Tolpuddle and Puddletown
Sunday 4th March 2018
Exodus 20.1-17; John 2.13-22
I wonder how we would feel if someone came into our homes and suddenly upended everything that smacks of materialism and not of God. What would be left of our possessions, I wonder. What would be left of our good humour? Not a lot, I imagine.
Or even if someone came into this church and destroyed anything that doesn’t directly speak of God. Pretty outraged, I guess.
The story of the cleansing of the temple has always been interpreted as Jesus’s anger against the Temple having become a place of cheating; the other three Gospels have Jesus, saying: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations. But you have made it a den of robbers.”
It implies that the charges that were being levied on the cattle, sheep and doves were actually unfair and higher than they should be, that the traders were keeping a larger cut for themselves than was moral and so on.
It’s interesting that in John’s Gospel, where the author has also moved the story from the last week of Jesus’s life to the beginning of his ministry, the emphasis is slightly different. There’s no mention of robbers, the words here are: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”
In the other three Gospels, Jesu’s actions lead to the authorities wanting to rid themselves of this man who has caused so much trouble, who is threatening their power base, because the ordinary people are transfixed by him. His challenge to the temple is a direct challenge on their power, their structures, their institution and way of life. No wonder they felt threatened.
John, however, has the Jews asking Jesus for a sign, a reason for why he has done what he has done. He speaks in riddles – destroy this temple and I will raise it up. Unsurprisingly they can’t work this out – it’s taken 46 years to build and is still not finished and here is one man saying he can rebuild it in three days. Madness indeed.
Writing after the resurrection, John adds the final verse about the disciples looking back and remembering what Jesus had said, as they realised he was talking not about the physical temple but about himself – the new way to God, a way opened to everyone and not dictated to by human decisions about who is and isn’t worthy.
Jesus was angry about a holy place having become a marketplace, a place of prayer having become a temple of consumerism.
What we are talking about here is the outer courts of the temple. This was the only place where non-Jews were allowed to go.
If a non-Jewish person wished to pray, this outer court was the only place in which they could do so. But this outer court had become a rowdy, noisy market place, full of animals and people, traders all calling out to attract people to their stall rather than anyone else’s.
This is where the Jewish people bought their animals for sacrifice, and changed their currency into shekels, which were not used in everyday life in the Roman Empire but were the only coins accepted by the temple treasury.
As with all market-based systems, the least well off suffered most. In trying to be faithful to their religion, they were being fleeced at every turn. The doves – a poorer person’ offering – could cost up to two days’ wages.
Then there was the journey to Jerusalem, which cost, added to which there were lost wages because work was at home, and the money changers’ fees could be as much as a further days’ pay.
With corrupt exchange rates as well this means that the money changers did a lot better than the peasants.
The Passover festival was about freedom and celebrating the removal of the bonds of slavery – and yet the economics of the system by the time of Jesus were in fact enslaving people all over again.
The big danger with making the economy more powerful than it should be, basically in making money the driver for everything, is that the poorest lose out.
We live in a country and a world dominated by market forces, As Christians we should be asking penetrating questions about this.
We live in a world full of technological advances and yet the gap between rich and poor is ever growing. How can we be satisfied with that?
People hold different views of the current global economic system, and it’s very easy to accept that this is how it is and not to allow ourselves to think about how the poor can be disadvantaged by it.
Our recent governments, of whatever party, have become fixated on the economy, which risks defining people by nothing more than their economic status. People become either a drain on society or a contributor. Those at the top grow richer at the expense of those at the bottom.
As a Vicar, I try not to be Party political since all people come under my care whatever they vote, but when we see stories in the Bible like this one, we cannot deny Jesus’s call to be political.
There are four main attitudes towards the current global economic system.
There are those who defend the system absolutely and say that it is the only way to run things, that wealth creation is the answer to overcoming poverty.
There are those who would also defend the system but can’t ignore the reality that current economic policy hasn’t solved the world’s poverty problems. They put that down not to a wrong system but to the wrong use of a good system, a right system. They argue that if corruption were rooted out and everyone did it right, all would be well.
Some others say that the global is OK but a different model would be fairer.
And there are those who believe that the global system which means that countries have relationships with each other all predicated on economy is wrong in itself.
Our world is much more complex than it was at the time of Jesus but it seems to me that it was the system of turning faith into a market place that Jesus was railing against, a system that meant you had to buy your way into favour with God, not jus a corruption of the system. And I think John shows this more clearly than the other Gospels by focusing not on the idea of robbers but on the idea that faith as become about economics.
Passover was about freedom but had become about money. Right back at the time of the prophets Hosea gives the message that God wants mercy not sacrifice (6.6), Micah: what does God require: to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God, Amos had lots to say about the economic system of his time.
Market forces have become all-powerful and taken the place of God in the lives of many human beings.
We need to hear again the voices of Jesus, the voices of the Old Testament prophets who call us back to love of God and love of our neighbour.
When we get those two things right, our whole value-system shifts. People become inherently full of worth not merely units of economics. In the economic system, the homeless on the streets of Dorchester are a problem; in Jesus’s view they are people of infinite worth.
The danger is that in our village churches, we too become slaves to the system. We become too inward-looking because we want to keep our churches open and we need money in order to do that.
We spend hours on our buildings and finances and our church councils become inevitably focused on those things and on the systems of the diocese and the institution. We become trapped by economic forces.
But if we look at the bigger picture, we can see how easy it is to become distracted from the work God is already doing in our world.
This is what he calls us to join in with: not to the kingdom of this world governed by finance and economy and structures, but to the kingdom of heaven.
Systems and buildings are designed to be positive things, but sometimes become more like millstones round our necks because they become too important and take over. Without them chaos could soon ensure, but with them they sometimes become gods themselves and we lose sight of the truly divine.
For Jesus, the temple system had become rotten, because it had lost its primary focus – God. As churches in this benefice, we too need to ask questions about whether we have got it right or whether our focus has become diverted.
How should we challenge a world in which some live with more money they can use in several lifetimes, while others have nothing?
People can be very damning about economic migrants as opposed to refugees but are they so wrong to want a better life? Would we, if we were in their situation, do anything different? I wonder.
People fall out of the system for many reasons – it is far too easy to judge rather than to offer support.
So let’s push social justice further up the agenda. Let’s ask ourselves difficult questions. Let’s remember the challenges Jesus made to the temple system and ask ourselves whether we need to be challenged too.