Theres a story in the Hindu tradition that runs something like this: God and a man are walking down a road. The man asks God: "What is the world like?" God answers: "Id like to tell you, but my throat is parched. I need a cup of cold water. If you can go and get me a cup of cold water, Ill tell you what the world is like." The man heads off to the nearest house to ask for a cup of cold water. He knocks on the door and it is opened by a beautiful young woman. He asks for a cup of cold water. She answers: "I will gladly get it for you, but its just time for the noonday meal, why dont you come in first and eat." He does.
Thirty years later, theyve had five children, hes a respected merchant, and shes a respected member of the community. They are in their house one evening when a hurricane comes and uproots their house. The man cries out: "Help me, O God!" And a voice comes from the centre of the hurricane saying: "Wheres my cup of cold water?"
Much of life is taken up with distractions. We know that we can miss an important point because we were distracted by some of less value. Perhaps that is what Jesus is doing in the temple. He is getting peoples attention so that they wont miss what is of value and worthwhile.
The Jewish Passover was near so Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple with their sheep and cattle. He then poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.
This story from Marks gospel has often been used to validate righteous anger. If Jesus can act in this way then so can I. Of course there should be in all of us an emotional response when we are confronted with injustice, discrimination, prejudice and inequality. If we dont have a sense of anger about such things than we drift into apathy and indifference. Sadly, we are often bombarded by the cruelty in our world through the media and while it may raise our ire, we can feel impotent and unable to do much.
Most mornings I have the opportunity of listening to talkback radio on the way into TUC. Many of the callers are filled with rage about some aspect of bias or unfairness that they see either in our world or our society. But most often there is little they or we can do about changing the situation. Many who call in begin by saying about a particular situation, "Aint it awful," followed by, "And someone should do something about it!" I think we can all identify with that response.
But I am not sure this story of Jesus in the temple is primarily about such things. I think its really about refocusing our lives and understandings on what is of value and challenging the distractions at the heart of life. As we have moved through this season of Lent we have been confronted with the need to surrender (unpopular in modern culture) which was spoken about last week, and the importance of reflection and contemplation so that we gain a truer insight into our lives.
I have to confess that I am a person who can be easily distracted. It doesnt take much for me to look for something new and novel and not stay with the task before me. But I also seek (and seldom attain) a simplicity a oneness in my life. I recall a quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who said, "In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity." And the contemporary Catholic writer and priest Fr Richard Rohr wrote:
"True contemplation looks for the place of perfect simplicity. You cant stay there, but if you know this simplicity once, it is enough for a whole lifetime. You know your life is radically okay. That you are a child of God. You are in union. There is nothing to prove, nothing to attain. Everything is already there."
I think that is what Jesus is pursuing in the story of the clearing of the Temple. Its a call to simplicity without the distractions that move us away from the centre:
Jesus told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" Then his disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me."
Removing the distractions that block the possibility of entering the divine and the sacred in the temple is an analogy of the spiritual life.
The religious leaders then said to him, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." Then they said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" But Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body.
Of course the money-changers and the dove, cattle and sheep sellers were an integral part of worship in the temple in Jesus day. Those who travelled from far lands needed to change their currency to make a financial contribution to the upkeep of the temple. The animals were sold and sacrificed as an atonement for personal sin. Without these traders, travellers would have to look elsewhere for their offerings. But Jesus, true to form, confronts the status quo and reclaims the prophetic words of the prophet Amos:
I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. 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! 1
For me the issue here is not that "selling things on Sunday" is bad; which is the notion that I was brought up on. Nor is it so much about the traders and money-changers earning their living through this industry. Its rather the loss of focus on the centre of their activity. The beauty of simplicity was being lost; the encounter with the Holy vanishes in the symbols of sacrifice. And external sacrifice - the slaughter of animals - replaces the internal change of heart that true religion and worship is all about.
The philosopher Alan Watts wrote, "The more a thing tends to be permanent, the more it tends to be lifeless." While repetition can be helpful in our spiritual life, and traditions provide us with stability and foundation, they are never permanent; there always needs to be a regular spring cleaning in our lives; a time of reflection, questioning and re-evaluation. Of course that is happening all the time and often we are not conscious of it. But there is a season to bring what is hidden into plain view. Just as Jesus calls those in the temple to let go of the complexity of the sacrificial system that they are bound to, so we are called to the beauty of inner simplicity; of returning to the inner centre of life, faith and practice.
Many years ago I read a book by Richard Foster titled The Celebration of Discipline. At the time I didnt think that discipline was something I wanted to celebrate! But Foster used the word discipline more the way we would use the word practice. One of the disciplines/practices that Foster called the reader to was simplicity. It is no wonder that later he became a Quaker. He wrote in this book, and later in other books, these words:
Simplicity is freedom. Duplicity is bondage. Simplicity brings joy and balance. Duplicity brings anxiety and fear. The preacher of Ecclesiastes observes that "God made man simple; man's complex problems are of his own devising"2. Because many of us are experiencing the liberation God brings through simplicity, we are once again singing an old Shaker hymn:
'Tis the gift to be simple, 'Tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight
Till by turning, turning we come round right.
The physicality of life should not be underestimated in a flight into the spiritual. We need rituals, symbols and objects in our lives. Everything is a pathway to the divine, the sacred, to God; and celebrations, feasts and festivities can enrich our spiritual, emotional and physical lives. But the symbol always points beyond itself. No doubt you have heard the story about the wise man who in pointing to the moon instructs his followers not to focus on his finger pointing to the moon, but rather on the object to which it is pointing.
1 Amos 5:21-24
2 Let Ecclesiastes 7:30