Every good storyteller (and even most of the bad ones) has a purpose to telling his stories. I remember an old volume we had when I was growing up of Aesop’s fables, and getting to the point of each one: sour grapes with the fox and preparing for the hard times to come with the ants and the grasshopper. I remember the songs my parents loved that told stories: “Mr. Bojangles” and “American Pie” come to mind. Many of these stories have points which are not always very clear to us, and the stories about Jesus in the gospel are often in that category. We’re left wondering, “what on earth does that mean?” and “what are we supposed to do about it?”
Today’s story is one of those. As we read the gospels, there are two stories—at two different times in Jesus’ life—about Jesus driving moneychangers and vendors out of the temple. We are perhaps most familiar with the stories told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which speak of Jesus’ saying that the house of God has been turned into a den of thieves. The way they tell the story, this event happens right before Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, even provoked them. John tells the story a little differently, though.
The way John tells it, this is the second “public” act of Jesus’ ministry. In John’s gospel, the story of the cleansing of the temple comes right after the story of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding party in Cana. From there, says John, Jesus went up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.
This time of year, it is good for us to remember the Passover: the last of the plagues, when Moses was trying to lead the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, also called the plague of the firstborn. It’s one of the bloodier stories of our faith: how God sent a messenger of death to kill the firstborn son in each house that was not marked on the doorframe with blood from a fresh-killed lamb. This celebration of liberation would be celebrated by Jews for thousands of years, to this day. Because tradition says that Jesus’ trial and death and resurrection occur on or immediately after the Passover celebration, our Easter celebration is set each year by the Sunday following the Passover, which is itself tied to a lunar calendar, which is why it moves around from year to year. The Passover is important for John because he wants us to see clearly that, like the lamb slain in each Hebrew home the night of the last plague, Jesus’ death and resurrection make possible our resurrection.
For the Passover celebration, thousands of Jews from all over the known world made their way to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice. Because it was impossible to bring a perfect and unblemished animal over a great distance, worshippers needed to purchase an animal there in Jerusalem to meet the standards for sacrifice. Vendors of sacrificial animals performed a needed service in the area, making sure that suitable animals were available to all who needed them. Because the temple only accepted Jewish coins, those who had money from other places—either earned by their work in another country where they lived and worked, or received in payment for goods or services there at home—needed to change their foreign currency before their offering of money would be accepted in the temple. Both moneychangers and the sellers of cattle, sheep, and doves were vital to the operation of the temple, especially when these special festivals rolled around.
So it’s natural that we would be a little confused when Jesus makes himself a whip, overturns their tables, and drives both men and beasts out of the court of the Gentiles in the Temple. Matthew, Mark, and Luke make a little more sense out of this dramatic act by suggesting that these businesspeople were thieves, taking an unfair profit or engaging in unethical business practices…and because it’s clear that they had the sanction of the high priest to be there, it’s not surprising that this attack might have brought about the accusations against Jesus at the end of his ministry. It all begins to make sense to us…until we look at it from John’s perspective.
John’s gospel is different from the other three. It seems to have been written later, as much as 70 years or more after Jesus’ death. John’s gospel is more theological, and he identifies signs that prove that Jesus is the Son of God. The changing of water into wine at Cana is one of those signs for John, as is Jesus’ challenge to the Jewish authorities when he says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Only after Jesus’ death and resurrection will the disciples remember what Jesus said, and understand that he was speaking of his body, and not the very large stone temple in Jerusalem.
Jesus’ cleansing of the moneychangers and animal-sellers in the temple is, I think, another of these signs. I’m not sure any of the disciples got it right away; when John tells us that the disciples remembered what Jesus said, sometimes he goes so far as to say that they don’t remember until after Jesus was raised from the dead. For us, who have come so many years after those first disciples, we can take some comfort in knowing that John intends us to understand these stories in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
In that light, we can look then at the cleansing of the temple and wonder, what was Jesus so mad about? If it wasn’t about thieves cheating the people of God, as it seems to be in the other gospels, then what is going on? Perhaps the key comes only when we take an imaginary step away from the temple, away from the Jews, and remember who Jesus called to come and know God and what kind of people he spent time with. It helps, too, to remember where they were: in the court of the Gentiles, inside the temple.
The real issue here, I suspect, was not that they were doing business in the temple itself: as we’ve learned, the services provided by the money-changes and sellers of animals were crucial to the temple system. I think maybe Jesus was more concerned with where, exactly, in the temple they were. The temple was laid out in series of courts through which people could enter and find their place. There was a court of women after which women could go no further. There was a court of priests, where only the priests could go, and inside that, the holy of holies, where only one priest could go, and then only on the appropriate day. The court of the Gentiles was as far as those who were not Jews could go—the closest they could come to where the Jews believed God was. This is what upset Jesus so much: not the business that they were doing, but that where they did it interfered with how people worshiped and interacted with God—something Jesus came to make easier, not harder.
