Sermons That Work

Righteous Indignation…, Lent 3 (B) – 2003

March 23, 2003

Righteous indignation is a tricky thing. One of the good things about the television set is that we can rant and rave at it in the solitude of our homes without doing much harm. Perhaps our spouse has to endure or leave the room, but the world is blissfully ignorant about the threats we may have made to prominent politicians or TV anchors.

While some of us have are aware that our faith has an ethical dimension, we still prefer our clergy and lay leaders to “stick to religion.” When the Presiding Bishop tackles the government about war, we often say, “He doesn’t represent me.” “Leave politics to the politicians,” we grumble.

At first reading the Gospel for today doesn’t seem to say much about politics. We are drawn into one of the outer courtyards of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was quite unlike a modern church. It was a very big complex, filled with buildings and courtyards. The whole purpose of the Temple was the offering of sacrifice to God. Offering may have been made for individual families, and they were also made for communities and the nation.

Nowadays we bring our checkbook or cash and at the right moment, we solemnly place our offering in the plate, adopting that tragic expression we demonstrate when our wallet is emptied. Temple offerings were rather noisy. Most offerings were alive when they reached the Temple. Jews who lived abroad obviously couldn’t bring their own animals. Animals were kept for sale in a compound in an outer part of the Temple. To buy a suitable offering, one had to exchange Roman money for Temple money. Jesus knew that ordinary folk were being cheated in the holiest place on earth.

The word “sacrifice” originally meant, “to approach.” One couldn’t just barge into God’s presence and say, “Hello. Here I am. Nice to meet you.” One brought a gift. The more unworthy one felt, the more significant the gift one brought. In Jesus’ day, representatives of the extended family, or the wider community went to the one Temple in Jerusalem. They went to “approach” God and to offer gifts which made them worthy to enter into “the courts of the Lord.”

Some less than honest officials had seen in this system a market opportunity. They might have said, “Only $19.99 while stocks remain.” Those who inspected the offering brought by local people, saw the opportunity to reject a sacrifice. This meant that a new animal had to be bought. There was a sales opportunity. As money had to be exchanged, a further opportunity presented itself for corruption and greed. Seeing this going on, Jesus got mad! For the one and only time in the Gospel narratives, he seems to have lost his temper completely. Jesus picked up a whip and started to “thwack” the animal sellers and moneychangers. It must have been quite a sight.

Did Jesus lose his temper because the cheating was being done on holy ground? Or did Jesus lose his temper because the poor were being extorted in the name of religion? Take your pick. In first-century Palestine no concept existed suggesting that Church and State were separate entities. It would be another 1,800 years before anyone really tried to keep the sacred and the secular apart. To Jesus, taking advantage of people in need was as dreadful if it occurred in the street or in the Temple. It didn’t matter whether the offender was a tax collector or a Temple priest. Jesus took his whip to the crooks in the Temple to make a simple point. The Temple would be destroyed because those who controlled the religion of Israel had betrayed the people, the nation, and the nation’s God.

Separation of Church and State may well be an excellent notion. Separating faith from daily life is not. St. Paul speaks to this dilemma in the lesson we read from Romans a few minutes ago. In one of his more intimate self-revelations, he admits that while he tries to be spiritual, something is going on within him that seems to make him do the very thing he hates. St. Paul constructs what might be called a “law of human nature.” On the one hand, he delights in God’s law, and on the other, he is drawn to do the things he ought not to do. The Temple priests and officials delighted in serving God and in keeping all the ritual and ceremonial laws. Yet they just couldn’t resist the temptation to make a few bucks on the side by exploiting those who were defenseless.

Anyone who has been involved in “churchy” things for any length of time has probably met folks who have given up on “religion” because someone who was supposed to be religious hurt them, used them, or tragically abused them. “I’m not going to your church,” they say. “It’s full of hypocrites.” We feel like saying, “We can make room for one more”, but we know that won’t do. We expect Christians to behave like Christians, whether that Christian is a lay reader who runs a store or a worshipper who is the President of the United States.

The irony of the Gospel story is that ordinary folk, realizing that they could not keep God’s law, that they had broken that law, sought to approach God with a sacrifice in order to atone. They were being cheated at the point or place in their life where they should have been nurtured. Rather than merely reforming the system, slapping hands and telling the priests and their assistants to do better, Jesus called down judgment on them. A new Temple would be raised, a temple made not of stone but of human beings, a temple open to all and for all.

When we come between God and another human being we are “under judgment.” If we let our arrogance, or spite, hurt feelings, or sense of importance prevent another person from coming to God, we become like those whom Jesus chased out of the Temple. When we, as Christians, give support to those in the community who exploit those in need, who just cannot manage the complexity of modern life, we become as those whom Jesus whipped out of the Temple.

Christianity is no easy thing. Being moral or ethical doesn’t merely mean being good in the area of sexual morality. We are also called to be just, and that is much harder. We are called to honor everyone and to use no one. That is much harder. If you sell insurance, own a shop, charge fees as a lawyer, rent homes, you know how easy it is to exploit the gullible. St. Paul grumbles that although he delights in God’s law, something inside him pulls him in another direction. Reading these words we, too, feel like we are personal battlegrounds between equal forces. Then Paul blurts out a wonderful truth. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” he cries. The answer comes to him and almost overwhelms him. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” he shouts.

Week by week we hear God speak to us in the lessons, and we approach the God who is at his Table. When we don’t feel like running away and hiding, we should know that we are in danger of becoming as cynical and blasé as those astonished moneychangers in the Temple who encountered, perhaps for the first time in their lives, the anger of God in the face of Jesus. True, God accepts us, forgives us. God doesn’t want us to cringe before the Presence. God also wants us to come with a gift in our hands. The gift God accepts is Jesus. We bring Jesus because we can’t win the war of sin by ourselves. By ourselves we become both exploiters and the exploited. In Christ we are new beings, who accept all others because we have been made acceptable by Jesus — who is our Paschal Lamb.

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Christopher Sikkema