Littlewell
Christ Centered Church Resource Site

Jesus, the Jews and the Temple

John 2:13-22
Sun, March 2, 1997
Rev. Ed Searcy
Only a few events in a lifetime can be described as 'defining moments'. Such
is the day when Jesus disrupts the Temple. We remember the Sunday
School pictures of it well: Jesus bursts into the Temple precincts, enraged by
the extortion and corruption he discovers, and physically removes the
scoundrels from God's 'House of Prayer'. Then, in a matter of days he is
arrested, tried, sentenced and hung to die. It is no coincidence. The powers
that be recognize a dangerous prophet when they see one ... and they
eliminate him expediently. But wait one second. That is not the same story
that we have just read aloud. Look again. John's version of the events is not
the same as we remember. For one thing, this Jesus makes a whip to drive
a herd of sheep and cattle out of the Temple. Not exactly 'Gentle Jesus,
Meek and Mild' is it? And look at this ... there is no mention here of extortion
or corruption, nothing about making it a "den of thieves". In John's version
of events Jesus is consumed with passion because worship life in the Temple
has generated an economy ... it has become "a marketplace". Offerings are
made using local currency, tax receipts are given, priests are provided a
salary and housing allowance. Sounds vaguely familiar, don't you think?
And there is one more thing. Did you notice? This is the Gospel according
to John, chapter two ... that's right, chapter two. Jesus has just arrived on the
scene. He has just called the disciples from their fish boats when he shows
up in the Temple. In Matthew, Mark and in Luke this scene drives the plot
in the final act of Jesus' life. But, in John's hands, Jesus' passionate rage in
the Temple falls early in the first act. Notice the difference in reaction to
Jesus' act of civil disobedience. Here there is no outrage on the part of the
authorities. Jesus is not suddenly living under the threat of death. No
Temple police come to round him up. Instead, those gathered in the Temple
calmly enter into theological discussion with him as if this is just another
ordinary event. Jesus knows otherwise. He knows that this is a 'defining
moment'. Here - and only here in John's gospel - does he hint at his destiny.
"Destroy this temple", he says obliquely, "and in three days I will raise it
up". They haven't a clue what he is talking about. Even his disciples only
figure it out years later. Truth is, as we gather here two millenia later, we
still wonder at what such a zen-like statement really means. One thing we
are sure of, though: the day Jesus empties the Temple is one of the 'defining
moments' of his life.

Sadly, it has also been one the 'defining moments' of the churches' life ever
since. Yes, that's right ... sadly. Sadly because in most times and places ever
since, this text has undergirded so much of the Churches' unspeakable
treatment of the Jews. You must have heard it as the story was being read:
"The Passover of the Jews was near ... <and> the Jews then said to him ..."
. It is possible to read this passage and imagine that Jesus himself is not a
Jew. It is not only possible ... it is precisely the way in which too many
Christians have understood these lines in too many times and places. And,
reading John's Gospel, it is easy to see why. Just one scene prior to shaking
the foundations of the Temple, Jesus is at a wedding reception in Galilee.
Remember? There at Cana he turns almost two hundred gallons of water
into wine. And not just any water, either. It is ritual water ... water used in
Jewish rites of purification. Let's see. Water used in Jewish religious rites
turned into wine by Jesus. It is not all that hard to glimpse John's heavy hand
portraying Christian rituals replacing Jewish ones. But, just in case we miss
it, John shows Jesus' cleaning out the Temple and hinting at its replacement
in his body. This notion that Jesus has put an end to Jewish religious
practice ... an end to the need for Judaism at all ... has haunted us ever since.
Go to the VST Library if you need proof. Go and look up some old sermons.
Look up sermons from any century marked 'Anno Domino' ... 'year of the
Lord' ... and see what Christian preachers have been saying about texts like
this one. It doesn't matter who you read. Try one of the early church fathers
like John Chrysostom who proclaims: "Where Christ-killers gather, the cross
is ridiculed, God blasphemed, the father unacknowledged, the son insulted,
the grace of the Spirit rejected ... If the Jewish rites are holy and venerable,
our way of life must be false. But if our way be true, as indeed it is, their's
is fraudulent." Or try one so esteemed among us Protestants as Martin
Luther, father of the Reformation. As one recent historian notes: "Martin
Luther's antisemitism was ferocious and influential enough to have earned
him a place in the pantheon of antisemites". When the lector announces:
"The word of the Lord" after reading John 2:13-22 we respond in unison:
"Thanks be to God" ... and our Jewish neighbours cringe in fear. They know
all too well what we like to forget ... namely, that the preaching of such
stories as this one has watered the seed of antisemitism for too long. Daniel
Goldhagen's recent book, "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans
and the Holocaust", should be mandatory reading for all Christian preachers.
After emerging from its dark pages there can be no doubt in anyone's mind
that Christianity cannot escape being implicated in the horror of 'The Final
Solution'. Yes, Jesus' rage in the Temple long ago was a defining moment
for him ... and for history ever since.


