Sunday, March 11, 2012

"Let justice flow like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream." (Reflections on the 3rd Sunday of Lent, John 2:13-25)

There are only two instances in the New Testament when Jesus is portrayed as being angry. Today's account of the cleansing of the temple is one. The other is when he asks the Scribes and Pharisees if they thought it was more acceptable to do good or evil on the Sabbath, and they keep silent rather than give him an honest answer. Here the gospel of Mark says that "he looked at them in anger, distressed at their hardness of heart". (Mark 3:5)

In his narrative of the temple cleansing, John tells us that Jesus, "made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.” (John 2:15)

It would be wrong to think that Jesus drove the people out of the temple simply because they were doing something evil or illegal or unacceptable. If we take a closer look at the circumstances surrounding the presence of these animal sellers and currency changers, we see that the situation is a little more complicated.

First, consider the animal sellers. Animal sacrifice was necessary for temple worship, and the Law stipulated that the animals to be offered be unblemished. Now that's precisely what those selling animals in the temple area were doing - selling unblemished offerings that were in fact guaranteed by a "quality-checker".

Now animals were also offered outside the temple area; but these tended to be of poor quality and were consequently unacceptable. Worshipers thus had to purchase them inside, or they'd just be wasting their money on what were essentially rejects. What the animal sellers were doing was therefore perfectly normal.

Next, consider the money changers. The pilgrims who came to the temple in Jerusalem were from all over the empire, and they had to make monetary offerings at the temple. Now the Law stipulated that coins to be offered cannot have "graven images" on them, which most of the coins of the pilgrims had.

The money changers inside the temple were consequently doing an important service to both the pilgrims and the temple itself. They were changing the pilgrims' coins which had the images of emperors, kings, and pagan deities to Jewish coins that were acceptable to God. Like the animal sellers, therefore, the currency changers were doing something perfectly normal and even necessary.

Why was Jesus so angry then?

It was not so much what the animal sellers and money changers were doing that angered him; rather, it was the manner by which they conducted their affairs and what this meant for temple worship that caused him no small amount of distress and indignation. More than the physical mess itself, it was what such mess truly pointed to that truly angered Jesus.

First, consider the animal sellers. While the service they provided was legitimate and necessary, they also literally turned the outer area of the temple into a marketplace. This outer area was called the "Court of the Gentiles". It was a space reserved for non-Jews who wanted to pray and be close to God.

But the animal sellers were allowed by the temple authorities to turn this area into a filthy place which stank because of animal manure. It had become so noisy with all the animals and bargaining going on that those who sought to pray there could hardly do so.

More than anything thus, it showed how low the Jews regarded the Gentiles. A stinking, noisy, messy place for prayer was good enough for them. And this was done in the name of religion! That was completely unacceptable to Jesus.

For how can one profess true faith and true religion when he can’t even treat people with fairness, simply because they’re different from himself?

Next, consider the money changers. They were known to cheat people by charging them unreasonable exchange rates. The temple offering was worth a day and half’s wage; but these changers sometimes charged double that amount, making it amount to three days’ wages.

Most of these pilgrims were poor. Consequently, these money changers were fleecing the poor, in the name of religion. It showed how low these people regarded those who were already poor—and, once again, this was being done in the name of religion. This too was completely unacceptable to Jesus.

For how can one profess true faith and true religion when he can’t even treat people with justice, simple because they are poor?

Why was Jesus so angry then? Because what he saw was a religion gone out of control. It wasn’t even true religion anymore.

What he saw in the temple was a kind of religion that had become a show. It had forgotten what authentic religion is all about. And so Jesus makes a whip of cords and drives the sellers and money changers out: “Take these out of here”, he cries. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

He was angry because these men were giving religion a bad name. They had forgotten that religion isn’t only about the externals of sacrifice and offering and ritual.

True religion is true relationship, with God and with people, especially the weak, the outcast, the poor, and those who live on the margins of society. How can it be true religion when one treats others unjustly, without respect, or even excludes others?

“It is justice that I desire, not sacrifice!” God himself repeats over and over again in the Old Testament. And the prophets were no less severe in their condemnation of religious practices that were solely meant for show, rituals that had to do purely with externals but caused no change whatsoever in one's heart, mind, and soul.

If we think Jesus' action in the temple was harsh, we only have to consider the words God spoke through the prophet Amos:

"I hate, I despise your religious feasts. I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice flow like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!" (Amos 5:21-24)

The mess at the temple, which Jesus had to cleanse, symbolized a religion that had forgotten its heart and core, one that had lost sight of its meaning and substance. Jesus’ anger was meant to demonstrate that in the most dramatic way.

The sellers and money changers and temple officials weren’t bad people. In fact they were good persons who were doing their duties. But they had lost sight of the true meaning of what they were doing.

Even the best among us can sometimes lose sight of the true meaning of our faith and our religion. We get lost in the externals, and we forget that what goes on, on the outside, must be consistent with what goes on in our hearts.

The sellers, money changers and temple officials lost themselves in the superficial and peripheral because they had forgotten what was essential and substantial.

In another part of the Gospel, someone approached Jesus and asked him what was the greatest commandment of religion, and how he can gain everlasting life. His reply was simple:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself”.

The Jews at the temple had forgotten that. Today, Jesus invites each one of us to remember.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)