What’s Going On Down At the Temple?
February 28, 2016
Chilmark Community Church
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
Jesus – – angry in the Temple. So much has been done with this story. It has been used to justify anger as a faith response – after all – Jesus demonstrated anger. It has been used to justify violence as a means to an end – Jesus used a whip of cords to drive merchants from the temple. It has been used as an argument against fund-raising in the church – Jesus said don’t turn my Father’s house into a market place. It has been read as a protest against the exploitation of the poor, of the traveler, of the worshipper – and in this reading, the Temple does not come out looking so well. Historically, the text has often been used in Christian preaching and teaching to denigrate the Temple religious sacrificial system and from there it was a very short step to denigrating Jews and Judaism.
Jesus came to the temple in Jerusalem and he looked around.
But what was he seeing? What angered him so much that he committed what is perceived as an act of violence against the vendors gathered there?
New Testament scholars of every stripe have puzzled and struggled to draw conclusions about Jesus’ activities in this story and to understand what meaning the story may have for the church today. New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan argued that the Temple was itself a “domination system” in the midst of the Roman domination of the Jewish people – that the Temple and the institutions it represented exploited the people – marketing at a profit the necessary animals for the many sacrifices that were made each day.
In her book THE MISUNDERSTOOD JEW, New Testament scholar, Amy Jill Levine argues that this is a faulty and, perhaps, even dangerous reading of the text.
As she leads us through the New Testament texts, we find that, indeed, the Jewish population in general did NOT consider the temple to be an exploitive “domination system”, but rather the “house of God.” The Gospels and The Book of Acts depict Jesus and his family and his followers worshipping in the Temple and making their sacrifices to God. Apparently they did not feel either dominated or exploited by the temple practices. Zechariah, the Father of John the Baptist served as a priest in the temple. Simeon and Anna who greeted the infant Jesus on the 8th day after his birth prayed devoutly and worshipped in the Temple – Anna, a prophet, according to the story, spent all her days there. Jesus’ followers continued to gather in the Temple after his death and indeed, the Temple became the setting for several miracles.
The problem Jesus addresses in all 4 gospels is not exploitation or domination, plundering or robbing; it is the act of “doing business” itself. As we heard earlier, John’s version of the story accentuates the point; in it Jesus rages, “Stop making my Father’s house a market place.”
Whatever Jesus did or did not do, the Gospel evidence does not suggest that he was about the dismantling of an exploitive system. Something else was going on at the temple. Commentator Bruce Chilton reminds us that the vendors located in the temple at the time of the story had previously marketed their wares on the Mount of Olives at some slight distance from the Temple. It was customary for pilgrims and worshippers to visit the market on their way to the Temple to purchase their sacrificial animals. By order of Caiaphas, the Roman approved High Priest at the time, the vendors were moved from the Mount of Olives into the Court of the Gentiles, one of the outer courts of the Temple. This indirectly represented one more Roman incursion into the religious life of the Jews. Many Jews, including Jesus, objected.
The issue was not one of economic exploitation – but a serious insult to the way the Jewish people conducted their religious life. The market was not exploiting worshippers who were already accustomed to making their purchase prior to worship. It The issue was the fact that the market place was set up in the temple grounds itself – – that buying and selling was happening on the Sabbath in direct contradiction of Jewish religious religious practice.
So –what does all that have to do with us, with our worship, with our movement through the Lenten season? Our lesson from the Hebrew scriptures holds the key. Earlier, we heard the reading of the 10 Commandments. Almost at the center of these life shaping words is the command: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days shall you labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” The Temple is the physical representation – the physical space – of Shabbat holiness.
But, there is also, as Abraham Joshua Heschel describes it, a temple in time – a sacred space in time – called the Sabbath – a time set apart – and made holy. He writes “In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where man may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity. The island is the seventh day, the Sabbath day, a day of detachment from things, instruments and practical affairs as well as (a day of) attachment to the spirit.”
Heschel further writes: The holiness of the chosen day is not something at which to stare and from which we must humbly stay away. It is not holy away from us. It is holy unto us. Exodus 31:14 reads “You shall keep the Sabbath therefore , for it is holy unto you. The Sabbath gives holiness to Israel.
So, what was going on down at the temple? The very presence of the market place, the place of doing business on the other 6 days of the week, posed a threat to the holiness of the day of Shabbat and to the holiness that Shabbat offered to the Jewish people. A few years ago, in Jerusalem, we were in one of the most vibrant suks or market places on Friday afternoon a few hours before the beginning of Shabbat. The buying and selling was vigorous and noisy and colorful and exhilarating. People buying their last minute Shabbos dinner ingredients – beautiful loaves of challah being snapped up – kosher slaughtered chickens disappearing from open air butcher – shops a sense of excitement and anticipation – Shabbat anticipated as a beautiful bride approaching the gates of the city. In a few hours, though, all the booths and stores would be shuttered and quiet throughout Jerusalem. Cars would begin disappearing from the streets. Work would cease. And a spirit of calm peacefulness would settle over the city. Regardless of all the stresses that Israel endures on a daily basis, on Shabbat, a sense of holiness pervades the land and there is peace. A very energetically secular environment simply shuts down – closes its doors –and a space for holiness is created in the calm of Shabbat.
In our culture we have pretty much lost our sense of Shabbat. We do not know how to rest as God rests. Modern technology has made it possible for us to be constantly available to the work place. We don’t now how to stop – and even when we try, the resulting anxiety can be intolerable. The holiness of our lives has been invaded by the marketplace. Jesus’ irate call to us is to get the marketplace out of the temple of our lives for at least 24 hours each week – to stop getting and spending, creating and destroying, producing and consuming, scheduling and managing.
Abraham Heschel sums it up this way: To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we do not use the instruments which have so easily been turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow human beings and with the forces of nature – is there any institution that holds out greater hope for human progress than the Sabbath?
God instructs: Remember the Sabbath – keep it holy. But the greater issue is that in remembering the Sabbath, we are made holy. Our holiness, the holiness of the people of God – – this is what Jesus was protecting. The sanctity of human life is restored and preserved when Shabbat is at the center of our lives. Sabbath is a temple in time. When we make a Sabbath time central in our lives, we may have the experience of being liberated from the tyranny of the things that govern our lives – if only for 24 hours each week. Indeed, when we can find the way to observe Shabbat, we can become attuned to what Heschel calls “holiness in time.”
It takes some discipline to begin to observe Shabbat. But once it is established in our lives it has the power to make all our days holy. This too is the work of Jesus – to point us in the direction of all that would make our lives holy – – and all it takes is our willingness to rest for 24 hours out of each week. Something to think about as we journey through Lent.