Despite the frequent objections that he is obtuse, remote, and unclear, at crucial moments God has been know to pronounce and provide specific, detailed instructions.
In the beginning, when God creates the universe, he provides detailed instructions as he calls the world into being, day by day, even though he is only speaking to himself.
When God reconsiders his creation, and plans to scrap it and start again, he gives Noah detailed instructions on how to build the ark, cubit by cubit.
When God calls Abraham into a covenant of love, he lays out detailed expectations about the land Abraham is to occupy.
When God is moved to lead the Hebrews out of their bondage in Egypt he lays out detailed plans for Moses, and provides daily instructions for him.
And when God wants to articulate his laws to Moses, he lays them out in great and specific detail, beginning with the Ten Commandments and continuing to dictate all 613 commandments of the Mosaic law.
When God makes David king, and David wants to build a temple, God makes his intentions clear, and tells him not to build it
When Solomon becomes king and God decides that the time for a Temple has come, Solomon follows very specific plans, as though they were supplied by the hand of a divine draftsman.
When God’s people are driven into exile he gives specific and careful instructions through his prophets that they should persevere and endure.
This is one of the great preoccupations of the Old Testament scriptures: to lay out the instructions of God as revealed to God’s people.
Another great preoccupation of the Old Testament scriptures is the elimination of idols. Idols are false gods: things to which we are willing to offer our worship and sacrifice, but that don’t deserve either because they are not real, they are not the one, true, and living God.
Again and again in the Hebrew scriptures – in the prophets and in the Psalms especially - we hear God telling his people to “repent and turn away from your idols” (Ez. 14:6). And again and again God’s people are tempted - most famously when they crafted a golden calf while Moses was off speaking with God. But other idols also tempted the people who’d been told, “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.”
Of course, Jesus knew all this. And I wonder if he may have had some of this in mind when he strode into the forecourts of the Temple in Jerusalem. Nothing he found there would have surprised him. It’s not as though he didn’t know that there were money-changers there, that there was an economy associated with the sacrifices of the Temple.
When we look back at this famous little episode in which Jesus makes a whip of cords and drives the money-changers and the merchants out of the temple, it is somewhat incongruous, a non-sequitur in the narrative of Jesus. We can’t quite figure out where his anger comes from, where this aggressive attitude comes from, where this righteous indignation comes from. It is an unfamiliar picture of Jesus and it is as though it doesn’t belong in this context, almost as if it is out of place.
And I believe that the story from the second chapter of John’s Gospel is out of place. The clue that is the give-away to me is found in the 16th verse. Older translations put his accusation differently:
“You shall not make my Father’s house a…
house of trade
house of merchants
house of merchandise
house of traffic
But it’s the newer translation that speaks directly to our modern day and age: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
If ever there was a defining term for 21st century America it is the marketplace. It is the accepted conventional wisdom of our day and age that the marketplace is and ought to be the defining paradigm for all things from ideas to religion to entertainment and/or news to the welfare and happiness of our neighbors to the availability of health care to college football. The Marketplace should decide. Adam Smith’s invisible hand is deemed superior to any other, including the hand of God. We have arranged our lives to bow at the altars of the markets: from commodities, to national defense, to education, and even caring for pets. The marketplace rules. And none rules more mightily than the stock markets, where money is translated directly into power as quickly as you can say “IPO”. A market-driven approach is seen to embody the wisest approach to all problems: education, food distribution, wealth distribution, etc. etc. “Let the market decide,” is the watchword of our current age, as if everyone can engage equally on the playing fields of the market – as if institutionalized and systemic imbalance is not built in to the markets, as if the markets desire a level playing field the way water seeks its own level. As if.
Mind you, most do not question the prevailing wisdom – it would be dangerous to do so. For where would this parish be without its investments in the stock markets? And what of the donors who rely on markets for their income? The dynamics of market forces provide the warp and weft of American society. One releases one’s grip on the fabric of society only with great hesitation and trepidation.
If the marketplace cannot be said to be our new idol, then at least we can say that its shelves are stocked with the false gods to whom we offer worship and sacrifice: entertainment, celebrity, convenience, status, wealth, power, and the greatest common denominator – money. As a society, and as individuals we are obsessed with these idols… which is why everyone wants to win the Powerball, and why winning the lottery (one way or another) is the new American dream, having replaced hard work, modest but sufficient achievement, and a measure of happiness.
And since there is hardly a church out there who would not also like to win the lottery (one way or another), American religion seldom if ever offers any alternative to the significant allures of the marketplace. At best we hope to find our place within the marketplace, and thrive on the marketplace’s terms.
This is why I think those few strange verses of the second chapter of John’s Gospel are out of place. Jesus’ anger, his aggressive attitude, and his righteous indignation are not directed at first century Palestinians, for whom the marketplace may have been a minor perversion around the edges of the Temple. Perhaps his anger, his aggressive attitude, and his righteous indignation are meant for you and me, who have happily adopted a marketplace of idols as our home, and yet we still pretend to be followers of Christ.