On this third Sunday in Lent, we are living in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We don’t really know any other way to be; we certainly wouldn’t give back the gift of salvation, let alone our understanding of the grace of God. This Lenten season calls us to think about what grace means to us, how we might make more room in our lives for God, and what changes we might make in our lives to be better people. Lent is also a good time for us to think about our own stories of faith and see where they lead us, what we see differently now as we remember the people and events and experiences that have made us who we are.
In Celtic Christianity, which originated in Ireland and Scotland centuries ago, there is the concept of “thin places.” Thin places are places where God seems particularly close to us, where it seems like we can almost reach out and touch Jesus, where the Spirit of God is so close we can almost see God working. The difficulty with these experiences, I think, is that so often we don’t know what’s happening until later. We may not even realize what’s happening until it’s over, until we’ve seen the event in a different light, until, like the disciples, we have a chance to look back and to remember.
When I was in college, I had one of those experiences. I was a fairly typical college student, in that I didn’t go regularly to church while I was away at school. The Methodist church closest to the campus, almost right across the street from my freshman dorm, was full of retirees who had come to the community for a quieter life, and weren’t always as welcoming as they thought they were to a crowd of students. I can’t tell you that there was ever an unkind word said or anything done to give us that impression, but even the Wesley Foundation, located next to the church, felt the chill from time to time. So I was not a particularly good Methodist in college.
During my senior year, a friend started a Pentecostal ministry and I began to attend worship with him. We had what you might call a kind of convert’s zeal, convinced we had it all figured out and everyone who didn’t believe exactly what we did had it all wrong. Not all Pentecostals are like that, and I’ve since gotten over it, but I’m sharing it with you today because it gives some context to the rest of this story. I was also a member of a coed service fraternity that was full of all kinds of interesting people: Christians and Wiccans and Muslims and people who didn’t know what they believed—and we called one another “brother.” Even the girls. It was silly, but it was fun, and when we said “brother” to one another, we knew we belonged.
Apparently at some point during this year, another friend from the Pentecostal church and I were driving somewhere, with two other members of our fraternity. They happened to be members of the campus Wiccan group, a kind of neopagans, and we had not always been particularly kind to them. I’m not sure we ever said or did anything that anyone could point out, but I’m confident that we were not particularly warm and welcoming to them. On that trip, we nearly had an accident, and my friend Kris said, “we have to pull over and pray right now!” I don’t know what made me do it, but I turned to our fraternity brothers in the back seat and asked if they minded if we prayed.
To be honest, I don’t remember this incident at all. To this day, I can’t think of any reason the four of us would be in a car together. I especially can’t understand why they would have chosen to ride with us, when we had so clearly drawn a line between who was in and who was out of the Kingdom of God, at least as we saw it. Everything I know about this story comes from one of the people in the backseat that night, who emailed me several years ago to tell me that I had played a significant role in their coming to Christian faith. My consideration in asking if it would be okay with them if Kris and I prayed showed them that God was more generous and more gracious than we had been in the past.
There was a thin place that night in that car, that night I can’t remember. For just a little while, God reached through and opened up a little path into someone’s heart. To this day, I don’t know if it was theirs or mine—maybe both. I can’t even say that this interaction played a role in my becoming a pastor; I had already been a pastor for several years before I got that email. What I do know is that something happened in that car that night that we didn’t understand at the time. We didn’t recognize that something momentous was going on. But ten years later, someone remembered, and was gracious enough to reach out to me and share it with me.
It was such a little thing. Just once I set aside the condescension my little church had for these two people we should have called friends and did call brothers, and when I did, a little space was made for Jesus Christ to make a difference in the lives of two people. I don’t take any credit for this; how could I, when I can’t even remember it? But I treasure two things about this: that someone thought enough of me to tell me about it, and that I was there at one of those thin places where God reaches into our lives.
One of the big mistakes that we make as Christians is that sometimes we try too hard. My friends and I were trying to be the best kind of Christians we knew how to be, but in trying too hard, we cut ourselves off from sharing God’s love and grace with others. That Methodist church tried hard; they gave land and space and buildings to the Wesley Foundation and supported Methodist students on mission trips and with Bible studies. But they tried a little too hard to make us just like them, and it made us uncomfortable to be there. Living faithful and obedient Christian lives is not about trying to be Christian, but about simply being Christian. It’s not about what we can do, but about what we let God do in us. That’s what happened that day in the car, I think. I stopped trying so hard and just was Christian, gracious, in that moment, and Christ reached through me and into their hearts and lives.
As we think about what it means to keep a holy Lent, to be Christians, to follow Christ wholly, perhaps we can look back over our lives for some thin places where Jesus touched us and changed us. And perhaps this time of introspection, of thinking about what it is Jesus has done for us in his life, death, and resurrection, can help us to create thin places for others to come in contact with God, to share our faith and our hope. I pray so.