For about a week now I’ve been feeling nudged to write about Jesus cleansing the temple. I didn’t realize it would be today’s Gospel reading.
Many of us think the story is evidence that Jesus was angry about commerce in general. Some even interpret it as a treatise against capitalism, citing this story (one of a few that is found in all four Gospels) as evidence that Jesus was a socialist.
Jesus was not a socialist, nor was he a capitalist. These are modern constructs, and my guess is Jesus could and would take issue with either one just as easily, because any “social construct” has, at its core, a small group of people exercising control over the masses, usually the most vulnerable, in order to further solidify their monopoly on power.
That’s essentially what the cleansing of the temple was about. Remember the Gospel a few weeks ago about giving the Caesar what is Caesar’s and giving to God what is God’s? Today’s story is the sequel. In fact, in the synoptic Gospels, these stories are sequential.
All people in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus used Roman currency. But the Jewish temple could not accept coins with Caesar’s head on them. It was dirty Gentile money. Jews needed Jewish money in order to pay the temple tax and buy animals for ritual sacrifices in the temple. Hence the need for the money changers. They needed to “give to God what is God’s.”
I can only imagine the disgust Jesus must have had at seeing all the gold and livestock in His Father’s house, not because He was against commerce, or stood up for animal rights, but because of the economic and especially spiritual barriers the Jewish culture had placed between people and their God. It is no wonder the poor and the sick flocked to Jesus; they had no other access to God because they couldn’t afford it.
Think about that. These people believed they must worship God in the Temple at Jerusalem in order to receive God’s blessing, yet they couldn’t even participate in that worship because they hadn’t been materially blessed enough to enter. If you read the Gospels looking for how the Jewish elite excluded their own from being connected to their God, you might see the story of Jesus in a whole different light. It makes me question how my own Church excludes people from full participation. Christ held Himself back from no one, and nothing angered Him more than the barriers and corruption that kept people from His Father. I think if He saw the practices of His Church today, some folks would be in for a good whippin’.
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” Jesus said. He meant it as a foreshadowing of His death and resurrection. But sometimes, a structure becomes so faulty, so corrupt, so top-heavy, so complicated, and so dangerous, the best thing to do is to tear it down and start over.
I was blessed to have been a part of my parish from the day we started. I was a senior in high school and we had 300 families. Most of us knew each other’s names. We did not have a physical church building in which to meet, so we borrowed space from the local Methodist church, the Lebanese church, and a Henrico County middle school. We held meetings in people’s homes and set up an office (with only one or two paid staff members) in the dilapidated old house that sat on the property that would become the huge parish complex we have today. Our focus was on learning and teaching that “church” wasn’t a building, but a community. We called ourselves “the village,” because it takes a village to raise a child, to comfort a widow, to serve the poor within and without.
Almost 25 years have passed. Three building campaigns. More that 2,500 families and growing. We have a huge staff managing 60+ ministries. We’ve done a lot of good for a lot of communities, especially for our beloved Haitian brothers and sisters.
But we no longer call ourselves “the village.” I miss that. My unwieldy megachurch is less of a community now than it was when we had nowhere to meet but each other’s homes. We may not exclude people in the same manner that the Sanhedrin did in Jesus’ time, but our sheer overwhelming size excludes people from feeling the personal experience of Jesus. Oh, the staff will tell you that they desperately want more volunteers for the various ministries. But the onus is on the newcomer (or old timer like myself) to find our place in the parish community.
There are times when I’d like to see Jesus tear down the walls and take us back to the days when we were a real community. I long for it. I may even leave my megachurch to find a smaller, poorer Catholic parish that makes do with less, has fewer, and more focused ministries, and doesn’t live the “bigger is better” mentality. Or maybe I’ll find another denomination that keeps faith simple, theologically and practically.
The ironic thing is, today is not just any old Ordinary Time, “green vestment” Sunday, but the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica – the first church building erected. It is a reminder that I need to keep a balanced perspective and not throw the baby out with the bath water, or the money changers. We need a physical space and communal rituals and outreach projects to unite us as community, and just as importantly we need to tend the temple within. Access to the Father is not “either or,” but “both and.” Living a God-centered life needs both a healthy individual heart and the support of a community of like-hearted individuals.
I recently heard someone say, if you ask any great artist what makes a great piece of art, they will tell you it is not what was added to the painting, or sculpture, or musical composition, or piece of literature, but what was edited and taken out. I think the same is true of faith. We humans can complicate anything we put our hands on, and faith is no different. Across all denominations we add our own perspectives on what the Christian life is “supposed” to be and overlook the core teaching of Christ – put God first and treat people the way you want to be treated. The rest is just “temple tax” and ritual that loses its usefulness if it is not fulfilling its purpose – helping us to put God first or to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
I have a category on my blog that I call “Tending the Temple.” It’s where I post about all things “self-care” related, spiritual and material. It’s a category I’ve neglected a bit in recent months, and that should tell me something. I’ve neglected it in my life, too. However, there are some wonderful habits I’ve maintained or picked up. I can’t wait to share more of those with you as the journey continues. Thank you so much for joining me and encouraging me. Sometimes this whole blogging business feels self-centered and ego-driven, but then one of you will comment on how it helps you, and I’m reminded that my feelings about this ministry (and that’s what it is) are not always facts.
Today’s epistle from Paul to the Corinthians is the scriptural inspiration and foundation for my website: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple,God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.”
So we are called to tend our temples, and care for our church communities, whatever they may look like. I think Jesus is less concerned with how we do it and more concerned that we just do it the best we can, without harming others along the way.