Robert L. Grabill, Director of Education
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
John 2: 13-22
There are times when I feel somewhat wistful when I have to march downstairs at the start of the service, particularly when it means I am going to miss an exquisite piece of music or a well-drafted sermon. Yet what transpires in Church School is a pretty critical aspect of our community’s faith formation process, and I am fulfilled by being part of that mission. My middle school- aged classes take place in the fourth floor classroom, and every year during Lent I find an appropriate time to punctuate my lesson on Jesus in the Temple by upending one of the tables. That was the “thump” you heard a few weeks ago, depending on how carefully you were listening. It’s a cheap piece of theatrics, but sometimes unsubtle showmanship works well to get your class’s attention, and make an important story a memorable one. Eric and Jacob, how many times have I tipped a table over in your class? Twice? It’s time for you two to graduate to a more detailed interpretation of that story. Stay with me.
I am going to speak today about the ways in which this story and ones like it have been misinterpreted, and then discuss an interpretation or two that I think bear some consideration. It’s important to know that the story of Jesus trashing the Temple occurs in all four of the Gospel accounts, with some significant differences. Today’s text is from John, and it’s typical that during Lent and Holy Week, as well as during Christmas, that Gospel drops into the lectionary.
John’s Gospel, the fourth, is unique in that respect. The other three, Matthew, Mark and Luke, are grouped together and known as the Synoptic Gospels. They share many similarities, and scholarly consensus suggests that Mark was written first, and both Matthew and Luke were based in large measure on Mark, with significant additions from other sources. All three have their “own” year during the three-year lectionary cycle, which every week lists a Gospel reading, along with one from the Hebrew Bible, a Psalm (which here at CCDC is almost always the basis for our responsive reading), and an Epistle. This is lectionary year “B”, and so since Advent we have been getting a steady diet of Mark, until this week. If you check the list of lectionary readings for the next four weeks, we will be having a regular ration of John. There are many ways in which John’s Gospel, the last one written, is distinct. There are no birth narratives, for instance, and the portrait of Jesus which is portrayed is unique. There is no record of his baptism by John the Baptist. Jesus spends no time of contemplation in the Judean wilderness, and is not tempted by Satan. In John’s Gospel, Jesus possesses a vital unity with God that makes him beyond temptation. There are virtually no parables in John, whereas in Luke and Matthew, this is the primary form of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples involves foot washing, but no communion precedent. Jesus shows no indecision and agony in the Garden of Gethsemene. He is poised and confident and in control, and his death on the cross is the fulfillment if God’s plan. At the end, he declares “It is finished.” rather than the agonized question in Mark, “Why have you forsaken me?”
One more difference with the Gospel of John, relevant today: The account of Jesus cleansing the Temple occurs at a distinctly different time in the story of Jesus’ life. In all three of the synoptic Gospels, this episode comes in the final week of his life, after he has entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It’s the only time he comes to Jerusalem in these accounts. His overturning of the tables belonging to the moneychangers is one of the final acts of provocation that spurs the Pharisees and Jewish authorities to plan for his trial and death at the hands of the Romans. In John, the cleansing incident occurs very early in his public career. There are within John’s Gospel seven “signs” that identify Jesus to readers as the Christ, the Messiah, the son of the Father, and he comes to Jerusalem for the Passover having just accomplished the first of these, turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana. Seeing this, his disciples believe in him. Now it is his turn to announce himself very publicly to the Jewish authorities. Why so early, then? In the other three Gospels Jesus’ actions were the final straw. In John’s the theological significance is different. For John, the episode’s significance is Jesus’ superiority to the Temple worship practices in Jerusalem. The temple is no longer sacred because the Holy Spirit now dwells in Jesus’ person rather than in the shrine that King Herod constructed. Jesus’ physical body may be destroyed, but unlike Herod’s edifice, he will rise again as proof that God’s spirit imbues him.
I want to talk briefly about how this episode, and indeed John’s entire Gospel, has given rise to misinterpretation. John’s Gospel was written at the end of the first century, generations after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It was addressed to a community of believers that had come to define themselves as apart from Judaism. Their belief in Jesus as the Messiah, and as the fulfillment
of God’s promise to the chosen people of Israel, had caused them to be shunned by Jewish leaders. Following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, it was a desperate time for the Jews. Deprived of their central place of worship, for there truly was no worship other than sacrificial rites at the Temple, they circled the wagons and began a process of redefining themselves as “people of the book”. This transition to Rabbinic Judaism compelled them to self-identify through close adherence to the Torah, and to laws, foremost among them the Decalogue which Stan Udy read so compellingly today. This self-definition allowed no room for the Jewish Christians who claimed Jesus as their savior, and argued that purity laws and circumcision, crucial markers of Jewish identity, were no longer necessary. These new Christians were admitting Gentiles to their circle. It was heresy.