Faced with such horror in our past we are tempted to try to forget. We avoid
this story and its aftermath altogether. Or we preach about the way in which
Jesus turns the tables on us without so much as mentioning the awful history
of these verses. Maybe antisemitism will go away if we just don't talk about
it anymore. Surely things have changed. Canada in 1997 is not Germany in
1933. Can't we just get on with things and let bygones be bygones? When
Rabbi Martin Cohen visited our Questors' Study Group last month he was
asked - ever so politely - a question like that one. In responding he wondered
aloud how many families in our congregation had suffered the cold-blooded
murder of one of their parents or grand-parents? He speculated that perhaps
there might be at most one or two families with such a history at University
Hill. "You see", he went on, "in my Congregation almost every single family
has such stories to tell ... and not just about one murder but about scores of
murders. Can you even begin to imagine what kind of an effect this has had
on the life of our community. I face it", Martin said, "every single day".
Faced with such living memories of destruction we are driven back into the
origins of enmity between Christian and Jew ... driven back to the late 1st
century. Fifty years or more after Jesus' act of protest the Temple lies in
ruins. Tiring of Jewish independence movements, the Roman Empire finally
crushes Jewish society, destroying the center of its worship life. Immediately
Jewish leaders begin to wonder what form their future worship life will take.
We can overhear their discussion in John's description of what takes place in
the Temple after Jesus' whips up controversy. Remember? No Temple
Police carry him away in shackles ... there are no death-threats or angry
verbal attacks. In fact, one cannot detect the slightest animosity in their
voices when they ask him: "What sign can you show us for doing this?". In
their conversation with Jesus we can hear the debate that is underway as John
writes ... one that John's community is losing. They had hoped to persuade
others to see what they see ... to see in Jesus the long promised Messiah.
Now, finding themselves on the outside of their Jewish homes looking in,
they proclaim with even more vigour that the new Temple is to be found
raised up in Jesus, the Living Temple which no Roman Army can destroy.
The ancient roots of enmity between Christian and Jew lie in disputes
between first century Jews who do not imagine in their wildest dreams how
long it will continue or where it will ultimately lead. We do not have such a
luxury. We know all too well what became of the seeds of antisemitism ...
our own century has been witness to its bitter fruit. Turning the corner on a
new millenium, it is not at all clear that this diseased old tree is dead.

But Jesus is not finished with us yet. He enters the Temple once again,
overturning our presumptions and sending our flock of preconceptions
scattering. We have seen him here before. We have heard his fury calling
followers to rise up against a religious system desperately in need of reform.
We are Protestants ... offspring of the'protestors'. We remember Martin
Luther nailing ninety-five theses to the Wittenburg door: scattering the
indulgences bought and sold by the church ... railing against the elevation of
clergy to special ranks of authority ... clearing away the clutter of habits and
doctrines to uncover the call of Jesus buried beneath centuries of stifling
tradition. Little does Luther realize that his lecture will be a 'defining
moment' that will ignite the social dislocation and turmoil we call the
Reformation. But in it we can see Jesus at work ... setting loose seismic
forces strong enough to topple a Church that had taken fifteen centuries to
construct. The caretakers of this 'Holy Roman Temple' called the reformers
'the enemies of God'. Luther and his colleagues believe otherwise. They see
that the tradition itself carries the seed of its own destruction ... the seed of
a re-formed church. It is in the very Bibles, so carefully copied and gilded
and guarded, that the seed of Jesus' new way of life lies waiting to germinate
once again. In the pages of the Bible the reformers discover Jesus
challenging the traditions of his own day ... traditions that had come to be
taken for granted ... things that people assumed are 'just the way things are'.
They see Jesus shaking the foundations of the central religious establishment
of his time ... and it soon dawns on them that he is doing the same thing once
again, in their own day and age. But they do not see what we can see ... what
we must see. They do not perceive that Jesus also comes to cleanse the
church of the irrational fear and hatred of Jesus' own people, the Jews.
Today Jesus enters the awful shrine of anti-semitism and sends its merchants
fleeing at the end of a whip. Like those who gather around Jesus in the
doomed Temple, we wonder what will take the place of things the way they
are. It is not as simple as putting an end to irrational hatred. If that were all
that was necessary then antisemitism would have died long ago. Something
or someone else must take its place. The Living Christ, not fear and hatred,
is to be our Temple. Listening to him we discover the reformation that Jesus'
intends for his church. He calls us to a new relationship between Jews and
Christians. Only then can the dark stain of antisemitism ever be cleansed
from our midst. Half a century after the Holocaust, Jesus enters the church
and shakes the very foundations of our faith. He comes not as we had
thought ... not as one who puts an end to Jewish ritual and faith. Rabbi Jesus,
the Jew, comes as one who transforms Jewish ritual and faith for us ... for
you and I, Gentiles who would live in ignorance of the God of Israel were it
not for him. Jesus comes and calls us to follow him out into the streets ... to
follow him wherever abuse has been hurled or ridicule has been heaped or
death has been dealt in his name ... to follow him to synagogues and ghettoes,
to sweat lodges and reserves ... there to bear witness to Jesus' rage against
injustice and to pray for healing from suffering ... in his name. Amen.

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