Sermon March 4, 2018
John 2:13-22/ 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Cleansing of the Temple, Cleansing of the Spirit
Have you been to Israel and visited some of the biblical places? I am sure a lot of Christians around the world go to the biblical sites with similar anticipation and excitement, but as a child who grew up listening to the stories of Jesus everywhere, from church to my own bedroom with the bedtime Bible story books, I was excited to see some of the places with my own eyes. I was most excited about going to Galilee because that is where it started with Jesus and his first disciples. Galilee was indeed my favourite place of them all. My experience in Jerusalem was quite different. Having learned to pray from both Catholic and Protestant traditions, every year during Lent, I do the Stations of the Cross meditation mostly from Catholic websites, although last year, I went to Radium behind the Catholic Church where they have stations of the cross set up. That is why I was eager to walk through Via Dolorosa (“The way of Suffering”), which is thought to be the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. To my utter surprise, this was my least favourite place during the whole trip. The whole path is a market place. So many Christian pilgrims from around the world come to this place that merchants keep following and badgering the visitors to sell stuff – mostly religious icons. I was so disappointed and even angry that people are using what is meant to be an important spiritual place for profit. The experience was not spiritual at all; I much rather prefer doing the stations of the cross meditation from the internet. This bad memory came straight back to me when I was reading today’s gospel story.
This story of Jesus cleansing the temple is in all four gospels, but only in the Gospel of John, it is placed at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry; in all the other gospels, this story is placed during Jesus’ last journey to Jerusalem where he was crucified. Logically, it makes more sense that this event happened right before he was crucified because this act of Jesus would have enraged a lot of religious leaders. But for the author of the Gospel of John, it was more theologically important that Jesus starts his ministry by cleansing the temple, which was the single most important place for the Jewish people. It is an indirect statement that Jesus came to purify God’s people, and God’s holy temple was first on his list.
It was Passover, the most important Jewish festival. Jews who lived both inside and outside Palestine came to Jerusalem every year to celebrate this holy day at the Jerusalem Temple, which was the only legitimate temple for the Jews. Just like the millions of pilgrims from all over the world who visit Jerusalem today, millions of Jewish people scattered all over the world came to Jerusalem every year during Jesus’ time. Millions of Jews come to the Temple and spent money because, after all, they had to pay the Temple tax and offer sacrificial animals according to their Law. Because these pilgrims are from all over the world, they need money exchangers for foreign coins. They also need animals to sacrifice according to the Law. If you think about it, it is natural that there would be sellers of sacrificial animals and money exchangers in the Temple. The problem is not that there were people providing services for pilgrims; it is that there was so much money to be made from those millions of pious Jews, who were not particularly wealthy. They were just pious people who spared money to travel to Jerusalem to worship God as they were taught. The money exchangers would take advantage of these poor and humble people’s piety to rob them blind with a ridiculous exchange rate. But that’s not all; the acts of injustice and taking advantage of poor pilgrims also extended to the sellers of sacrificial animals. Yes, according to the Law, pious Jews have to offer sacrifice; but also according to the Law, these animals have to be without blemish. If they bring animals from outside, they have to be inspected by appointed Temple officials, and the chances are, after the inspection, their animals will be rejected. The pilgrims were basically blackmailed into buying animals from the Temple booths at ridiculous prices, if they wished to make a sacrifice at all. They made a lot of money in an unjust and dishonest way, and they did it in the name of religion.
They tainted and corrupted religion; this is what enraged Jesus into an act of violence. The Temple, a place of worship and reverence, was desecrated. True worship comes from a reverent and sincere heart, not the outward expressions. Jesus criticized the religious leaders’ legalistic attitude; for the leaders that Jesus criticized, the observance of the Law of Moses was of the highest value. It doesn’t matter what’s in your heart or what you do as long as what you do is not technically against the law. They would even find loopholes to the law and claim, “Hey, at least I didn’t disobey the law!” For Jesus, the spirit of the Law, which is to love God with all your heart and love your neighbours as yourself, was much more important than following the Law word by word.
In one of the texts assigned for today, which we didn’t read, the Israelites receive the Ten Commandments. The purpose of these commandments is to help God’s people get along with one another, in the short term, and to form a nation united under God, in the long run. God is not interested in checking if God’s people obey every single commandment of the Law; God cares about whether God’s people would learn from the Law to love God and one another. But the smarty pants of our world find loopholes and avoid responsibility to treat God and one another with love, and think of themselves as so smart. But Paul teaches us in today’s 1st Corinthians text that human wisdom is not greater than God’s foolishness. Wisdom, for us believers, is Jesus and his gospel that come from God. Israelites were given not only the Ten Commandments but also hundreds and hundreds of instructions and precepts, which if you are curious then you can read all about it in the Book of Leviticus. Human wisdom is limited to obeying what the Law says; God’s wisdom that we learn from Jesus is the ability to see the whole forest and not only the individual trees. We tend to focus on the individual trees because when we are in the forest, we cannot see the whole forest; Jesus teaches us to look at the whole forest, the whole picture of God’s precepts from an aerial view, from above.
As God’s people, as the disciples of Jesus, let us take a flight and learn to see the world and God’s precepts with a broader perspective. The purpose of the commandments is so that we can love God and each other. It is the sincerity of the heart that matters to God, not how well we follow what the commandments say. This Lent, let us focus on cleansing our hearts and spirits, as Jesus cleansed the Temple. I once saw a child who was distressed by an irrational fear being helped. He was taught to repeat this mantra; “Away, bad thoughts! Come, good thoughts!” As God’s people going through Lent, let us cleanse our spirits with a mantra too; “Away, bad and evil! Come, spirit of love!” And let us learn from Jesus to live a life full of love that comes from our hearts and spirits.
Rev. Sunny Kim