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Appearing Empty-Handed

  • March 7, 2021
  • 10:30 AM

Sermon for 7 March 2021 (Lent 3 B)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Exodus 34.18-28; Psalm 19.7-14; John 2.13-22

Title:               Appearing Empty-Handed

In the name of our loving, liberating and life-giving God! Amen.

My sisters and brothers, what is the sacrifice that you are offering to God?

In John’s Gospel, we read, “making a whip of cords, Jesus drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle (John 2.15).”

Why did Jesus cause such a ruckus in the temple? Why did he chase out all the sheep and the cows and interrupt the work of the money changers?

It was, after all, just a temporary interruption. Without a doubt, the cows and the sheep were brought right back in. The money changers were back at their work within the hour, to be sure.

And why did they all need to get back to work so quickly? Well, because these people were fulfilling the commandments that we just read in Exodus!

Here is an entirely different set of the ten commandments. There are at least three such sets in the Torah, and the one we pick out to include in our Prayer Books, the same set that gets inscribed on monuments at courthouses, well that’s the set we like the best.

We don’t really LIKE this set in today’s reading, because this set is focused on ceremonial requirements, rather than ethical requirements.

This Ceremonial Decalogue is quite clear and explicit: three times each year, all of the Hebrew men were required to go up to the Temple in Jerusalem and to offer a sacrifice. Now, pause for a moment and think of the logistical challenges to fulfilling that commandment!

It is estimated that in the first century up to one hundred thousand people would travel into the city three times each year. You may remember that this is what Mary and Joseph did with Jesus in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus was only twelve years old.

One hundred thousand people, three times every year! That’s crazy enough for a small city like Jerusalem, but imagine if they were all bringing with them their own cows and sheep and birds to sacrifice in the Temple!

That would be utter chaos. Not very practical at all, so the leaders wisely developed a system to keep a small but constant supply of animals ready to go when the people arrived. Instead of bringing an animal from home, the visitors would buy one in the outer part of the Temple, in the Court of the Gentiles.

But there was a problem with this as well. The Romans controlled the economy and the currency, and they minted all of their coins with images of the Emperor on them, portrayed as a god.

To use those coins in the Temple was both idolatrous AND blasphemous, so a few people were given the God-honoring task of exchanging those Roman coins for proper Temple coins.

All of these people were very carefully following the law of the LORD which the Psalmist extols as perfect and clean and providing wisdom and light and joy.

So what exactly was the problem? Why did Jesus feel the need to temporarily stop these people from doing what the Torah required of them? Was it that he really wanted the people to bring their own cows and their own sheep from home? And to herd them all the way into the city three times a year? Was that the point?

No, I don’t think so. And by the way, there is no indication at all that unethical bankers or business people were taking advantage of the poor travelers who came up for the Festival.

It has become popular to take this text as a launching point for a treatise about economic justice. I want you to know that I am sympathetic to economic justice, and I believe that Jesus is as well. But, if we are going to be honest, that is not what this text is about.

In the world of biblical interpretation, that is what we call EISEGESIS, which means reading something INTO the text that is not there. By contrast, the goal of biblical interpretation is always EXEGESIS, coming OUT OF the text, letting the text speak on its own terms, rather than making it fit what we want it to say.

By the way, looking closely at this text in John’s Gospel makes me wonder:

How long did it take Jesus to make that whip? It says it right there: “making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out” (John 2.15). How long did he work on that whip? An hour, one whole day? What was he thinking as he sat and made this whip? What was going through his mind?

And I’m sure this sounds quite unsanctified, but what ever happened to that whip? I mean, Jesus made it with his own two hands! Talk about a sacred relic! What else do we have that Jesus himself made? You would think that one of the disciples might have picked it up after this whole Temple incident, and held on to it, you know, in case they had need for a whip again in the future. I would have picked it up!

Or perhaps that would have kept it simply because the Master made it! But, alas, it seems this did not happen.

With the action of this whip and the tossing around of the tables, most readers assume that Jesus was angry. But was Jesus angry? And if so, angry about what exactly?

I do not think Jesus was angry – at least, not as we normally think of angry people. And he was certainly not violent toward anyone. No one was hurt in this incident. The whip was used only on the cows and the sheep – that’s what the story says.

No, Jesus was not being violent. There is no mention here of his emotions or even of him being angry. This is NOT Jesus responding to oppression, because there was no oppression going on here. What WAS going on was thousands of people fulfilling the commandment, obeying the Torah and honoring God.

So what was Jesus doing with this ruckus in the Temple? He was getting the attention of the people and their leaders to demonstrate that this system of sacrifice was no longer what God wanted. Something greater than the Temple was standing in their midst, and they did not recognize him.

As John explains, this entire episode was about the looming passion and resurrection of the world’s Messiah. But guess what: that answer doesn’t satisfy most people today. And do you know why?

Because a lot of people WANT Jesus to be angry, and they want this story to be about Jesus protesting injustice with righteous anger.

It is said that we live in an age when everyone is angry. But I don’t think it’s an age. I think it’s the bane of humanity. Humans are always angry.

There are many today, both on the right and on the left of our political spectrum, who want the Lord Jesus to justify their righteous anger. But what is righteous anger, after all? And who decides?

The problem is that each person feels justified in their anger. Every single person says to themselves, “I have the right to be angry!”

And yet, how do we really know when our anger is what God wants from us?

It is perfectly normal – and very human – to become angry from time to time. But can we identify our anger with the righteousness of God?

I just do not know about that. But this is what I do know. In any situation, the ends NEVER justify the means. Never, ever, ever!

If the actions being taken are not based in love, then the outcome will not be love. Now, love can be angry. We all know that. Sometimes love HAS GOT to be angry, and it acts to get the attention of the one who is loved!

That’s what Jesus is like in the Temple here. Angry love getting the attention of the people and their leaders in the Temple. And it worked! But no one was hurt in the process. Like I said, the cows and the sheep were brought back in, the coins were picked up off the ground, and life in the Temple quickly went back to normal.

Tradition calls this “the cleansing of the Temple”, but seriously, the Temple was not cleansed. And Jesus was not angry – not in the way we normally think of it.

But for just a moment, in the midst of that bustling crowd of people, the Messiah was able to get their attention, and to call them all away from their various activities and to point them toward a deeper reality.

In the words of Exodus, God says, “No one should appear before me empty-handed.”

As far as we know, Jesus did NOT pay to have a cow or a sheep or a dove sacrificed on his behalf. But did he then break the commandment? Did he appear before God in the Temple empty-handed?

Absolutely not. He brought a greater sacrifice, a far more important one – the sacrifice of his own life!

What about you? Do you come before God empty-handed? What is the sacrifice that YOU are offering to God?

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