4 March 2018
10.00 Parish Communion, Hadlow
Father, may these my spoken words be faithful to your written word and lead us to the living word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I went to a class a few weeks ago about Theology and the Arts. It is one of the modules I am studying for my MA and, I have to say, apart from the essay deadlines, I am absolutely loving it. As many of you know I sometimes enjoy messing around with paint and I love going to the theatre and the opera. So, as someone who enjoys the arts, and as someone who loves theology, it is wonderful being able to bring those two things together – to be able to bring a theological reading and understanding even to the apparently most secular pieces of art or culture. After all, if God is omnipresent then that must mean that he is present even the places where he is not obvious.
Anyway, at this particular class a few weeks ago the lecturer brought about two dozen postcards showing different paintings of Christ. This was a week on sacred rather than secular art. They were from a huge range of artists from the Old Masters to Salvador Dali and Stanley Spencer, all showing Jesus not only in very different styles but all showing different moments in his life – scenes from the nativity, depictions of miracles, a good number of crucifixion scenes and so forth. We were asked to spend 10 minutes or so contemplating these images and then to choose the one which appealed to us most, and to speak for a couple of minutes about our choice.
My choice was El Greco’s “Jesus Drove out the Merchants from the Temple”. As you can guess it depicts the scene which we heard from John’s Gospel this morning – Jesus, at the height of righteous indignation, literally whipping the money changers and traders out of the Gentile’s court of the Temple in Jerusalem.
I have to say that this was a slightly controversial choice. I am not saying that this is my favourite ever image of Jesus, because it probably isn’t, nor am I saying that this is my favourite moment in Jesus’ earthly ministry, because it isn’t. But it spoke to me in that moment – I suspect God had seen the preaching rota and knew this sermon was coming up.
The reason I gave for my slightly controversial choice was this: I think that both our understanding of Jesus and therefore our understanding of Christianity has been almost completely neutered by ‘niceness’.
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.
These words come from a Charles Wesley hymn and, I believe, that they have penetrated deep into the Christian consciousness.
But this week’s gospel reminds us that there was much more to Jesus than that and it is therefore a very useful antidote to the meek and mild image.
Jesus made a whip out of cords and he drove the merchants from the temple area, as one would drive cattle – he whipped them, he overturned their tables and he shouted at them – Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market! Jesus was consumed with zeal to cleanse the temple, his Father’s house. This man, furious with righteous indignation, driving the traders from the temple with a whip must be about as far as possible as it is to get from meek and mild.
Although this was an undoubted act of violence it was also a prophetic act. It is a reminder that prophecy can come in many forms.
In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the synoptic gospels, it was this incident in the temple, this violent, troublemaking, revolutionary, reforming, anti-establishment incident that first provoked the chief priests to start looking for ways to arrest Jesus. It was this incident that really got the attention of the religious and social establishment. Interestingly, John, who often brings a different perspective, puts this incident in the temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry rather than at the end. From a purely chronological perspective I suspect that the synoptics are correct, not least as it makes a huge amount of logical sense for it to precede his arrest rather than go unpunished as it seems to in John. However, this does not mean that John simply got the chronology wrong – I suspect that by placing this shocking clash at the beginning of the story John is making an important theological point – he is setting out the agenda of what is to come – he is saying that when God became human in the person of Jesus we should expect to be shocked, the status quo has come to an end, tables are going to be overturned, the old order is corrupt and needs to be identified as such.
The authorities who permitted the merchandising in the temple would, no doubt, have justified it as helping people worship properly in the temple. The money-changers changed money out of coins with the images of pagan gods into religiously neutral coinage. The cattle and sheep would have been unblemished, acceptable for sacrifice. The pigeon-sellers would have allowed poorer visitors an opportunity of participating in the sacrificial round of worship. Don’t forget that Joseph and Mary offered a pair of pigeons at the temple when Jesus was presented there as a child.
This is all very well but why in the temple itself? Why not outside? Well, it has been suggested that this merchandising in the temple was a recent innovation, operated by friends of the high priest to their (and probably his) financial advantage. The corruption of Caiaphas the High Priest was notorious. The merchants who had previously operated outside the temple in the city market-place were therefore marginalised by those able to offer their wares closer to the place of sacrifice, doubtless paying Caiaphas a cut for the privilege.
So Jesus may have been symbolically cleaning up what was widely perceived as a corrupt business practice and restoring a more equitable business culture. As Christians we may well feel that the contemporary business and economic culture needs reform, so that the poor and vulnerable are properly cared for, and that financial integrity is prized over gambling.
Although those in power would often prefer a meek and mild church in the image of a meek and mild Jesus today’s reading, and the painting by El Greco, says to me very clearly that we are not called to remain quiet in the face of injustice or oppression. Sometimes we are called to speak and act prophetically in the face of injustice, perhaps even in ways that may surprise or offend those in authority.
But before you rush out to start tackling injustice there is also a Lenten aspect to today’s gospel reading which makes for an interesting ‘spiritual’ exercise. Whilst all worship for the Jewish community took place in the Jerusalem Temple Jesus said:
“Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
The Jews replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body.”
And St Paul told us in 1 Corinthians 6:19
“19Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;”
So because each of us is home to God the Holy Spirit we are each of us a temple of God. Perhaps when you have a quiet moment, think about this – if you are a temple of God then to what extent are you a house of prayer and to what extent are you a market place or even a den of robbers?
But don’t despair because for most of us, most of the time, we are the latter rather than the former – and of course that is exactly why we need Jesus as much now as the world did then – not just to be meek and mild, although there is a time and a place for that, but sometimes to identify where we have fallen short of our calling, to overturn the money-changers’ tables, not only in the world but also in our souls, and to drive out that which diminishes us from what we were made to be, which is the people of God. Living Temples dedicated to a Living God, swept clean of all that is unjust and defiles us.
During Lent we should strive to let Jesus drive from our Temples all which detracts from our relationship with God. But as you go back out into the world do not be afraid to challenge evil and injustice wherever you find it, and do not let yourself be silenced by those who think that ‘Christian’ is a synonym for nice. It isn’t – to be a Christian is to be a follower of Christ and Jesus wasn’t crucified for being nice, he was crucified because the world doesn’t like its unjust systems being overturned.