A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lent III, March 4, 2018 by the Rev. Dcn. Sue Bonsteel. You can read the day’s scripture by clicking here.
….and Jesus went into the temple. There he found people illegally selling guns, dealing drugs, and trafficking humans and the money changers were seated at their tables, gold coins stacked high around them. And angrily calling each one of them out by name, he overturned their tables and drove them out of the temple. He told those that were selling opioids and heroin, assault weapons of all designs, and who profited in the exploitation of children, “Take yourselves from here and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
It’s jarring, isn’t it, to hear this part of John’s gospel using contemporary societal issues. It unsettled me even as I wrote it for sounds so harsh and there’s always a danger of offending someone. In many ways the story of the cleansing of the Temple embodies the active, social justice ministry to which Jesus calls the church. This gospel story reminds us that the Jesus we love and follow was a renegade in his time; he was a man on a mission. Jesus used the political and social climate of his day to challenge the status quo and to call attention to the failings of its leaders. He took risks far greater than worrying about offending someone’s feelings.
The cleansing of the Temple is among the most important events in the life of Jesus. Because of its significance, it’s included by all four Gospel writers, albeit somewhat differently. The Synoptic gospels suggest that Jesus’ public action in the Temple was one of the main reasons he was arrested and put to death. The Roman rulers saw his behavior and words as capital offenses and a great danger to their authority. One contemporary writer describes it this way – “Imagine Jesus walking into the massive Temple run by the Jewish religious elite (who, by the way, had been put in place by their Roman oppressors). This was tantamount to someone walking into a federal government building and blowing it up.” For Jesus, it was that perilous an act.
What was going on in the Temple that upset Jesus so? The Temple in Jesus’ time was a busy place where money changers prospered. The rabbis had determined that Roman coins with the image of Caesar needed to be exchanged for Tyrian coins, the currency required in order to purchase the animals used for sacrifice during the 8 days of Passover. The Temple complex was huge and, in many ways, it had been turned into something similar to a bazaar where merchants sold their wares. The Temple had become a business enterprise. It had ceased being an inclusive place where pilgrims would enter and worship God. Only a very select few were permitted into the inner sanctum where it was believed heaven and earth met and where God might be encountered.
When Jesus entered the Temple, instead he found the bankers taking advantage of the poor, demanding outrageous conversion rates, and making huge profits to line their own pockets. This did not sit well with Jesus.
His strong reaction to what the Temple had become was more than a display of anger. It was a confrontational act of speaking truth to power in the face of injustice taking place within his Father’s house. Throughout his ministry, Jesus would teach his followers that there was much more to life than simply being good people. He would teach that societal reforms were necessary if the values passed on in the Law of Moses and the Word of God as spoken through the prophets were to be honored. All of this was to prepare the world for the new Covenant that was to come following Jesus’ death and resurrection.
It was very clear that the religious, political and social institutions of his day needed a major wake-up call.
We might say the same for our institutions today.
What do we do? Can a social justice ministry be effective against the status quo? Are we courageous enough to speak truth to power?
In the chaos that surrounds us these days, it is easy to lose sight of the power we have as people of faith. We have the ability to speak from a place of strength and confidence, for we have learned from the One who confronted the injustices of his time. We must be part of the solution.
The oppression of our black and brown brothers and sisters through harsh and unjust immigration policies is heartbreaking; but shedding tears is not enough to stop the cruelty that tears families apart. A response by the Body of Christ is demanded.
The power of a gun lobby that ignores the faces of the dead and wounded and instead seeks to protect its own pocketbook needs to feel the pressure of Christians empowered to create change.
The brutality of human trafficking and the greed of those who sell flesh and blood into forced labor, sexual exploitation and slavery is a violation of all basic human rights. The Church does not stand idly by while people are abused and exploited.
The wanton production of drugs and greed of those that market them devastates not only the addicted and their families but the communities in which the drug culture thrives. The Body of Christ must offer more than thoughts and prayers to the children of God trapped in a cycle of drug abuse.
It is often too easy to feel disheartened, powerless, and bewildered by the overwhelming need around us. It is easy to slip into moral outrage.
But moral outrage is not always helpful when we speak of social justice issues. Anger at an injustice or a wrong initially may fuel us; but unless we have the ability to listen to one another and to try to understand one another’s perspective, we may never see the change that is needed.
Just consider the gun violence debate. I think it’s safe to say that we all share in the belief that something must be done to curb the deaths at the hands of people armed with military-style assault weapons. To some of us there seems to be an obvious and straight-forward solution – just ban assault-style weapons except in the hands of law enforcement and the military. But others of us see any restriction on our understanding of the 2nd Amendment as an infringement on our Constitutional rights. So our moral indignation grows until we end up shouting and turning over tables and acting in ways indistinguishable from those that aroused our anger. We rage at the greed of the gun manufacturers and the elected officials who benefit from financial contributions, and who pile up gold coins around them; yet we remain at an impasse.
Consider immigration reform and the concept of creating places of refuge for people targeted for deportation. This deeply divides our nation. To display compassion and kindness and offer assistance to the exiles and immigrants among us is the least the church can do. But when national and religious leaders engage in inflammatory and racist remarks, the fear and resentment felt by too many in our country is fed. In order to comprehend the complexities of the immigration issue, we need to understand that this is more than an economic, social or legal issue, it is ultimately one that is both humanitarian and spiritual. For the Body of Christ, standing with the immigrant means we are standing with Jesus who hung out with the “wrong people” and challenged the “right people” to reexamine their priorities and prejudices.
Any social justice ministry that we choose to carry out must be a ministry of inclusion and empowerment. This means making the poor and marginalized welcome in our lives and in our Church and taking the time to listen to their stories. This is part of the work necessary if we wish to confront the systems that seek to diminish the dignity of oppressed people.
Jesus’ own words inform the call to social justice: I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you gave me clothing; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me.
We see in these words a call to building relationships – not only to feed those who are starving, but to prevent others from going without food. We are called not only to give water to those who are parched, but prevent others from becoming thirsty. We are called not only to cover those who have inadequate clothing, but to prevent others from becoming naked.
What Jesus does in the gospels is to refocus our attention on the things of God. He reframes the conversation. To be the Church is to be the true Temple, the Body of Christ; to stand strong and confront the systems that seek to diminish and destroy.
Should we choose not to respond – not to accept the call to love another and to work for the dignity of all people – then we fail in our mission of continuing Jesus’ ministry on earth. For it is Jesus’ own example that teaches us the importance of being faithful; and of opposing the idolatry in our culture whenever profit, privilege, racism and unlimited consumption corrupt our human behavior.
As lovers of justice and peace and followers of Jesus Christ, you and I have the power to turn over tables and to make our voices heard.
Hear the words of Alan Paton, the late South African author and anti-apartheid activist:
O Lord, open my eyes that I may see the needs of others
Open my ears that I may hear their cries;
Open my heart so that they need not be without comfort;
Let me not be afraid to defend the weak because of the anger of the strong,
Nor afraid to defend the poor because of the anger of the rich.
Show me where love and hope and faith are needed,
And use me to bring them to those places.
And so open my eyes and my ears
That I may this coming day be able to do some work of peace for you.
Deacon Sue Bonsteel
March 4, 2018