Lent III; March 8, 2015
Today I’m calling your attention to two issues – out of the many – in this story about Jesus in the Temple. And my general theme is in response to the Psalm for today (Psalm 19), which says that the judgments of the Lord are “more to be desired than gold, more than much fine gold” (v. 10). I wonder if we really feel that way. We say the words, but do we mean them? Is the Word of God more important to us than money?
If you know the Gospels, you may have the version of this story from Matthew, Mark, or Luke in the back of your head. Tell that version to be quiet and focus just on this version. When Jesus goes after the folks selling and money-changing in the Temple, he says (I’m giving you a more literal translation), “Do not make the house of my Father a house of merchandising.” The offense of the sellers and money-changers isn’t what they are doing; it is where they are doing it.
Those folks started their business in order to fulfill a public need. The reason the Temple existed was to make sacrifices of thanksgiving and of repentance; when pilgrims came to the Temple, they were to bring an appropriate animal to be sacrificed. Well, if you were traveling from Damascus or Alexandria or Rome, you were not going to drive a cow or carry a dove the whole way. Instead, you would want to buy one when you got there. Also, when you paid the Temple fee, you had to pay in a coin that didn’t violate the commandment against images. The coins in common use all had the image of the Emperor on them, so they were a violation of the Law of God. You had to exchange those coins for a Temple shekel.
So the selling of animals for sacrifice and the exchanging of coins for the Temple fee were a public service. Nowhere in the Bible is it forbidden to make your living by providing a service that people need and making a profit at it. How convenient for the Temple business community that the Temple was divided into multiple areas, so they could be in the Temple precincts and do their business right where the pilgrims were going. Of course, they were conducting their business in the only part of the Temple where non-Jews could go, but that’s not a problem. Their own people could still buy an animal and exchange money and go inside and sacrifice; only the foreigners were disturbed.
But even the Court of the Gentiles was to have been a place of prayer, and so Jesus drove the business-people out: not because they were making a profit, and not even necessarily an exorbitant profit, but because they were in a location convenient for them, but which interfered with prayer. The business opportunity was more important to people than a sense of reverence, the need to preserve a place for prayer for Gentiles. I know that I do not need to remind you of how often we evaluate a situation by its economic potential, with no sense of reverence for place, or for preserving a place that God has designated as a place for prayer. Is prayer as important as making money? Is the openness of a place to the needs of those who do not belong – Gentiles, in this case – as important as its economic potential?
It says a lot about the priorities of Jesus that he drives out the sellers of cattle and sheep but tells the sellers of doves to get out. He doesn’t open the doves’ cages and let them go, but he does drive the larger animals out. For one thing, it’s possible to round up the cattle and sheep but if he opens the doves’ cages, they are gone. He doesn’t want to drive these guys out of business, he just wants to drive them out of the Temple. It is probably also important that the cattle and sheep are for well-off people to buy, but the doves are for the offerings of the poor. He’s gentler with those whose business is to serve the needs of the poor.
So, I call your attention to Jesus’ challenge to us to take prayer seriously, to be attentive to the opportunity for all sorts of persons to pray, even if it might interfere with economic convenience. In his mind, even if not in ours, the commandments of the Lord are more precious than much fine gold.
And I call your attention to the fact that he didn’t just talk about it or moan about it, as I am likely to do, but he took action. He made his point clear, and did just the sort of thing that we nice folks don’t like to see in activists. Fifty years ago yesterday persons tried to march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights; they were brutally beaten. Jesus sympathizes more with those who tried to march than with those nice folks who sat back and said that the marchers were in the right, but should not be so pushy. When Maurice McCrackin – a colleague back in Cincinnati – in his eighties climbed the fence around the White House and poured red dye in the fountain to protest the Gulf War (December 1990), I am convinced the Lord’s sympathies were with him, not with those who sat back in our Presbytery and rolled their eyes: “There he goes again.”
When the disciples thought about this and the Scripture from Psalm 69 (verse 9) occurred to them – “Zeal for your house will consume me” – they saw pretty well what was going on. Jesus has his priorities straight, and takes action to live those priorities. For Jesus, even if not for us, the judgments of the Lord are more to be desired than gold, more than much fine gold.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
 Exegetical note here: two different Greek words get translated “temple” in this passage. The buying and selling were going on in the “hieron,” which refers to the outer precincts, the Court of the Gentiles, and Jesus says, “Destroy this ‘naos,’” (verse 19), which means the sanctuary.