Toorak Uniting Church

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House Cleaning

Psalm 19 and John 2: 13 – 25
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
11 March 2012

 Boris Olshansky. Jesus and the Money-Changers. 2006
Boris Olshansky. Jesus and the Money-Changers. 2006

I suppose Christianity has always had a love hate relationship with money and wealth. We find at the end of the first letter of Timothy the statement, "the love of money is the root of all evil." I know that it is often misquoted with the words "money is the root of all evil." As the letter of first Timothy puts it:

"Those who want to be rich fall into temptations and snares and into many harmful desires which plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evil and in the pursuit of it some have wandered from the faith, and pierced themselves on many a painful thorn."

I read some years ago a book titled, Pennies from Hell, it was a chronicle of the lives of 100 people who had won a million pounds in the British lottery. While some of the stories had happy endings most ended in family and financial ruin. Having such a large amount of money parachuted into your life was more harmful effects than beneficial ones for many people.

It seems obvious that the unfettered activity of making as much money as one can is injurious to both your life and your soul and of course the lives of the people around you. "What good is it for a man (or a woman) if he or she gains the whole world, and yet forfeits his or her own soul?" There are many who have been willing to trade their soul for a few extra dollars. But there is nothing intrinsically evil about money or even wealth. In the same way there is nothing virtuous about poverty when it is foisted upon a person. Like everything in this world it is holy or unholy by how we use it and our relationship with it.

Just to stay with money for a little longer. Money is a rather peculiar thing, because it’s only value is the value we give to it; or rather the value that our government gives to it. Or I suppose in a capitalist global context the value that the market gives to it.. How much does it cost to make a hundred dollar bill? I really don’t know, but it is certainly not $100. Even stranger is the fact that the bill is worth more than $100 if there is a printing error on it. Like art, its value is not in the cost of the canvas or the paint but in the value we give to it. We use money in exchange for the stuff we need or perhaps more accurately the stuff we don’t need in our lives. We can’t eat money; we can’t shelter under it; sail across the ocean on it; or cover our bodies with it, but money can and does do all those things when we exchange it for the goods and services we need.

Here is a story that is somewhat related. Two men are discussing wealth and who was the wealthier. One man says, I’ll show you how wealthy I am. So he takes the other man to his home. He unlocks the front door turns off the security system, and leads him down into the basement of the house to a specially constructed room behind barred doors. The doors are unlocked the security system is turned off and they stand in this empty room. The man who owns the house pushes a button and from behind a screen emerges a priceless Rembrandt painting. "I think that proves between you and me who is the richest person." The owner of the house says. "Well perhaps not," says the other man. You see, both of us can view the beauty and mastery of this painting. And both of us which I am sure you will agree, know that’s its value is in its artistry. But I am the richer because I don’t have to pay for the security and its upkeep. I can just enjoy its unencumbered beauty."

Jesus and Money
Interestingly, in the Gospels Jesus talks a lot about money. There are parables and stories about burying money in the ground, using it to pay workers, about the problems of investing in the market and that one should not let money be the judge or measure of the person. Jesus like the prophets before him saw that when a society is based on wealth and materialism it corrodes not only the values of the community but also the human soul.

However, money and wealth and the material objects we value are a reality in our lives and while Jesus and many of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures were itinerant preachers we are not. So we have to come to grips with the physicality of our lives, because essentially that’s what money is all about. Few people live in poverty and have millions of dollars in the bank; although there is a psychological condition of compulsive acquisition of the cash or money. Occasionally we will read in the newspaper of a person living in squalled conditions and after his death someone will discover thousands of dollars under his bed. But that’s not really our lives. I think we seek a way of living well, using all that is around us effectively and staying close to the centre of what our lives are about.

Jesus and the Temple Exchange Rate
Of course this story we are considering isn’t just about money and the money-changers. We know that money exchangers and animal traders were part of the religious rituals associated with the temple. People travelled far and from many different countries to worship in the temple and needed to change their currency to buy not only the temple sacrifices but the money they would use for their daily needs while they were in Jerusalem.

