Third Sunday in Lent

Third Sunday in Lent


The Holy Gospel according to John.
Glory to you, O Lord.

The Passover of the Jews was near, and 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, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews 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.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ.

Now let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and Redeemer


Many years ago all through college I worked at Red Lobster during summers and breaks at school. Over the course of my time there I had worked in every position except bartender and manger. There was a culture of struggle that existed between the wait staff and the kitchen staff. The wait staff bad mouthed the kitchen staff and the kitchen staff bad mouthed the wait staff. So when I was a waiter, along with many other of the waiters, I found myself in the habit of disrespecting the kitchen staff, even though I had worked back there, whenever the opportunity arose.

I remember early in my waiting career I took an order that usually took about 10-15 minutes for the food to be ready. I came back at the 10 minutes mark, and the food was not there. Okay, I said to myself, I’ll come back in a few minutes. 

I came back again at the 12-minute mark—nothing. Then at the 15-minute mark—still nothing. I walked by the table, and the customer flagged me down, and expressed anger that the meal had not yet come. I agreed with him. So I went back to the kitchen and unleashed on the cooks. Why isn’t this order ready? You guys are incompetent. The customer is complaining all because you guys can’t do your jobs.

After I let loose on the line cooks, I looked in my book and realized that I forgot to place the order in the first place. It wasn’t the cook’s fault at all! It was mine. And, in order to fix the problem and get the meal to the customer, I had to eat crow and tell the cooks that I had screwed up and that my anger and rage was completely misplaced. It was humiliating. Embarrassing. Horrible.

I continue to carry this traumatic experience with me. It reminds me that when I get angry at someone that there is a good chance that when the dust settles, I will realize that I am in the wrong. I have learned to distrust anger. It doesn’t mean I don’t get angry; it just means that I am deeply suspicious of my own anger when I do. If I could, there are times when I think it would be good to never get angry.

But then I come across stories like this weekend. Jesus comes to the Temple where he finds people selling and buying. Jesus’ reaction in John is described as “zeal.” This was a word used to speak of a special kind of anger that reacts to a situation in which the honor of God is being ignored. Jesus’ reaction is not that of the calm self-collected sage. 

He explodes with anger and drives those buying and selling away with home-made whips. This is not the gentle Jesus I read about in Sunday school! Well, I don’t know about you, but this makes me feel uncomfortable. Again, I distrust anger.


When we hear this gospel text we need to remember when Jesus went to the temple he saw many things. New Testament scholar Scott Black Johnston says, “Jesus is passing through the outer courtyard of the temple when he comes upon merchants selling animals and changing coins.  Both pursuits were necessary to the daily functioning of the temple. Animal vendors sold the various creatures that were to be sacrificed.  Money changers enabled (foreign) worshippers to change some of their everyday money into Jewish currency to pay the half-shekel temple tax.” (The Lectionary Commentary, The Third Readings: The Gospels, p. 492) So, if the behavior of the buyers and the sellers is both normal and necessary, what is Jesus so upset about?

On the one hand, there is a fairly simple and pragmatic answer. The last line of the prophet Zechariah promises that on the day of the LORD, “. . .  there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day.” (14:21) Jesus was a student of the scriptures, it is quite likely that Jesus had long believed that moving the cattle merchants and money changers from their traditional locations in the Kidron Valley and on the slopes of the Mount of Olives to inside the temple grounds was an improper and disrespectful choice on the part of the temple leadership; a choice that reeked of opportunism and crass commercialization.

On the other hand, Jesus may have had a more complex and theological objection. Church historian H. Richard Niebuhr points out that no matter the purpose for which an institution is founded, from the moment it starts its real purpose becomes maintaining the institution. By allowing the merchants into the temple precincts, those in charge of the temple showed they were more interested in guaranteeing the existence of the temple than they were in furthering the purpose of the temple. As Jesus said elsewhere, “You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13) All the way back to the tabernacle tent they carried with them throughout their forty years of exile, the temple was meant to be a sign to God’s people of the constant presence of the Holy One in their midst. Like the sabbath, the temple was made for humanity, not humanity for serving the temple.

But now, the temple had become a cash cow, a place where much money changed hands and huge profits were made for the religious leaders taking advantage of the people’s desire to serve God.

Father Robert Capon said that we humans always try to turn a gift into a deal. Our lesson from Exodus tells us about the giving of the Ten Commandments—which most people think of as the things God “requires of us” so that we can count ourselves as good people and get to go to heaven. But notice—the story begins with God saving the people, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”  It is only after they have been rescued that God gives them the gift of the Torah, the guidelines for living in relationship with the Holy One and with each other.  Eventually two things happen; the people find the rules hard to obey, and they assume that obeying the rules is the point. “If only I can keep the rules,” they think, “then God will love me, and all my hopes and dreams and plans will work out.”  

Repeatedly, people get the cart before the horse, thinking they must do something in order to please God. Like Father Capon says, we turn a gift into a deal.

