Christ Centered Resources

Jesus, the Jews and the Temple

Rev. Ed Searcy

John 2:13-22
University Hill United Church : Sun, March 2, 1997
&#65279;Only a few events in a lifetime can be described as 'defining moments'. Such is the day when Jesus disrupts the Temple. We remember the Sunday School pictures of it well: Jesus bursts into the Temple precincts, enraged by the extortion and corruption he discovers, and physically removes the scoundrels from God's 'House of Prayer'. Then, in a matter of days he is arrested, tried, sentenced and hung to die. It is no coincidence. The powers that be recognize a dangerous prophet when they see one ... and they eliminate him expediently. But wait one second. That is not the same story that we have just read aloud. Look again. John's version of the events is not the same as we remember. For one thing, this Jesus makes a whip to drive a herd of sheep and cattle out of the Temple. Not exactly 'Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild' is it? And look at this ... there is no mention here of extortion or corruption, nothing about making it a "den of thieves". In John's version of events Jesus is consumed with passion because worship life in the Temple has generated an economy ... it has become "a marketplace". Offerings are made using local currency, tax receipts are given, priests are provided a salary and housing allowance. Sounds vaguely familiar, don't you think? And there is one more thing. Did you notice? This is the Gospel according to John, chapter two ... that's right, chapter two. Jesus has just arrived on the scene. He has just called the disciples from their fish boats when he shows up in the Temple. In Matthew, Mark and in Luke this scene drives the plot in the final act of Jesus' life. But, in John's hands, Jesus' passionate rage in the Temple falls early in the first act. Notice the difference in reaction to Jesus' act of civil disobedience. Here there is no outrage on the part of the authorities. Jesus is not suddenly living under the threat of death. No Temple police come to round him up. Instead, those gathered in the Temple calmly enter into theological discussion with him as if this is just another ordinary event. Jesus knows otherwise. He knows that this is a 'defining moment'. Here - and only here in John's gospel - does he hint at his destiny. "Destroy this temple", he says obliquely, "and in three days I will raise it up". They haven't a clue what he is talking about. Even his disciples only figure it out years later. Truth is, as we gather here two millenia later, we still wonder at what such a zen-like statement really means. One thing we are sure of, though: the day Jesus empties the Temple is one of the 'defining moments' of his life. Sadly, it has also been one the 'defining moments' of the churches' life ever since. Yes, that's right ... sadly. Sadly because in most times and places ever since, this text has undergirded so much of the Churches' unspeakable treatment of the Jews. You must have heard it as the story was being read: "The Passover of the Jews was near ... <and> the Jews then said to him ..." . It is possible to read this passage and imagine that Jesus himself is not a Jew. It is not only possible ... it is precisely the way in which too many Christians have understood these lines in too many times and places. And, reading John's Gospel, it is easy to see why. Just one scene prior to shaking the foundations of the Temple, Jesus is at a wedding reception in Galilee. Remember? There at Cana he turns almost two hundred gallons of water into wine. And not just any water, either. It is ritual water ... water used in Jewish rites of purification. Let's see. Water used in Jewish religious rites turned into wine by Jesus. It is not all that hard to glimpse John's heavy hand portraying Christian rituals replacing Jewish ones. But, just in case we miss it, John shows Jesus' cleaning out the Temple and hinting at its replacement in his body. This notion that Jesus has put an end to Jewish religious practice ... an end to the need for Judaism at all ... has haunted us ever since. Go to the VST Library if you need proof. Go and look up some old sermons. Look up sermons from any century marked 'Anno Domino' ... 'year of the Lord' ... and see what Christian preachers have been saying about texts like this one. It doesn't matter who you read. Try one of the early church fathers like John Chrysostom who proclaims: "Where Christ-killers gather, the cross is ridiculed, God blasphemed, the father unacknowledged, the son insulted, the grace of the Spirit rejected ... If the Jewish rites are holy and venerable, our way of life must be false. But if our way be true, as indeed it is, their's is fraudulent." Or try one so esteemed among us Protestants as Martin Luther, father of the Reformation. As one recent historian notes: "Martin Luther's antisemitism was ferocious and influential enough to have earned him a place in the pantheon of antisemites". When the lector announces: "The word of the Lord" after reading John 2:13-22 we respond in unison: "Thanks be to God" ... and our Jewish neighbours cringe in fear. They know all too well what we like to forget ... namely, that the preaching of such stories as this one has watered the seed of antisemitism for too long. Daniel Goldhagen's recent book, "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust", should be mandatory reading for all Christian preachers. After emerging from its dark pages there can be no doubt in anyone's mind that Christianity cannot escape being implicated in the horror of 'The Final Solution'. Yes, Jesus' rage in the Temple long ago was a defining moment for him ... and for history ever since. Faced with such horror in our past we are tempted to try to forget. We avoid this story and its aftermath altogether. Or we preach about the way in which Jesus turns the tables on us without so much as mentioning the awful history of these verses. Maybe antisemitism will go away if