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Jesus confronts market-driven Christianity…

March 15, 2009

Lent 3B
March 15, 2009
John 2:13-25

1966On March 19, 1966, Texas Western College, now known as the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), put an all-black starting five on the floor for the first time in an NCAA basketball championship. That night the Texas Western Miners, led by coach Don Haskins with star players David Lattin and Bobby Joe Hill, defeated coach Adolph Rupp’s #1 ranked all-white Kentucky Wildcats, 72-65.

A symbolic threshold was crossed that continued the arduous struggle to dismantle the oppressive system of racism in this country that was built on 244 years of market-driven slavery in this country. 400 years of bigotry and injustice justified by notions of white supremacy.

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus goes rogue.  He comes unhinged.  Jesus’ words and actions in the temple must be understood as deeply symbolic–prophetic engagement.

The temple-cleansing narrative comes toward the end of the synoptic gospels (Matt., Mk., Lk.). In fact it is this act which leads to the arrest of Jesus.  John’s gospel places it much earlier in the account. Which ever is more accurate historically is not the point. In either case, this is not gentle and mild Jesus. This is deconstructionist Jesus. It is this subversive act which embodies the radical nature of his ministry—one which will ultimately be repressed through violent force by the religious establishment in collusion with the political powers.

Bill Wylie-Kellermann offers helpful background and commentary as we seek to understand the meaning of Jesus’ actions. Herod’s Temple was350px-jerus-n4i one of the larger construction projects of the first century BC (19BCE). Herod built temples for various pagan gods to serve the gentile populations, which were paid for by heavy taxes on the local Jewish population. But his masterpiece was to be the Temple of Jerusalem.

It is said that money is what makes the world go round. The temple was the economic mainstay of a city whose primary business was religious tourism. Passover was the commercial equivalent of the Christmas rush. At Passover time, Jerusalem’s population of 30,000 could be doubled or even quadrupled. That’s a lot of rooms at the inn. As many as 18,000 lambs would be slaughtered as sacrifices. We’re talking about powerful economic interests.

The temple had received special permission from Rome to collect its own tax. Pilate was able to dip into that half-shekel treasury on occasion without objection from the temple bigwigs. He built his aqueduct in part with such funds.

The temple functioned as a bank; it was not only a source of loans for those with proper credit but also the storehouse for records of indebtedness. High taxes and runaway interest rates had forced many small farmers into sharecropping and indentured slavery, making the temple instrumental in an oppressive system.

By the time of Jesus, the high priesthood had become so entangled with the Roman occupation that it was all but a political pawn…special interest group, appointed by Pilate and subject to purchase and bribe. The Sanhedrin, before whom Jesus and, eventually, the disciples were tried, was made up substantially of the Sadducean party, Jews with land and economic interests which made them backers of the pax Romana military order.

Jesus Cleansing the Temple, Jeffrey Weston

Jesus Cleansing the Temple, Jeffrey Weston

So here is Jesus going to the front porch of the temple, where the money-changers have set up shop. Why? Why does he seemingly come unhinged? He’s not simply annoyed with the inflated price of doves. He has chosen the public place which is the most visible symbol of complicity between the occupying forces and the religious authorities. He is making a statement about a religious system that has become too cozy with the interests of Empire. The temple represents the intersection of the Roman money market and the local economy, the spiritual idolatry of status quo power. And so Jesus engages in a public act that is not so different in kind to a sit-in at the IMF meetings, a bus-strike in Birmingham, a Salt-march in India. He drives the money-changers out as a cleansing act of a compromised and unjust system which has lost its course.

We might say that Jesus confronts market-driven Christianity. Why is market-driven Christianity so dangerous? Because it becomes compromised by it’s alliance with power. It ceases to identify with the week. Market-driven Christianity is never bullish on cross-bearing. The Jesus in this story is nothing like the saccharine, non-offensive, personal self-improvement Jesus we see propagated in today’s religious marketplace.

Do you see this Jesus? This Jesus is unnerving…dangerous…radical. It is the Jesus who calls us to expose and reject market-driven Christianity which is void of any kind of spiritual power. It is a Christianity which has lost all ability to discern between the way of Jesus and the way of Caesar. The way of the cross and the way of the almighty dollar.

We could talk about Ghandi in India confronts the market-driven interests of a colonial Power In 1930 in order to help free India from British control, Mahatma Gandhi proposed a non-violent march protesting the British Salt Tax, continuing Gandhi’s pleas for civil disobedience. The Salt Tax essentially made it illegal to sell or produce salt, allowing a complete British monopoly. Since salt is necessary in everyone’s daily diet, everyone in India was affected.

On April 5, 1930 Gandhi and his satyagrahis reached the coast. After prayers were offered, Gandhi spoke to the large crowd. He picked up a tiny lump of salt, breaking the law. Within moments, the satyagrahis followed Gandhi’s passive defiance, picking up salt everywhere along the coast. A month later, Gandhi was arrested and thrown into prison, already full with fellow protestors.

The Salt March started a series of protests, closing many British shops and British mills. One march resulted in horrible violence. The non-violent satyagrahis did not defend themselves against the clubs of policemen, and many were killed instantly. The world embraced the satyagrahis and their non-violence, and eventually enabled India to gain their freedom from Britain.

This is just one example among many we could site where market-driven forces must be confronted and exposed. Jesus, who claims the Lord’s house is his “Father’s” house, is clearly declaring himself both as prophet whose mission is not just to set up a personal self-improvement plan. He is about something much farther-reaching and much riskier.

What tables might Jesus turn-over if he were to confront the powers in today’s religious marketplace? What would stir Jesus to righteous indignation in today’s Temple? Daniel Clendenin reads the cleansing of the temple as a stark warning against any and every false sense of security. Misplaced allegiances, religious presumption, pathetic excuses, smug self-satisfaction, spiritual complacency, nationalist zeal, political idolatry, and economic greed in the name of God are only some of the tables that Jesus would overturn in his own day and in ours.

Jesus’ act places him in personal jeopardy and risk. That risk hangs over not only the action but all the events in Jerusalem. Jesus has staked his life on being there. His words about Caesar’s coin, the teaching in the temple, even the private contemplative symbolic acts in the upper room–everything is against the background of being in trouble.

Jesus was not ignorant or naive about the risk; he freely chose it. Beginning with his announcement to the disciples that they were headed for Jerusalem, he spoke openly about the consequences. Jesus’ risk is one with its consequences. His submission to death is a faithful public act which is one with the temple action. In fact, it is in the cross that Jesus’ confrontation with the powers (spiritual, economic, political) is finally realized, revealed, and resolved.

Paul says that if the powers had known what they were doing, they never would have crucified Christ. Jesus drove the powers into the public arena and made a spectacle of them, unmasking and overcoming their ultimate source of authority: death. Because Jesus has defeated death, we too have the freedom to act with the same reckless abandon in unmasking and confronting the powers.

How are the market-forces influencing your life? How do market force present challenges as you seek to follow Jesus? We cannot remove ourselves from the markets. However, we are called to think critically about how our participation in the markets either makes visible the righteous, just and peaceable kingdom of God, or perpetuates the status quo of oppressive systems that represent the power interests of the privilege. May we see clearly the righteous indignation of Jesus who confronts market-driven expressions of the church that claims his name.

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