This is why Jesus got so angry; the cattle pens and money-changers tables are both literally and figuratively getting in between God and God’s people. He made a whip of cords and drove the sheep and cattle out of the temple. Notice the wording of the text, Jesus did not flog anybody, he drove out the cattle: “he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.” This is not an example of Jesus using violence on people, nor is it an example of his being so human that he not only lost his temper, he also lost control. He did turn over the money changers tables and scatter their stuff, but nowhere does it say he harmed another human being. Jesus wanted to make a powerful public statement, a demonstration of the fact that the temple was God’s house, God’s gift, a place for God’s people to come together in the presence of the Divine; and that nothing should be allowed to get in the way of that.

For John, the reason Jesus came into our midst is to remove any doubt that our God is a God who acts before we can act; who saves us before we even know that we are in need of rescue; who will stop at nothing, not even death, to wipe away everything that stands between us and the love of the God who made us. The references to the Passover, and to rebuilding the temple in three days, and to his body itself being the temple of the LORD, all point to the cross, to Jesus being the one Paul says is “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” 

We are invited this day to drive out of our lives anything that gets in the way of God getting to us. We are invited to remember that God loved us and saved us long before we were aware of God or capable of doing things to earn divine favor. 

We are invited, as the body of Christ in the world, to be a true temple, allowing God to dwell in us and through us to serve the needs of others, in Jesus’ name.


But the human side of us really likes the story of Jesus and the moneychangers in the temple! Many of us as children (and perhaps as adults) loved this tale. Finally, a non-wimpy Jesus. A Jesus who wasn’t afraid to take on the religious establishment. As a teenager, I remember looking around church and thinking, boy, Jesus would have his work cut out for him here.

Don’t get the wrong idea—I wasn’t going to some church that was transgressing on any large scale, and not on any small scale, that I knew about. I just looked around and saw lots of hypocrisy. Look at all this gold, I would say. We could sell the offering plates and give the money to the poor. Why do we all buy church clothes? We could come in our jeans, and give the money that we would have spent on fancy clothes to the poor. Why don’t we invite the poor to our potluck dinners?

In retrospect, I’m surprised my parents still talk to me. What a tiresome teen I must have been, so self-righteous, so sure of everyone’s faults and shortcomings. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become interested in this story from the moneychangers point of view. We often assume that the moneychangers were schemers, out to make easy money, and I’m sure that some of them were.

However, I suspect that the majority of them would have told you that they were making salvation possible. Under the old covenant, people had to go to the temple to make sacrifices to wash their sins away. 

People who farmed had animals for sacrifice. Those who didn’t, or those who came from far away, had to buy their sacrifice on site. And they needed help from the moneychangers and the animal sellers.

These people didn’t know that Jesus had come to make a new covenant possible. They got up, went about their personal business, went to work, took care of their families—all the stuff that you and I do. They weren’t focused on watching for the presence of God. They didn’t know that they had been called to make way for a new Kingdom. They didn’t know that the new Kingdom was breaking through, even as they showed up at their day jobs.

We might take a look at our own modern lives and institutions. In what ways do we think we’re participating in God’s law/kingdom/plan? Are we doing the best we can? We might also take a look at our own modern institutions, especially religious ones. Where are we participating in God’s plan? If Jesus showed up, what would he see as problematic? And how would we respond, if he pointed out something that needed some Spring cleaning, and it turned out that it was something we really cherished or thought that we were doing well?


All this is to say that these sellers and moneychangers provided a necessary service. Did Jesus get angry at something unjustly? Was Jesus like me at Red Lobster? Maybe. I think it might depend upon where we imagine this happening. If it was within the Temple, then perhaps Jesus’ problem with the buying and selling concerned where it happened rather the fact that it happened in the first place. Perhaps it would have been okay with Jesus if the buying and selling happened outside of the temple and was always done justly.

When John wrote this Gospel, the Temple had been in ruins for about thirty years. He probably did not have had a clear idea what the sacrifices were like there—he might not have been aware of the important service the buyers and sellers offered.

The issue might have more to do with John’s understanding of Jesus than with how the historical Jesus himself. Perhaps Jesus was carried away by his anger, like I was at Red Lobster, or perhaps his anger was justified, unlike mine.

Jesus, like us, does not really have the choice to not ever be angry. Anger is not subject to our choices. It is something that happens all of its own accord. The question is not whether we will be angry, just like the question is not whether we will draw breath or not. If we are alive, we draw breath—and likewise, if we are alive, we will be angry, at least on occasion. Sometimes our anger will be wisely placed, and other times it will not be.

Ultimately, it is our bodies that generate anger, and our bodies over time learn when and to what degree it will generate anger. Sometimes our bodies, often because of trauma, generate anger in contexts where it is not helpful. But over time, our bodies can sometimes re-learn more helpful responses. Over time.

It does no one any good to pretend you are not angry when you are. So—let us be angry—because we’re going to be anyways. Let us be angry at injustice, but then let us try to overcome that injustice not with anger, but with compassion and love. Let us be honest with ourselves, with God, and with each other. And may the God of peace be with us, even in the midst of our anger.