This sermon’s title and theme was inspired by Westfield’s Minister of Music who chose Mark Miller’s Draw the Circle Wide as a song for today. We ended the service circling the sanctuary singing to one another: “Draw the circle, draw the circle wide. No one stands alone, we’ll stand side by side.” Also, I’m deeply indebted to scholar and author Resa Aslan’s remarkable book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Before you read the sermon, read the scriptures for the day: Exodus 20:1-17, John 2:13-22
How many of you have ever wanted to go Jesus in the Temple on someone? Raise your hands. It’s OK. Be honest. Not just a little off put, but so angered that you considered flipping some tables to get your point across. Of course, the table I wanted to turn when the cook at a local eatery refused to make my favorite dish cause he “wasn’t in the mood” isn’t quite the same thing as Jesus’ righteous indignation at what was going on in the temple. In fact, I suspect that most of what we get angry about isn’t smooch because of it’s negative implications for society or the world. Some of it might be, but mostly we get mad when we feel wronged.
And that’s partly what he’s upset about in today’s reading—that his people, the people he’s come to save, are being wronged. The Bible has a lot to say about right and wrong, about what classifies as wrong-doing and how to treat people right. In fact, this morning’s Hebrew Bible Lesson could be called the cornerstone of Judeo-Christian ethics and morality.
Jesus, of course, was good Jew, and the Ten Words given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, what we know as The Ten Commandments would’ve been a basic for him. In fact, these are the foundation of the law he would reference throughout his ministry. Often we like to list out these commandments individually then explore how we (or more realistically) how someone else has failed to abide by them. But really, these ten commandments can be divided into two categories. The first part, made up of what we’d identify as the first four commandments, share a common theme. These commandments instruct us how to be in right relationship with God. And not just start in right relationship, but maintain right relationship with God. The next six are fundamentally about our relationship with others, about how can and should interact with one another.
Jesus, in fact, synthesizes these two parts into two simple statements. The first is from the Jewish tradition. It’ called the Shemah, and it goes like this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Then, he quickly adds, “The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” Then he wraps up those two lines with this one: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” That’s what it’s all about, y’all. Treating God right—that means giving God what God deserves—our attention, our study, our love. And treating others right—that means doing right by them and not just doing right, not just being fair, but doing it with kindness and grace and humility—because that’s certainly how I think each of us would like to be treated.
So if we boil down all of Jesus’ teachings, it comes down to those two—love God and love people. And when, in the Gospel of John, Jesus walks into the that plaza at the Temple he finds that neither of those things are happening. And that’s when the tables start to turn, so to speak.
To me, this is one of the most intriguing moments of Jesus’ public life. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell a nearly identical version of this story, there’s one big difference in their versions and the one we find in John: When it happens. The Synoptic gospels (that’s the fancy name for Matthew, Mark, and Luke) place the story of Jesus and the Money Changers after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. That’s to say, they recount his moment of righteous indignation as happening during Holy Week. John, on the other hand, doesn’t just place it earlier in Jesus’ ministry. John sets it as Jesus’ first act of his public ministry.
Now, scholars have, for centuries, debated which is more historically accurate. And the truth is, I’m not really sure it matters. What does matter is the encounter itself—one that is so easy to simplify to an issue of money. When really, money is just a symptom of the disease Jesus is treating.
I suspect you have encountered this disease. In fact, I suspect you, like me, have caught it’s fever and shown it’s symptoms. It’s the disease of ego—of valuing one’s self as more important that others, of greed and materialism and disregard—for others, for who they are and what they’ve got to offer.
Let’s go back a couple of thousand years to the Temple of Jerusalem. Scholar and Author, Reza Aslan, in his book: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth sets the scene for us.
The temple of Jerusalem is a roughly rectangular structure, some five hundred meters long and three hundred meters wide, balanced atop Mount Moriah, on the eastern edge of the holy city. Its outer walls are rimmed with covered porticos whose slab-topped roofs, held up by row after row of glittering white stone columns, protect the masses from the merciless sun. On the temple’s southern flank sits the largest and most ornate of the porticoes, the Royal Portico—a tall, two story, basilica-like assembly hall built in the customary Roman style. This is the administrative quarters of the Sanhedrin, the supreme religious body and highest judicial court of the Jewish nation. IT is also where a clatter of merchants and grubby money changers lie in wait as you make your way up the underground stairs an onto the spacious sunlit plaza.