The followers of Jesus were expelled from synagogues throughout Jerusalem and the Mediterranean basin. The Christian community to which John preached felt this rejection keenly. The split between Judaism and Christianity was nearly complete, and John’s Gospel reflected his followers’ disdain for the Jews. John took his enmity a step further even than Matthew, whose Gospel also contains consistent criticism of the Pharisees. Both Matthew and John transposed this intense negativity toward the Jews in their historical-sounding accounts of Jesus’ confrontations with Jewish authorities 50 years earlier. What had been a family quarrel between Pharisitic Jews in his lifetime became, in the Gospels of John and Mark, a battle between a Christian-looking Jesus and the monolithic “Jews”. Unlike Matthew, John did not differentiate among Jesus’ opponents. Instead of characterizing them as Sadducees, scribes or Pharisees, John lumps them together as “the Jews”, as if Jesus’ fellow countrymen belonged to a group of which he was never a part. All throughout John’s Gospel, and you will hear it regularly it in the next four weeks, Jesus’ enemies were The Jews. The Jews. The Jews. The Jews. Over centuries, this aspect of John’s Gospel has been interpreted by all of the most significant Christian theologians, including Paul, Augustine and Martin Luther, to make the Jews complicit in the death of Jesus. These are the roots of anti-Semitism. These are the roots of the marginalization of a people. These are the roots of the slaughter of thousands of Jews during the Crusades. These are the roots of the Holocaust.
Next week our CCDC Reads book group will be discussing a compelling history of Jerusalem written by James Carroll, a former Catholic priest and a prolific writer of a number of books and columns discussing religion and history. Before Carroll wrote, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem” he authored “Constantine’s Sword”, a detailed and sensitive discussion of this longstanding misinterpretation. It’s uplifting to hear Carroll describe the positive steps taken across Christianity since World War II, from the sweeping reforms of Vatican II to similar advances in Protestantism which in effect grant the understanding that “God has more than one blessing.” to quote author Susan Boys.
There are, of course, many other ways to interpret Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. In all of my Sunday School teaching days, I took a pretty un-nuanced approach as I prepared to overturn the table in my classroom. Who doesn’t want to identify with Jesus, on the side of right against the authorities who have allowed the moneychangers into the Court of the Gentiles? Ah, if I knew then what I know now. We actually need to feel a bit more circumspect when we are tempted to feel this surge of righteousness when Jesus launches into prophetic mode. Isn’t it possible that we have just as much in common with the targets of his judgment as with the rightness of his cause? It is wonderfully tempting to take up the whip with him, and denounce the principalities and powers. But the targets of Jesus’ displeasure in this narrative are not kings in remote palaces, or the forces of empires seen or unseen, or pagan rulers who haven’t heard of the God of Israel. As I said earlier, there was an in-house disagreement, an outspoken Jewish rabbi putting the establishment on notice that he was the herald of a new era. Jesus’ targets were those who tolerated the moneychangers, and even encouraged them. The Temple authorities should have known better. They had made a career of studying the word of God. They were committed to building up institutions to proclaim and embody that word, and yet they had somehow managed to accommodate the moneychangers. It is doubtful that the system was ever a wholly cynical exploitation of God’s good name. More than likely, all involved had simply settled into comfortable behaviors that enabled them to meet institutional goals, turning an increasingly blind eye to the unsavory possibilities of corruption inherent in changing money. We have no moneychangers in the Batcheldor Lounge, CCDC’s “Court of the Gentiles”. Last time I looked, all we had was Warren Turner selling Fair Exchange coffee at cost. But self-examination is warranted for any church in any denomination that places a high priority on institutional survival at the expense of discipleship. There is obvious tension here between the dual needs of a prophetic impulse and an institution to sustain it. A church without the prophetic impulse quickly devolves into reflecting corporate values that place a priority on maximizing the return on the endowment. However, the prophetic impulse that does not develop and maintain an enduring structure is quickly reduced to a short shelf life and irrelevance, or co-opted to serve the powers against which it originally bore witness.
This is our task during Lent. Through prayer, and preparation and self-examination, we need to embrace the tension caused by seeing Jesus with the whip of cords in his hands, and hearing the righteous judgments of God on his lips, knowing that he speaks for us, and those naïve Sunday School teachers turning over tables, but he also speaks to us, and even against us. In the season of Lent, we would be wise to acknowledge the tension and the ambiguity created by the excitement of prophetic action and how this interacts with our lives as an institution.
I saw this happen last Sunday afternoon in the Batcheldor Lounge, cleared of any commerce, but filled with members of this church family who wanted to ask questions of themselves, and work at listening to the prophetic thinking of a UCC teacher, preacher and author who asks hard questions of the church. We will be back at it this afternoon and next, and all are welcome, as Bob Keene emphasized. It is the sort of Lenten exercise, based on careful scholarship, that the lessons of the Temple cleansing ask us to undertake. May God bless our efforts. Amen.