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I said to someone recently, I can’t ever imagine how we thought Jesus was meek and mild.  When I was at university doing my theological degree, I remember one of the lecturers asking if we thought Jesus fitted this description and I recall the robust  debate when this story about Jesus overturning the money changing tables in the Jerusalem temple (John 2:13-22) was retold and its implications. 

It is one of the rare events included in all four of the Gospels, although for John it happens at the start of Jesus’ ministry, after the wedding at Cana, whereas in the other three gospels, it is at the end of his ministry.

The story begins with a setting of huge significance, the Passover was drawing near and Jesus was in the Jerusalem Temple.  The crowds would have been huge and everyone preparing to celebrate the feast.  Into such an occasion Jesus decides to act, and it’s a powerful, dramatic and unequivocal act to challenge the powers and authorities of his time, both the religious and secular, and this act carries the same judgement today

Imagine the scene, the forecourt and inner courts of the temple, were filled with pilgrims and all who were coming to worship.  The money changers and lenders had tables with secure, heavy boxes, with the temple money ready for exchange.  Temple coins were different to the ‘unclean’ coinage used in daily life.  Those who had come with large donations would tip their offering into a funnel set into the boxes, and the racket made as the coins rolled round the funnel, dropping into the box, by those giving larger amounts would have made a very clear and audible statement about their wealth and status.   The poor widow’s mite would have made a sorry, tiny sound rattling singly into the box without notice or recognition.

Those coming with sheep, goats and doves, which they had chosen as the best of their herds, as clean and pure as possible, were frequently told this was not the case.   They had to swap their sacrificial animal or bird for a ‘clean, pure’ temple ‘assured’ animal, pay the difference and then, swap their coinage for the donation also with an exchange fee. 

The temple was making a healthy profit, as were the temple money lenders, and the people attending God’s house, would have to make their way through this racket and commercial bustle to reach God for prayer and worship. 

Into this pandemonium, comes Jesus, who looks around at the scene.  He did not act impulsively.  He deliberately gathers rope together and makes a whip out of all the cords, and in the retelling of this story, John also reminds us of what was used on Jesus, when he was flogged at the end of his life. 

In this story Jesus goes berserk, as he drives out the animals, overturns the tables, sending the moneylenders scrambling to their knees to scoop up money and tables, and Jesus tips the market into an uproar.  He tells the temple elders: ‘Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!’

I have been wondering what Jesus might do today if he came to church, but we don’t have a marketplace at the front of the church! However, I ask myself, where have we become so used to custom and practise we no longer remember the purpose for what and why we do things in worship preparation and in the welcome and inclusion we give to those who come?

What are the barriers people now find when coming to Church?  Where do we resist the need to change to spread God’s message of hope and love more accessibly, and instead hang onto what we’ve always done?  Who are the ones who benefit most from our structures and systems and resist any changes?  These are hard questions for us to ask ourselves as we critique our own church and religious behaviour, our own carefully protected ‘temples’, and do we have the courage to look more honestly at the things and behaviours which we have used to replace God’s commandments.  

In Exodus 20;1-17 we were reminded of the extraordinary nature of the 10 Commandments; and we say them in full during our Lent services as we seek to re-imagine what they mean today.  In the Commandments, we hear God reminding us of what happens when we turn away from God, and how easily we manage to avoid loving God and our neighbours when there is something more attractive to our human eyes and hearts.

It is worth remembering, the Commandments were an extraordinary development in the relationship emerging between God and God’s people; they shifted society, culture and worship into a very different way of holding relationships that had not previously existed or been expressed in both sacred and daily lives.

Jesus did the same incredible, radical shift in his ministry and with this act.  He reminded people it wasn’t business as usual.  God is a God of love, and any barriers placed between God and God’s people are unacceptable.  Turning God’s house into a place of commerce, with base transactions, where fraud, corruption, power and control, oppression, injustice and theft, covetousness, greed, and the dishonouring of neighbours were complacently on display, was appalling.  I suspect the temple’s reputation for such activity was well known and accepted as necessary.

Jesus drew a line in the sand for all time, for all people by this act.  This is not what we do or how we behave with God and with one another.  The drama of the story, resounds through the millennia as we hear God speak directly to us of love, compassion, justice, mercy, hope and fellowship. These all require us to turn our backs on human designed systems and structures built without God’s presence and instead, we are invited to be equally radical in our welcome, love, justice and hope which we offer from God and ourselves to all people. 

It is in Christ’s body we find all this, and in God as the Word made flesh, we are invited to the feast of our lives, to share with one another, with abundance, God’s love and hope for all people.  In our world, we are asked to be as foolish and as hopeful as this.

The Lord be with you.

Lucy Morris
Lucy Morris
Anglican Priest, International Speaker, Published Author, Social Justice Advocate and Activist.

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