Talking about Turning in the Temple, by Rev Fred Kinsey
The Magnificat, the song or canticle that Mary, the mother of Jesus sings at the Annunciation, is a song of her belief in “the world” that was turning. My soul proclaims your greatness Lord, sang Mary, with her cousin Elizabeth. Mary felt small in the presence of God’s greatness. She had been surprised by the announcement of the angel Gabriel that God would give her – an unwed teenager – the responsibility of carrying the Son of God. But upon further reflection, it made her cry out in this song of turning. Now she understood, and was filled with hope. The powerful would be brought down from their towers, not one stone will be left on stone – a reference to the Temple. The injustices that kept her, and her village, and the 99%, hungry and poor, would be wiped away. The weapons of war and destruction, held over them by the Romans, would be crushed. The world is about to turn.
This past week, Jackson, not his real name, but someone I know, lost his job. Everybody I know loves Jackson, he’s a generous person, a family man, very humble. But, it was a long journey through the wilderness, to get there. Coming from a broken family and few opportunities, he joined a gang when he was young. He became a leader, well known for who, and what he was, in his community. In the absence of his own parents, he found a life and a family there. Along the way, Jackson was arrested and jailed a number of times. But Jackson came to hate what he was doing, and wanted better for his son and wife. With the help of a friend, another former gang member who now worked for CeaseFire, he finally turned his life around, and soon Jackson was hired by CeaseFire too. Now, he was using his past life in a constructive, life-giving way, doing what few others would, or could, being an interrupter, standing in the middle of danger, saving gangbangers from shooting each other, and once in awhile, even, saving them from a life in a gang.
But, this past week, by order of our Governor, in a pre-emptive action before the proposed budget has been debated and voted on, he terminated any further funding for the CeaseFire program in Chicago, saying it is non-essential, and Jackson is out looking for work to feed his family.
It has often been pointed out that one of Jesus’ most human moments in the gospels is when he lets his anger show, the day he drove the money changers, and the animals for sacrifice, out of the Temple. This incident is sometimes called the Cleansing of the Temple, but it’s not a very helpful title for understanding what’s going on in this story.
The story, as it’s often told, goes something like this. Jesus gets angry at the business people in the Temple. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace,” he says. Get out, we don’t want banking and business and the selling of animals going on in our place of worship. Jesus is cleansing the holy place. Jesus is distinguishing between good and bad business, and between church and the marketplace, putting things in right order. Maybe he loses his temper this one time, going so far as to overturn the money changers tables, but that’s a one off. We don’t condone it. What it really shows is that Jesus is human, like us. Sometimes we lose our temper.
Surely, Jesus is human, as well as God’s Son, but his anger is not just for a disordered Temple, and the creep of commerce, into our holy places. Not too long ago, for example, this passage was most often used by those who opposed bake sales at church!
But, none of this addresses the dialog between the leaders of the Temple and Jesus, that follows. The meaning of Jesus’ action goes deeper, if you include his cryptic answer to the demand from the Temple leaders for a sign for what he has done: “Destroy this temple,” Jesus declares, “and in three days I will raise it up.” The temple leaders are perplexed and confused! You think you can rebuild the temple in 3 days, when it took Herod 46 years to rebuild it? “But Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body,” John tells us.
Make sense yet? As you can guess, Jesus is saying, that he would replace the Temple building, with his resurrected body, just as he would be raised in three days, after the crucifixion. More than just driving out bad business merchants, and some smelly caged animals waiting for their sacrifice, Jesus is proposing to institute a whole new way of relating to God! Their world, is about to turn.
The system of sacrifices in the Temple had worked for a long time. It was definitely a lot better than what came before it, which was human sacrifice. Ever since God provided a goat for Abraham as a substitute for sacrificing his son Isaac, the tradition of animal sacrifice, had caught on. So, it’s no accident that Jesus made his demonstration during Passover, the time when people were literally lined up in the Temple with their cattle and goats and doves, to make sacrifice, and celebrate the holiday with family. The priests were expert and efficient at sacrificing them, and reportedly stood knee deep in the blood, which then funneled down drains built specifically for this purpose, to a nearby field.
The people made sacrifices for forgiveness, for healing, for purification, and ultimately to be reconciled with God. The sacrifice of animals was an exchange for their sins, and their lives – the animals paid the price, while they were free to go. God is no longer angry, but appeased.
Jesus had staked his reputation on a loving God, the one he called Abba, a tender, intimate name for father; a God that didn’t require winners and losers, or scapegoats, a God who remembered the one lost sheep among 100, a God who reached out to the poorest of the poor. Jesus went about the countryside healing the sick, feeding the hungry, welcoming the outcast, in God’s name. Long before Jesus went to Jerusalem for the Passover, he was demonstrating how the world was turning, and, the Temple was not necessary for the forgiveness and the justice of God to come to light. This God was dawning now, to people like Mary and the disciples, to tax collectors and widows, in the very person of Jesus, who preached this message of God amongst them, over and over again. “Destroy [the] temple, and in three days I will raise it up” – that is, “the temple of his body.”
The truth was, John the Evangelist, as well as the other gospel writers, Mark, Luke and Matthew, all wrote their gospels, after 70 A.D., the year the Temple in Jerusalem had already been destroyed. The Jews too, were having to figure out a whole new way of relating to God – those who didn’t become followers of Jesus, those who weren’t wiped out in the brutal war with Rome, who were dispersed from the Temple in Jerusalem, all around the world. They would replace Temple, with the Torah, as their symbol of God’s holiness. The followers of Jesus, who came to be known as Christians, found the resurrected Jesus, embodied the Spirit of God for them. “Zeal for your house will consume me,” “his disciples remembered,” years later. It had nearly consumed them all – but the world turned!
Jesus didn’t just cleanse the temple of some enterprising, business savy, money changers and those scapegoats. Jesus was prepared to replace a way of life, that had been dying, not working anymore, with his life. Jesus raised up a new awareness of God, the God of mercy and love. If giving up his life on the cross would interrupt normal business enough to wake us up from our barbarity, and to show how substitutionary sacrifice was not what God demanded of us, then that’s what he would do. If his resurrection would show that God the creator, having power over life and death, forgives us, even after we had killed his Son, and forgives us still when we are repentant, freeing us to turn around and start a new life, so that the love of God is the driving force for change – then he would rise after three days. And in rising, become a new Temple, the loci of the presence of God, to wake us up, and offer us peace.
The cross and resurrection are good news for those losing their jobs and looking for work, good news for the poor and hungry and outcast. And this loving, forgiving God, empowers us to overcome violence, whether domestic or militaristic, whether it’s violence in our hearts, or violence of the powerful who worship Mammon. The power of the cross is about to turn the world. Mary knew it firsthand. We sing it loudly and proudly today.