Lectionary Reflection: John 2: 13-25: The Foolishness in Every Heart

            When Jesus went up to the temple and drove out the moneychangers and the people selling the animals for sacrifice, the standard view is these merchants were a bunch of greedy jerks who were ripping people off and taking total advantage of the poor.  It is “den of thieves” thinking and it may well be true, but it may not be accurate; by which I mean it may be a simplistic view.  I suspect the merchants (generally) did not see it that way.  I also suspect the religious authorities did not see it as a pollution of the temple worship either.

            When I consider the long haul – all the years it took to get that sales system in place in the Temple, I see the “Sin” (if you will) of “Gradualism.”  In both individual lives and in systems, nothing happens overnight.  Things do happen – change inevitably occurs, but gradually, like creeping vines that grow slowly.  This is the way of human nature which is resistant to change, is it not?.  Most individuals need time and opportunity to adjust to change before they will accept it, and groups (communities, cultures, systems, and especially religious systems) generally need even longer.  Isn’t that obvious?  The angst people feel these days is not because things are changing, per se, but because they are changing so fast. 

            There may not be much we can do about the technological progress which is progressing at break-neck speed, but let us hope Washington can slow down a bit on “universal healthcare” (for example) because when the change is forced and comes too fast in life there tends to be an explosive response.  Consider America’s attempt to force certain states to get off their slave based economy.  There was a Civil War.  Consider the constitutional amendment to outlaw alcohol.  That gave us Al Capone, Tommy guns in the streets and… NASCAR.  (read that as you will). 

            By contrast, consider the government’s relentless, but more gradual attempt to wean the American people off tobacco.  That effort has been on the slow but steady raising of taxes to out-price the product, education to “prove” how unhealthy it is, and the “protection” of the young with the idea of preventing them from ever starting.  Some see it all as a conspiracy they call “nanny-state” politics, but through the attempt to force the change more gradually, at least there are not guns in the streets.

            Gradualism is the means by which people are able to learn and grow.  The natural human resistance to change is lower when things happen gradually.  Society is able to progress, gradually.  Of course, I believe most will admit that corruption also creeps successfully into life, gradually.  Corruption in life, like sin, arrives step by little step.

            In the case of merchants in the Temple courts, I can only see the gradual arrival.  By Jesus’ day, it was accepted practice to the extent that no one thought twice about it.  Naturally, I see a story there (occupational hazard) and I start by considering the individual.

            I see first a poor young man receiving what he may have considered a revelation from God when perhaps a farmer not far from town complained about being plagued by pigeons.  (pigeons and doves were considered the poor man’s sacrifice because it was acceptable in the law and affordable even by the poorest).  I imagine this young man first doing good in helping the farmer rid himself of his problem, and then doing further good by allowing the poor to select a bird for sacrifice for a minimal price.  He probably slept well nights thinking about all the good he was doing providing a service to the poor.  After all, he could relate to the poor because he was one of them.

            Some years later, now with a wife and children, his thoughts naturally turned to making a living.  He may have decided by then that instead of the people picking what they needed, two for a penny was a fair price.  He might have even called it, buy one get one free.  He still told himself he was doing a good service for the poor, but he needed the money.  A little networking later and he secured a booth in the Temple court itself.  People got rich there.

            After he brought his son into the business, I am sure he raised the price.  His son didn’t understand, but if the poor wanted two for a penny, they could climb back down the hill and get them in the marketplace.  By the time his grandson took over, thoughts of helping the poor likely no longer entered into it.  After all, by then he was one of the rich.

            You see, for the Temple it was probably more stretched out.  My guess would be at some point after the Selucids were driven off, the priests recognized that they had a problem.  Pilgrims were flocking to the Temple by the thousands, especially during the High Holy Days.  And many of them, especially the poor would show up with nothing to sacrifice.  It was, shall we say, an inconvenience for them to trudge all the way back down the Temple mount to purchase something and then trudge all of the way back up.  Birds in particular might fly off before ever making it to the altar.

            It was not a big step to allow the birdman a small corner of the largely unused outer court.  Of course, then the precedent was set and everyone started lobbying for space.  It must have occurred to the priests they could make a good living on the side renting that space.  And the fact that things were more expensive in the Temple court just paid the rent.  After all, if the people wanted two doves for a penny they could always go back down the hill themselves.

            This merchandising of the outer court, I am sure, began as a practical solution to a problem, but it did not stop there.  It never does.  Corruption finds an opening, a precedent and expands until it takes over.

            I have no doubt when Jesus drove out the bird-seller’s grandson, the young merchant was surprised.  He may have thought, “We have always sold in the outer court.  We aren’t doing anything wrong.”  The grandfather probably thought, “Why is Jesus against the poor?  All we are doing is providing a service to the poor.”  The Priests asked, “Under whose authority are you doing this?”  He did not answer them, no doubt because he knew they were just protecting their business interest and had no thought about God and what God might approve or not approve.  For the Priests, God was not the issue.  God, and the poor for the bird-sellers was not what they honestly considered. 

            We are so good at rationalizing and justifying our positions.  We are so good, and gradually we are able to swallow any lie.

            Jesus knew that over the years the religious system of the Priests and Pharisees had become utterly corrupt.  It had not happened overnight.  It had happened gradually.

            The Priests asked, “What sign can you show to prove yourself?”  It was a trick question.  No sign would ever be good enough.  By gradual means they had already gone too far in the culture of corruption, in following the lie that they were doing good when in fact they were doing evil.

            Jesus answered, “Destroy this Temple and I will raise it in three days.”

            Further on, it says during the Passover festival many saw the signs and wonders he was doing and believed.  He had healed many and cast out many demons over the last three years.  He raised Lazarus from the dead.  But no sign would do.  None would deter people like the Priests and bird-sellers who believed they loved God and neighbor and cared about the poor.  No sign would interfere with their power, prestige, privileged positions or business interests.  Money and the love of money had eaten them ages ago.

            And us.  What do we really believe?  Do we consider what God wants before we act?  Are we there for the poor and needy in the way God would want us to be?  Or are we only there for others in a way that enriches us and enhances our position and advances our interests?

            What has gradually crept into our churches?

            What has gradually crept into our lives?

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