we just don't talk about it anymore. Surely things have changed. Canada in 1997 is not Germany in 1933. Can't we just get on with things and let bygones be bygones? When Rabbi Martin Cohen visited our Questors' Study Group last month he was asked - ever so politely - a question like that one. In responding he wondered aloud how many families in our congregation had suffered the cold-blooded murder of one of their parents or grand-parents? He speculated that perhaps there might be at most one or two families with such a history at University Hill. "You see", he went on, "in my Congregation almost every single family has such stories to tell ... and not just about one murder but about scores of murders. Can you even begin to imagine what kind of an effect this has had on the life of our community. I face it", Martin said, "every single day". Faced with such living memories of destruction we are driven back into the origins of enmity between Christian and Jew ... driven back to the late 1st century. Fifty years or more after Jesus' act of protest the Temple lies in ruins. Tiring of Jewish independence movements, the Roman Empire finally crushes Jewish society, destroying the center of its worship life. Immediately Jewish leaders begin to wonder what form their future worship life will take. We can overhear their discussion in John's description of what takes place in the Temple after Jesus' whips up controversy. Remember? No Temple Police carry him away in shackles ... there are no death-threats or angry verbal attacks. In fact, one cannot detect the slightest animosity in their voices when they ask him: "What sign can you show us for doing this?". In their conversation with Jesus we can hear the debate that is underway as John writes ... one that John's community is losing. They had hoped to persuade others to see what they see ... to see in Jesus the long promised Messiah. Now, finding themselves on the outside of their Jewish homes looking in, they proclaim with even more vigour that the new Temple is to be found raised up in Jesus, the Living Temple which no Roman Army can destroy. The ancient roots of enmity between Christian and Jew lie in disputes between first century Jews who do not imagine in their wildest dreams how long it will continue or where it will ultimately lead. We do not have such a luxury. We know all too well what became of the seeds of antisemitism ... our own century has been witness to its bitter fruit. Turning the corner on a new millenium, it is not at all clear that this diseased old tree is dead. But Jesus is not finished with us yet. He enters the Temple once again, overturning our presumptions and sending our flock of preconceptions scattering. We have seen him here before. We have heard his fury calling followers to rise up against a religious system desperately in need of reform. We are Protestants ... offspring of the'protestors'. We remember Martin Luther nailing ninety-five theses to the Wittenburg door: scattering the indulgences bought and sold by the church ... railing against the elevation of clergy to special ranks of authority ... clearing away the clutter of habits and doctrines to uncover the call of Jesus buried beneath centuries of stifling tradition. Little does Luther realize that his lecture will be a 'defining moment' that will ignite the social dislocation and turmoil we call the Reformation. But in it we can see Jesus at work ... setting loose seismic forces strong enough to topple a Church that had taken fifteen centuries to construct. The caretakers of this 'Holy Roman Temple' called the reformers 'the enemies of God'. Luther and his colleagues believe otherwise. They see that the tradition itself carries the seed of its own destruction ... the seed of a re-formed church. It is in the very Bibles, so carefully copied and gilded and guarded, that the seed of Jesus' new way of life lies waiting to germinate once again. In the pages of the Bible the reformers discover Jesus challenging the traditions of his own day ... traditions that had come to be taken for granted ... things that people assumed are 'just the way things are'. They see Jesus shaking the foundations of the central religious establishment of his time ... and it soon dawns on them that he is doing the same thing once again, in their own day and age. But they do not see what we can see ... what we must see. They do not perceive that Jesus also comes to cleanse the church of the irrational fear and hatred of Jesus' own people, the Jews. Today Jesus enters the awful shrine of anti-semitism and sends its merchants fleeing at the end of a whip. Like those who gather around Jesus in the doomed Temple, we wonder what will take the place of things the way they are. It is not as simple as putting an end to irrational hatred. If that were all that was necessary then antisemitism would have died long ago. Something or someone else must take its place. The Living Christ, not fear and hatred, is to be our Temple. Listening to him we discover the reformation that Jesus' intends for his church. He calls us to a new relationship between Jews and Christians. Only then can the dark stain of antisemitism ever be cleansed from our midst. Half a century after the Holocaust, Jesus enters the church and shakes the very foundations of our faith. He comes not as we had thought ... not as one who puts an end to Jewish ritual and faith. Rabbi Jesus, the Jew, comes as one who transforms Jewish ritual and faith for us ... for you and I, Gentiles who would live in ignorance of the God of Israel were it not for him. Jesus comes and calls us to follow him out into the streets ... to follow him wherever abuse has been hurled or ridicule has been heaped or death has been dealt in his name ... to follow him to synagogues and ghettoes, to sweat lodges and reserves ... there to bear witness to Jesus' rage against injustice and to pray for healing from suffering ... in his name. Amen. < Hymn #117 in Voices United "Jesus Christ is Waiting" >