I think the story has a much deeper meaning than just an angry outburst that sent the tables flying and traders running. Remember this story was written perhaps 80 years after the death of Jesus. The Jewish Christians had begun to incorporate the non-Jews, the Gentiles into their ecclesiae, into their communities. They were beginning to experience the first fruits of being an inclusive community. Male and female were gathering together, even those of different social status were mixing, causing some consternation among the civic authorities. So 80 years later the followers of Jesus look back and remember a time when their leader made a dramatic gesture and chased the traders out of the holiest place in Israel and he made the audacious claim that he and his message were superior to the temple religion of the day.

Spiritual House Cleaning
I don’t think we can, too often come back to a reflection on the heart, the centre of who we are and what we do. We all need both personally and as organizations a regular inner house cleaning. After a time we can lose touch with the ground of our being, our raison d'etre, who we are, what we are about and our reason for being. The religion of Jesus’ day was tending toward exploitation of the poor; ritualism without meaning; moral codes without compassion and superficial arguments about doctrines and beliefs. In contrast the message of Jesus captured the hearts and minds of those early followers because it spoke to the very centre of their lives and gave them a new vision to live by. It wasn’t just that Jesus called them back to the roots of their faith and life, be called them forward into an undiscovered landscapes of the soul.

The money-changers, the pigeon traders, the sheep and cattle dealers were not so much bad or evil, rather from this story, their day was over. The people of the day need to have these sacrifices as a way to appease God or be reconciled with God. And as far as Jesus was concerned that day was over. You know the prayer, "Dear God if I do this for you will you do this for me?" When I was a little boy I lost the money my mother gave to me to buy something she needed from the shop. I was beside myself. I couldn’t find the money anywhere. So I prayed something like, "Dear God if you find the money for me I will go to church for the rest of my life." Well, let me tell you something, I never found the money, but I have been going to church ever since.

What I am trying to say is that Jesus is visioning a new way of being in the world. While the things around us, the physical objects of our world are important and can be symbols and signs that lead to the Holy, they are not the intermediaries between me and the sacred. Like the Greek and Orthodox icons they are windows onto the sacred not sacred objects in themselves.

On a University holiday I got a job as a wards man at Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane. During the three months I did many jobs from working in the casualty department to moving patients from ward to ward. On one occasion I overheard a conversation between an evangelical Christian and an elderly Greek orthodox woman. The evangelical woman was criticizing the orthodox woman for having a "graven idol" in the form of an icon next to her bed. The orthodox woman listened patiently and then said, "Do you have a picture of your mother?" "Yes," replied the other woman. "Is the picture your mother?" "Why no of course not" she replied. "Neither is this picture Jesus, Jesus doesn’t live in the picture, he lives in my heart."

What was getting in the way of the worship in the temple in Jesus’ day was the clutter. There needed some serious house cleaning. And we know that what keeps us for the richness that life can often be the clutter. Those things that we think are of value but are essential worthless or at least of little value.

The picture of Boris Olshansky’s painting I’ve put on the front of the Order of Service is meant to be both provocative and personal. He wants the audience to find themselves somewhere in the painting. Each of the characters in the painting represents a vice or a temptation, so it is for Jesus to clear the Holy place and remove the unholy.

But for me it is more than that, as the story suggests Jesus isn’t just clearing the place out so as to get back to the basic. His is a far more challenging action. He is about a rebuilding of the whole structure. "Destroy this temple, and I will rebuild it in three days." From this story we can see that it’s about something completely new. So really, this is more than a mere house cleaning it is a re-building program, and while it may be built on the foundations of the past, Jesus is proposing a new way in which the holy and the sacred are unshackled from the exploitive religious systems of the past.

This story is a step on our pathway through Lent toward Easter, and it reminds us that the sacrifices called for from us, are sacrifices of the heart. The words of the Prophet Amos come cascading into this Lenten season and I wonder if the were in mind of Jesus at this temple cleansing:

I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2012

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