If preaching is about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, then today's Gospel lesson should have afflicted us all in some way this morning.
All the Gospels mention Jesus' routing of the moneychangers and animal dealers, but place this incident at different points in his ministry. John places the story toward the beginning of his gospel rather than near the end; but in any case, he identifies Jesus as visiting the Temple before the Passover. This would have meant that Jerusalem was besieged by pilgrims; the Temple compound, busy any time of year, would have been filled with noisy, confused, awestruck visitors, as well as the army of Temple hangers-on set up to handle them and keep the mechanism of the institution running smoothly.
Because the coins of the day were stamped with the image of the Roman emperor, they were considered blasphemous, and unsuitable for an offering in the Temple. But -- no worries -- for a fee, official moneychangers were happy to exchange the coin of the Empire for other, inoffensive coinage suitable for a Temple gift. And if you didn't bring animals with you for Temple sacrifices -- again, for a fee (one resource I found noted that livestock prices inside the Temple grounds were inflated 15 times the going rate) merchants would sell you whatever sacrificial animal you could afford. Annas the High Priest, his sons and son-in-law, made something like $170 million a year, in today's money, running the Temple business.
This was what Jesus walked into as he entered into the Temple grounds -- the din of buyers and sellers and animals. Business as usual.
And it's what infuriated him -- infuriated him to the point of causing a very (in our perception) un-Jesusian public disturbance. Imagine Jesus overturning the tables, and showers of coins falling to the floor; imagine him, homemade whip in hand, going after the livestock sellers as their living wares bleated and flapped and bellowed in panic.
Jesus was driven to direct, physical confrontation in his passion to defend God's honor. And God was being dishonored -- and, in our own faith communities, continues to be dishonored -- in a number of ways.
Injustice done in God's name dishonors God. The Temple mechants practiced extortion; they exploited the poor -- people who felt compelled, according to the Law, to make certain sacrifices and gifts to the Temple, this ultimate dwelling place of God in their tradition. Before we shake our heads at the Temple racket of Jesus' time, we might want to think of all the ways that institutional Christianity has done evil in God's name over the past 2,000 years; all the ways in which it has hurt people -- in various times and places killed people -- ascribed to God its own bigotries and avarice and ignorance, and held up itself and its own institutional self-preservation, and not God, as that which is worthy of the faithful's ultimate concern.
Turning God into a device dishonors God. This is the mindset that a pastor friend of mine calls "gumball theology," where for some people religion is all about inserting a requisite number of good works or ritual actions into the cosmic gumball machine and -- botta-boom -- waiting for the gumball of grace or goodies to come tumbling down from the heavens as a reward.
Resenting the claim of God on one's life dishonors God. I wonder how many worshippers in the Temple, on the day that Jesus confronted the buyers and sellers there, were there not because they wanted to be but because they felt they had to be -- who chafed under the religious obligation that had compelled them to spend time and money coming to this place. One of my friends recently told me about a church council meeting where members of his parish groused about weekly Eucharist "because it makes the service too long." What do attitudes like this say about people's underlying love and reverence for God, and their motivation for coming to worship?
Finally -- and the points above all ultimately speak to this as well -- God is dishonored when God is not the focus of our common life in our faith communities. An absurdly obvious truth -- but is it? When our worship becomes entertainment -- and this isn't a shot across the bow in the "worship wars," because for some of us Gregorian chant or Bach cantatas, and the choreography of ritual, can degenerate into entertainment even as uptempo contemporary music and worship can become entertainment -- God has lost God's place as our ultimate concern. When a church's focus becomes so distracted by concerns about its physical/infrastructural/financial upkeep, or about attracting new members, or anything else that is not God -- then that thing becomes that church's de facto god. And when we come to worship unwilling to give ourselves over to space in our hearts and minds reserved for God -- what does that say about our god, our ultimate concern?
God does not, in the end, want our busy-ness; or our success in promoting Religion, Incorporated; or our crumbs of time, money or attention grudgingly thrown God's way. What God wants is...us. God, in Christ, has shown a willingness to do absolutely anything and everything to have us as God's own. Do we worship, individually and in community, in ways that truly honor God's love and commitment to us? Do we truly, in the words of the liturgy, lift up our hearts to the Lord? If we did worship in this way, what would our worship look and sound and feel like?
"The Moneychangers," Iaian McKillop, Glouchester Cathredral