The money changers play a vital role in the Temple, Aslan writes. For a fee, they will exchange your foul foreign coins for the Hebrew shekel, the only currency permitted by the Temple authorities. The money changers will also collect the half-shekel Temple tax that all adult males must pay to preserve the pomp and spectacle of all you see around you: the mountains of burning incense and the ceaseless sacrifices, the wine libations and the first-fruits offering, the Levite choir belting out psalms of praise and the accompanying orchestra thrumming lyres and banging cymbals. Someone must pay for these necessities. Someone must bear the cost of the burnt offerings that so please the Lord.
With the new currency in hand, you are now free to peruse the pens lining the periphery walls to purchase your sacrifice: a pigeon, a sheep—it depends on the depth of your purse, or the depth of our sins. If the latter transcends the former, do not despair. The money changers are happy to offer the credit you need to enhance your sacrifice…
The Temple is constructed as a series of tiered courtyards, each smaller, more elevated, and more restrictive than the last. The outermost courtyard, the Court of Gentiles, where you purchased your sacrifice, is a broad piazza open to everyone, regardless of race or religion. If you are a Jew—one free of any physical affliction (no lepers, no paralytics) and properly purified by a ritual bath—you may follow the priest with your offering though a stone-lattice fence and proceed into the next courtyard, the Court of Women (a plaque on the fence warns all others to proceed no farther than the outer court on pain of death. Here is where the old and oil for the sacrifices are stored. It is also the farthest into the Temple that any Jewish woman may proceed; Jewish men may continue up a small semicircular flight of stairs through the Nicanor Gate and into the Court of the Israelites. This is as close as you will ever be to the presence of God.
This is the scene Jesus steps foot into during that year’s Passover celebrations. Three hundred thousand to 400,000 pilgrims would’ve thronged the Temple, each trying to make their lives right, each trying to atone for the ways they had broken God’s commandments. And there, in the midst of it all are not just money changers—who, of course, are making money off the spiritual desperation of the faithful, but the hard reality of the social castes of the day. Women could only go so far; people with diseases could only go so far; gentiles could only go so far.
And when Jesus enters that plaza, John tells us that Jesus proclaimed, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Mark and the other Gospels reframe that line. In Mark’s version Jesus says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
Now, there are lots of ways to interpret that line. In fact, Jesus is quoting the prophet Isaiah when he says. So, needless to say, it’s a loaded line. But it strikes me that the problem isn’t just the obvious greed present.It isn’t just the moneychangers caring more about their money (and the making of it) than the pilgrims (although, we certainly hear from Jesus not to store up our treasure on earth).
I think Jesus’ reprimand is about the way people are being removed from God. For the Jews, God lived it the Temple. And by not letting women, or gentiles or people who were sick approach it, they were, in effect, cut off from God. How, then, could it be a house of prayer for all nations, when even those within their nation weren’t welcome. The religious authorities of the day were so concerned with that first part of the Ten Commandments—the part that shows us how to be in right relationship with God—that they had forgotten how to be in right relationship with each other.
And so, in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ first public appearance isn’t one of rage. It’s one of prophetic anger—anger at how we are missing the point, anger at how we’re twisting God’s story in our lives to serve our needs.
And the truth is, it’s tempting for us to do that today. It’s tempting to build up barriers around us and what we like or what’s safe or what we deem acceptable. It’s easy for us to remain insular, comfortable with the places or people or circumstances we know. It’s easy for us to be complacent. And do you know, complacency is a form a greed; it’s a form of selfishness. Complacency is admitting that we’d prefer things the way they are because they suit us rather than standing up for the change that helps another.
And that’s all fine and dandy until we remember Christ’s call: to love God with all our hearts and souls and minds and to love others as ourselves. And that’s when we are reminded to draw the circle wide. That’s when we reminded to tear down those walls that separate us and others, to build bridges across differences and objections and divides. That’s when we are reminded that it’s this simple: Love God. Love people. The rest is details.
That is why we are an Open and Affirming congregation. We’ve decided that that which separates us is little in comparison to that which ties us one to another. That this place, that Westfield will be a house of prayer for all people. Not just the ones who look like us or sound like us or think like us or were raised like us. That this will be a place where everyone, everyone, everyone is welcome and invited and honored as the beloved children of God that they are.
Friends, I hope you don’t get bogged down in the details. I hope you will heed Jesus’ commandment: to Love God and to Love people. And I hope that you, alongside each other and me, will continue to draw wide the circle of God’s love in this world. With God’s help may it be so. Amen.