus. In our Lenten study, we're learning about the radical nature of who Jesus was in his time and how, over two thousand years, we may have lost some of that understanding because we see things through the eyes of the Gospel and through the eyes of writers like Paul and from letters in the New Testament. But Jesus really was a radical kind of guy. A radical Savior was unexpected, and it doesn't bode well for Jesus, except that he was being driven by the Holy Spirit to change and reform some of the things that had evolved, even involving the Temple authorities, across thousands of years.

If Jesus can get angry at times, does that mean it's okay for us to be angry too? Absolutely. Does it mean you can come up here and tear things up on the chancel? I wouldn't recommend it; the elders would have something to say! But let us realize that Jesus was also human like us. We all can certainly understand what righteous indignation is. Most of us have probably felt it at times. And it's okay to feel that, but it may not be okay to act on it. It's certainly okay to pray about it. But anger is natural and is a part of who we are. Something we can take from this is that yes, it might be okay for us to be angry at times.

And although the Gospel of John is written specifically in a way as to foreshadow an event, one thing we can take from this is that good conversation at the right time can make a world of difference. This was an opportunity for real open communication between Jesus and the Temple authorities. And it seems like a missed opportunity. But what we can learn from Jesus is that, even though it is okay for us to feel anger and to not have all of our thoughts together when the occasion arises, it is good for us to be in conversation, maybe to still ourselves in prayer, maybe to filter through our minds those Ten Commandments that we read a moment ago and that have been a staple of Sunday School for generations. Maybe it is good for us to know that it is okay for us to be human, but it is also important for us to have a Christian response, to say we're sorry if we spout out the wrong words at a time when we might be feeling anger, and to experience reconciliation.

In Jesus' ministry, reconciliation for the Temple and the world came in a very different fashion. There were different understandings at the time of Jesus. And when we come to these particular passages, framing our minds with different understandings can really be helpful. In preparing for today's message, I was reading what some scholars have said about the Ten Commandments. And there were little nuggets in there that I didn't know. For instance, 'Honor your father and your mother,' was speaking to adult children caring for parents in their elder years when they were vulnerable. This was not about little children honoring their father and their mother, although that's what I was taught in Sunday school. The letter of that law was actually very different. It's about caring for the elderly, which makes me proud that the Reformed Church in this area started Homewood to care for our elders, recognizing part of God's command and our duty to do these things.

Where it says, 'You shall not commit adultery,' it was really talking the Hebrew man. It was okay for him to have multiple wives, and it was okay for him to have relationships with unmarried women, but he could not have a relationship with another Israelite's wife. That is different from what we've understood for thousands of years and what the church has taught. Now, I'm not recommending this because we see things differently when it comes to our relationships and commitments. But when we view these Ten Commandments (and that commandment specifically), we often use them to justify our position now.

As to stealing, some scholars say that only applied to other Israelites so you could take things from people who weren't Israelites. The same with wanting things that belong to your neighbor. The 'neighbor' was the Israelite. So you didn't want to do anything to damage that relationship within the community. In our understanding today, when we say 'neighbor,' we mean everybody. But in those times, it was speaking mainly about Israelites.

We understand, 'You shall not commit murder,' to be a blanket term, but in those times it did not mean in times of war or any type of capital punishment. We know that they frequently stoned people to death in those times. Those did not apply there. But when we look at, 'Thou shall not murder,' we tend to understand that as we shouldn't do it at all. And we carry an awful grief with us when our country becomes engaged in war. And although at first our righteousness indignation may say that we should go to war, we later start to feel different consequences within ourselves about that, and we question that.

But we see all these commands and restrictions that we received from the Lord (and there's another 642 of them if you want to scan through the Old Testament), but isn't it nice that Jesus helps cut right through the middle of all of that when he tells the people to, "Love God and love your neighbor"? Everything is based on those two simple things.

As we come to the middle of our Lenten season, we begin to look forward to spring. And just as we prepare for spring-cleaning of our homes, let us also spring-clean our hearts, seeking to remove all those things that separate us from God.

March 15, 2009

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