I have a weird love-hate relationship with the Gospel of John. If you're looking for the historical Jesus, most Bible scholars believe you aren't going to find him in John. This Gospel, the “Bad Boy” of the four canonical gospels, was written around the end of the first century of the Common Era—some seventy years after the time of Jesus. The really smart guys of the Jesus Seminar don't think hardly any of the quotes in this gospel attributed to Jesus are authentic. That said, however, the Fourth Gospel is pretty darn poetic and an excellent look at what the early Christian church really believed. Most of our theology about Jesus comes out of John. It's pretty good stuff, too.
In trying to figure out what I should preach this Sunday, I looked up an excellent commentary by Karoline Lewis, the senior professor of homiletics (that's preaching, by the way) at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dr. Karoline notes that there's a big difference in this week's Gospel story (the “Cleansing of the Temple,” John 2:14-21) between John's account and those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In John, the cleansing story takes place at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. In the others it happens at the end of the story and seems to be an act of social protest which gets Jesus crucified.
John's account also differs in the reason why Jesus gets so pissed off by the merchants in the temple. In the three earlier Gospels Jesus seems to be reacting against the injustice of the system. The temple market and money exchange was yet another way to squeeze more cash out of the peasants in this occupied and oppressed nation. The prices of sacrificial animals and the exchange rates were rigged and created a greater burden on an already mistreated population. But in John's Gospel, Jesus reacts to the shear impiety of the commercial enterprise.
“He told those who were selling the doves, 'Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!'” (v.16)
The temple was supposed to be the place where God and humanity connected, yet the temple activity Jesus sees is more about economics than a relationship with God. I get that. It's so easy to get caught up with the institution and forget why that institution exists in the first place. I know I spend a lot of time talking about church, but much less time talking about God. Maybe the reason I'm uncomfortable with John is that some of his stories really convict me of my sin and shortcomings.
Truth be told, although I've been a pastor of this parish for sixteen years, I still don't think I could tell you what the majority of my parishioners know about Jesus or what they really believe. Sure, we do lots of good works here at Faith Lutheran, but are we really meeting Jesus? Is this a place where we inspire people to be more loving, more forgiving, more whole, more Biblically grounded, more filled with hope, more emotionally centered, and more overjoyed with the capacity to be healers of the world?
I recently asked my congregational council to devote the first half hour of every monthly meeting to prayer, worship, Bible study, or discipleship building. This suggestion was greeted with resistance by those who felt that we really needed to use this time for the “important business of the church.”
This begs the question, of course, of just what IS the important business of the church? Are fund-raisers, repair jobs, and fellowship events more important than creating a relationship with the resurrected Jesus? What are we here for, anyway?
What do we need to do to cleanse our temples? Institutionally, we need to toss out the notion that the church is a business. Our “success” must not be measured by butts in the pews or dollars in the plate. We are to ask ourselves only if we are creating a community of people who live the Gospel.
And what about our own lives? What are we getting hung up on that's keeping us from being people who live the Jesus kind of love? What commerce is going on in the temple of your heart? Is it a toxic relationship? An addiction? A need to impress? A fear of failure or rejection? A self-image which has been handed to you but doesn't reflect who you really are?
John wrote his version of the cleansing of the temple at a time when there was no temple left to cleanse. That awesome structure had long since been demolished by the Romans as a punitive measure following an unsuccessful attempt at revolution. The pitiful rubble of that once-great symbol of Israel's identity could be a painful reminder to some who were mired in the memory of a past which could never be recaptured. For others, it was a statement of the impermanence of human institutions and a reminder that the place where God meets humanity is only found in Christ crucified—and that place is found in repentant and loving hearts.
Thanks again for for reading, my friends. I hope you are finding this season of Lent a blessing.
P.S. - Please check out Karoline Lewis' commentary by clicking on her name.