Lectionary Reflection for the Third Sunday of Lent
March 11, 2012
He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!’ — John 2:16
Are you familiar with this story? Jesus goes up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover and ends up cleaning house in the temple. It appears he doesn’t want anyone to confuse God’s space with retail space. That the moneychangers and merchants selling sacrificial animals were performing necessary services in light of the “business” of religious practice is not the main point of Jesus’ protest. Something more is going on here, a “sign” (in John’s gospel) that points to the real heart of the matter.
The heart of the matter is God, in this case made visible in the person of Jesus. The issue is more one of “in whom do you move and breathe” than “my sacrifice is better and more correct than your sacrifice.” This is a question of being more than image, of practice rather than appearance. It’s a question that points right back to the reading from Exodus where God gives to the Israelites the rule for living and being in community as covenant people. Holy people belong wholly to God and need direction on what it looks like to live it. Our direction comes from Jesus, who fulfilled the law, and who exemplifies in practice what the law says in words.
That was then, and this is now, right? Well, yes and no. Jesus is still speaking to us today and modeling what discipleship looks like. So why was he irritated enough at the situation in the temple to make a whip and run the merchants out? John’s answer is, of course, about as cryptic as literary analysis in a graduate level poetry class. Even with the explanation about Jesus’ body being the temple and the part about the disciples remembering and believing his words after his death and resurrection, it can still be tough to figure out how this passage applies to us today.
Was Jesus frustrated by the tensions between the powers of Rome/Empire and the realm of God? Was he disturbed by the religious leaders’ acquiescence or perhaps even complicity to such commodification of sacred space and religious practice? If so, how do we relate to the story today? We have freedom of religion; no empire threatens or milks our faith-based institutions. In fact, as long as we play by the rules, we’re even tax-exempt, for goodness sake!
There are no moneychangers in our church pews today. Or are there? Is it possible that we commodify faith? If you don’t believe me, just visit a large Christian retail chain. Look at how programs and products and packages of all sorts are marketed to churches? One catalog I receive regularly even offer turn-key evangelism packages including door hangers, banners, bulletins, and sermon plans. Remember the church camp song with the lyrics “they’ll know we are Christians by our love”? Today we might be better off singing “they’ll know we are Christians by our mug” or our affinity Bible cover, or graphic t-shirt, or jewelry, or wall dÃ©cor, or bumper sticker, or any of the thousands of other items one can purchase to visually proclaim the faith.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for free enterprise, but I wonder why so many folk feel the urge to wear their faith on their coffee mug or car bumper when their time, energy, and resources could be put to tangible use in addressing the hurts and needs of the world. Why do some congregations choose to market Jesus to seekers through worship productions that rival a Vegas review, coffee bars, stadium seating with cup holders, and shuttle service in air-conditioned buses across massive parking complexes? Their motivations and hearts are in the right place — bringing folks into relationship with the One who saves — but the methods are no different than major retailers and corporate marketing departments.
Trust me, I like a comfy seat, awesome music, and good coffee as much as anybody , but what my soul truly craves is a strong connection with God amongst real folk who struggle and persevere just like I do. Instead of spending money on Jesus trinkets or cheap plastic swag for children’s church, I’d rather invest my dollars in buying malaria nets or wells or funding a local food pantry or women’s shelter. “Bling” and “cool” may bring unchurched seekers in the doors, but relationship-building and faith-nurturing will keep them coming and give them discipleship tools and practice. Encountering real folk addressing real world problems through the good news of the gospel and an authentic faith journey holds more water than any Christian slogan emblazoned mug ever can.
Our call is to examine every motivation when it comes to the intersection of faith and life, where all creation is holy space. Are we focused fully on God and the way of the cross, or are we trying to take matters into our own hands by gussying up the gospel and spinning scripture into some commodified version of spiritual cool? The key is not to try too hard. Just live the life of faith, follow the love command, be real, be present, and put God above everything else. Then they’ll know we are Christians by our love rather than by our mug.