March 8, 2020: Turning the Tables
Second Sunday In Lent
Monday: Turning the Tables
We have come to Monday, the second day in the last week of Jesus’ life. The day begins strangely with Jesus cursing a fig tree. To help us understand what is going on we need to know that Mark uses literary frames¸ beginning one story, inserting another, and then finishing the first. He does this throughout his gospel account. It is a style used to tell you that you are to read the second story in light of the first. On Monday we begin, as I said, with Jesus coming to a fig tree and not finding any fruit on it, curses it. Tuesday will begin with the disciples seeing again this fig tree, now shriveled. This means, in Mark, that all of Monday is framed by the fig tree story. It isn’t about producing fruit. It is the wrong time of year for fig trees to produce so it would be uncharacteristic of Jesus to be angry with a tree for not having fruit out of season.6pSomething else is going on. In this case the fig tree likely represents the temple. Jesus overturning the tables is symbolically the same as his cursing the tree. Both will wither because of their inability to bear fruit. With that in mind let us turn our attention to what happened in the temple on Monday.
Before we do this, we have to ask the question, “What fruit would we expect the temple to produce?” I would guess that Jesus would want to see lives transformed through teaching and worship. He would expect acts of compassion and justice being carried out because of what the people had experienced. These are the same kinds of fruit Jesus would expect of the church that bears his name today. So, as we see why Jesus was upset with what he saw happening in the temple, we will have to examine whether Jesus would be upset with what he sees here. This might get uncomfortable.
Jesus on Sunday, after his entry into Jerusalem, goes to the temple and it says he looked around. He knows what he will find there this Monday morning. In the Court of the Gentiles there would be all of the commercial side of the sacrificial system. There would also be the money changers. Beyond that, many merchants moved their merchandise through this large court to get from one side of Jerusalem to the other. It was a short cut that saved them time and was allowed by the authorities, for a donation, of course. There are four parts to his actions. It is as if Mark wants to emphasize the movements of Jesus. First Jesus begins to drive out the buyers and sellers; next Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers, and next overturns the seats of the dove sellers, and finally would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. All during these actions he is talking. Mark makes it very clear that this was a teaching moment. His actions go along with what he is saying. All of this is pointing to what he thinks is wrong with organized religion as it is currently being experienced in the temple.
Jesus, through his actions, stands against religion that supports injustice. The problem was that all of these people in the court of the Gentiles were making huge profits on what they did. Jesus is not against the practice of offering animals for sacrifice. This is, after all, commanded in the Torah. In his day it would have been an acceptable way to draw close to God. It could have been a transformational moment. The problem was that only “certified” animals could be used in the temple sacrifices. The priests had to certify the animals as to being acceptable for sacrifice and those in the courtyard were the only ones the priests had “certified.” You can imagine how much they charged, with a portion of the profits going to the high priest.
The High Priest had decreed that Roman coins could not be used for Temple offerings because they had the head of the emperor stamped upon them. This was a graven image. The high priest set the rate of exchange between Roman currency and the temple shekel. It was exorbitant and unfair.
It could take as much as a half day to take goods around the temple because of the crowds and narrow streets. The priest had created a street through the court of the Gentiles. They did this to allow people easier access to the dealers in animals and the money changers, or so they said. But this wide street made it relatively quick, no more that 30 minutes, to transport goods across Jerusalem. They charged a “tonnage” fee for the privilege.
All of these things were done in the name of religion. The pilgrims were fleeced of their money, the court of prayer was a street and market place and this infuriated Jesus.
To move some of this into current thinking, suppose that this church decided that only Susan B. Anthony dollars were acceptable for the offering. It was clearly understood that you were required to contribute five dollars each week. And the church is the only place that has the Susan B. Anthony dollars. So when you came to worship we would exchange your tainted money for real offering dollars. You give us $8 for $5 in Susan B’s. You might grumble but, if this was the only church in town and you were told that it was an act of faith to do things this way and to refuse meant being cut off from God and the rest of the community, you would probably pay. You want to give your offering, but the leaders had turned it into a money making proposition that was a form of extortion and called it faith.
To compound the problem, those who were hurt the most were the poor. They could not negotiate a better price for their sacrificial animal. They could not demand a reasonable exchange rate. They paid up and were told this is what God wanted them to do. The temple, which should have been the source of renewal, was instead an instrument of oppression. It was this that Jesus condemned.
All who witnessed Jesus turning over the tables and hearing his words got what he was doing. It says that the High Priest wanted to have him arrested but could not because of the crowds. The people got it. They understood he was doing this for them and that he was challenging a corrupt system. The “system” got it too and wanted him to be done away with.
This brings us to the question: Is the church today producing the fruit of righteousness? Would Jesus see lives being transformed through teaching and worship? Would Jesus see acts of compassion and justice being carried out because of what the people had experienced? Or, would he see us just going through the motions being more concerned with institutional survival than with justice? We need to hear that God is a God of justice and righteousness and when worship substitutes for justice God rejects God’s temple, or for us today, God’s church.
That is why I am so supportive of the community dinners. It is a symbol of our commitment to justice. It breaks my heart that we were forced to cancel it this month’s dinner because of the virus. We are exploring ways to help those who attend so they do not go hungry. This is why I am so supportive of Tim’s Place because it shows, in a visible way, our concern for people who are hurting. This is why I am so glad we open our doors to so many community groups trying to make a difference. All of these are saying that faith is more than what is happening on a Sunday morning. It is making sure that people perceive us as not just wanting to support our needs and line our pockets in the name of religion, but see us as trying to live purposefully the call God has given. We are striving, sometimes inadequately, but striving nonetheless to bear fruit for the kingdom.
Before we pat ourselves on the back too much we do need to confess that keeping the system going is often our top priority. We think first about our needs instead of thinking about what is necessary to be justice-filled and help people’s lives be transformed.
We need to see that taken together those actions and words of Jesus proclaim that the Kingdom of God is already with us. Jesus still proclaims the Kingdom of God is among us and rails against too close collaboration with worldly values. He challenges us to support justice and be aware that whenever we are willing to stand against systems that oppress, we will be challenged.
Monday is over, it has been an exciting day but a day that firmly points Jesus towards a cross. It is a day to see his concern for justice and new life even if it costs him his own life. What will Tuesday bring?