However, tempting though it is to go on and on about the evils of the marketplace, I am not allowed to do it for two reasons. First, because, it is ludicrous to do so, and you would probably stop listening to me if I did. In any case, we are stuck with the very mixed blessings of a market economy, which, it has to be admitted, has brought a great deal of innovation, development, and, I daresay, good into the world.
Second, the text of John’s Gospel does not allow me to rant endlessly. For, in this episode, Jesus is not condemning all markets and all marketplaces. He does not tell people never to buy or sell again. It would be going too far to say that he objected to markets on principle. We don’t even know if the money-changers and the merchants stayed out of the Temple precincts for more than half an hour after his tantrum; so we don’t even know if Jesus effected lasting change there.
But we have no record that Jesus himself ever went shopping. And it would not be going too far to suggest that Jesus knows that you and I are gripped by the forces of a marketplace that is always seeking to draw our attention, to win our favor, to exploit our weaknesses, and to supplant all our other allegiances. And among all the plans that God laid out, all the instructions God has given in great detail, none of them is for a marketplace.
But God does have plans and instructions for you and for me – for his church and for all his creation. His plan is for peace, and his instructions embody love. These currencies habitually fare poorly in the marketplace, since power and violence sell so much better. And Jesus does become angry, aggressive, and righteously indignant when the marketplace encroaches on God’s domain – begins to take over those places that God intends for himself, even the most sacred shrines of his eternal presence: like your beating heart and mine, your fascinating mind and mine, your hardworking hands and mine, your shimmering imagination and mine. These are the latter day forecourts of God’s Temple. God laid out elaborate, specific, and detailed plans for them when he conceived of each and every one of us long before we were born, so that we would resound with the glory of God’s own image, and contribute to the building up of his kingdom.
But when our lives are dominated by the buying and selling of absolutely everything, and when that commerce obliterates the importance of everything else – including the worship of God and the sacrifices we might make to him – then we have a problem. When the vain idols of the marketplace so enthrall us, then we have a problem – because they are false gods: things to which we are willing to offer our worship and sacrifice, but that don’t deserve either because they are not real, they are not the one, true, and living God
And when that problem has become so ingrained as to seem commonplace and entirely unobjectionable – as the money-changers and the merchants had become in the forecourts of the Temple – then we have roused Jesus’ ire. Because the money-changers and the merchants were getting their due, but it was by no means clear that God was getting what was due to him – the worship, praise, and love of his people.
Polls tell us over and over again that America is a religious nation with an unusually lively faith. And yet it can sometimes be difficult to see where and how God’s kingdom is being built, where God’s name is being praised across the cities and towns and countryside of this nation. Perhaps this is because we have become so enthralled with our own shopping that we have become inattentive to God’s call, to his plan and instruction that we should love him, and love our neighbors, that we should care for the poor, the lonely, and the unloved. Perhaps we have allowed idols of various shapes and sizes, many of them now digital – sold to us by a relentless marketing effort – to replace God in our hearts, and relegate him to a secondary or tertiary status that we get to when the shopping is done. These are the tables that Jesus is impatient to overturn, having found a marketplace in areas reserved for God’s purposes. Jesus comes charging into our marketplaces with a whip of cords. And his instruction is not difficult to infer: having cleared the pavement or merchants and money-changers, he wants us to return the space to its intended use: the worship of God and the care of God’s people.
When Jesus was acting out this impatience in the forecourts of the second Temple two thousand years ago, not far away there remained a quiet and holy place, behind a curtain, where the Presence of God dwelt unperturbed and imperturbable. For the loving kindness of God’s Presence is not a commodity that rises and falls with his moods, as we so often fear it must be. God is constant in love as he is constantly present. Which is why we come here where there is nothing to buy or to sell for the hour or so we spend with God in this place: to realign our sense of purpose with God’s intentions and instructions, by entering into his Presence, and to cast away the false idols of the marketplace that we really do find very appealing.
For years, my parents went to a small church outside of Boston. They had an elderly friend there with whom they would meet every week after church. And after Mass, and after Coffee Hour, they would collect their friend, and drive off together to a farmer’s market where together they would get supplies for the week. Unable to drive, their friend could not have made it out to the market without my parents’ help, who would then take him to brunch and give him a ride home.
Amidst the roaring demands of a voracious marketplace, my parents’ pattern sounds almost like a good set of instructions. First they offered their prayers and their prayers. Next they connected with their neighbor who was in need. And finally they ended up at the market, which was well beyond the space they had reserved for God in their lives. I’ve long been grateful to my parents for the good example they set for me. And now I see what a fine plan it is to follow, and how grateful I am that Jesus keeps insisting on clearing the space in my heart where I might easily otherwise just buy something.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
8 March 2015
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia