Sunday, 8 March 2015

Lent 3: My Father's house

“Stop making my Father’s house a market place” shouts Jesus, as he turns over the tables of the money changers and drives out the livestock that are filling the courtyards of the Temple in Jerusalem. It’s an action which will get him into a lot of trouble, which is hardly surprising. These Temple traders are powerful people, and he is disturbing a system which serves them well.
But what was it that he was complaining about? What is the problem?

There are a number of possibilities. Jesus might have objected to trading going on in the Temple full stop. It was meant to be a space to concentrate on God, after all. Or maybe it was that those who carried on this trade were corrupt. Worshippers normally bought the animals they were going to sacrifice in Jerusalem rather than bringing an animal from home, because the sacrificial animals had to be perfect and unblemished. If you trekked them across the countryside, they might get injured or marked in some way. That opened up a great marketing opportunity for local animal sellers, and it is very likely, human beings being what they are, that some of them ripped off those who had no option but to buy from them. Temple taxes, too, had to be paid  using special coins, so manipulating the exchange rate  was another way to turn a quick profit.

A third possibility was that it was where in the Temple this trade was happening that was the root of the problem. The Temple consisted of a number of concentric areas. Only priests were allowed in the central parts. Outside them was a courtyard where other Jewish men could worship. Beyond that was a courtyard for Jewish women. The outermost courtyard was the only place where Gentiles could come – it was open to all. It is here, in all probablility, that the traders had set up, where they could sell to the greatest number of people, but that meant they were effectively stealing the only space where the Gentiles could pray. Jesus’ message was one of inclusion, of God’s love extending to all people, so taking over this space would have offended him.

Whatever the reason, it was clear to everyone that Jesus was seriously angry, and that the people who witnessed this event were shocked by that. But then, to add insult to injury, he went on to issue what was either a terrible threat or a blasphemous promise. “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
The building he was standing in had only just been through a massive extension and restoration, lasting 43 years. Was he saying that it wasn’t up to scratch? That he could do better? Was he threatening to pull it down himself?  No wonder people were offended. We are told that it’s his own resurrection he’s talking about, but the fact that people’s anger centres around the perceived threat to the Temple building is very revealing.

Stop making my Father’s house a market place” says Jesus, but the Greek word for house which he uses here isn’t a word that simply refers to a physical building. It is the word “oikos”, and it would perhaps better be translated “household” than “house”. It encompassed not just the bricks and mortar, but the people who lived in the building, family members, servants, hangers-on. It was the whole unit, the whole system, drawn together by common bonds and goals. The word “oikos” gives us a wealth of words in English, basically anything that starts with “eco-“. Economics,  ecology, ecosystems; they all derive from “oikos”  and they are all about how things work together.

So Jesus isn’t really complaining here about the way the Temple building is being used; he is complaining about the rot that has set into the whole ecosystem, if you like. His people are supposed to be the household, the “oikos” of God. Filling the Temple with livestock, this place where they believed they met most directly with God, is a symptom not the cause of the problem, a sign that something far deeper is wrong.  

This household of faith – the people of Israel - had originally been shaped in very troubled times, according to the Bible, and we heard about the pivotal moment in that shaping in our Old Testament reading today. It was the famous passage which we know as the Ten Commandments, and it sets out very clearly what God expected from those who are part of his family.

The people to whom the commandments were given were an unlikely bunch. They’d been slaves in Egypt for four hundred years. They’d endured four hundred years of other people ruling over them, telling them what to do, four hundred years of never having space to make their own decisions. The Saturday before last some of us went on a trip to the British Museum to see artefacts from the cultures which shaped the Bible. We spent quite a bit of time in the Egyptian galleries, which contain a huge range of exhibits – monumental statues, elaborate friezes, splendid grave goods. They all said, loud and clear, “the people who made these things knew what they were about.” Egyptian society was very sophisticated and its religion was very well-ordered. The Egyptians’ main concern was to make sure their souls lived on after death, and they’d worked out very precise rituals, written down in their Book of the Dead; the mummification of bodies, the prayers and incantations, the elaborate ceremonies. It was all there.

At the time our Old Testament reading was set, though, the Hebrew slaves had left behind the order and certainty of Egypt. Moses had led them out into the desert of the Sinai Peninsula. They were heading, so he said, for the Promised Land. But they were starting to wonder whether they’d been wise to follow him.  Of course, slavery had been brutal, but sometimes freedom can be tough too. In Egypt, they’d been ordered around, but that can be a lot easier than having to make up your own mind. They’d wanted freedom, space to be themselves. Well now they had it, but it was the freedom of the desert and the space seemed endless. How could you know which way to head, physically or spiritually? What was the point of freedom if you had no idea where you were going?  And who was this God who’d summoned them out on this trek anyway? The old gods of Egypt were familiar. They’d seen their images around them every day, but what did this God want from them?

The Ten Commandments were God’s answer to those questions. Through them he told these bewildered people the essence of what he cared about, what it meant to worship him. Unlike the faith of the Egyptians it had little or nothing to do with life after death – there’s nothing about the afterlife in the Ten Commandments.  It was about this life, here and now. And it wasn’t about rituals either. It was about relationships, with God and with one another.

God starts by telling them that he is the only God they should worship.  It’s not like Egypt where there were dozens of gods you had to take notice of. This was highly unusual. Most religions had multiple gods. There had been a brief experiment with monotheism in Egypt, under the Pharaoh Akhenaten, who had lived not long before the story of Moses is thought to be set. He’d decided that only the sun God, Aten, should be worshipped. [Thank you to Patrick Coffey for reminding me of this] But it hadn’t caught on. Perhaps people preferred to spread their bets – if one god didn’t favour you maybe another one would? But the God of Moses is clear. Belonging to him isn’t a gamble. He is the God who rescued them from slavery. What more assurance could they need of his love? Their relationship with him was to be one of trust. He was committed to them so they could be committed to him too.

The next three commandments follow on from that. If their relationship with God is one of commitment on both sides, then they don’t need to make idols, and they don’t need to use the name of God as a magic spell, either, to manipulate events, because he knows what they need. Keeping the Sabbath, a day when they were supposed to depend on God rather than striving for their own ends grows out of and strengthens that relationship of trust too.

The commandments move on naturally then to their relationships with one another. This is the God who has rescued them, who has seen their suffering and heard their cries, and cared about them enough to act. So following him means acting compassionately to others too. That means living with respect respect, faithfulness, integrity, appreciating  what they’ve got rather than feeling they have to grasp for more.

And that is it.
As I said, there’s nothing about life after death, no ticket to heaven, no Book of the Dead. The Ten Commandments are about living with our eyes and hearts open to God and to those around us here and now. They are about learning to trust that what we have is enough, and that the hands of God hold us safely and won’t let us go. These are the hallmarks of the household of God – his “oikos”, his ecosystem, his economy. It’s a million miles away from the kind of thinking which would allow people to use the Temple as a way to make a quick buck, or to squeeze out those who were tentatively exploring faith or holding onto it by their fingertips.

When Jesus clears out the traders and money-changers he is restoring God’s ecosystem to health, reforming the household of faith which was so precious to him, declaring it to be one in which everyone is welcome and has access to God. Ultimately the new life he promises won’t come in the shape of bricks and mortar, though. It will be seen in his risen body, raised from the destruction of death, and in the body of those who gather together to walk in his way.

“We are the body of Christ,” I often say, as we share the Peace together Sunday by Sunday. It’s a joyful moment, but it’s a moment when we are faced with a huge responsibility, because those words remind us that we are called, just like the Hebrew slaves in the desert of Sinai, to live as God’s household, with relationships that reflect his love and commitment. Today, as we hear those words, may our hearts be open to let him sweep into our lives, to overturn and drive out whatever gets in the way of us living up to that challenge.


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