Each day in Holy Week I am offering these meditations on the Gospel lesson assigned for that day. They will appear in my forthcoming Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus, to be published in November by Upper Room Books.
John 2:13-22 (John 12:1-11)
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the navel of the universe, said some, while others said it was just as turned-in on itself, a little hole full of filth and intrigue, graft and grime.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who murders the prophets—and the one hailed as the prophet from Nazareth will be only the latest.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who knows not the things that make for peace. Who does not realize the time of her visitation when Jesus comes to her, humbly and riding on a donkey or two.
When Jesus arrived in the Holy City, full as it was of unholy alliances, to Matthew’s memory it was the first time, and also the last, that Jesus had or would visit the Jerusalem. Luke recounts two visits: when Jesus was circumcised, and when he amazed the teachers at age twelve. John’s recollection, however, is that, like most observant Jews, Jesus had been a more or less regular visitor to the city and also to the Temple. Jesus had taught there, healed there, too, and more than once. He was familiar with the place and its particulars.
In Jesus’ time, the Temple represented both God’s bountiful provision and the also the Romans’ stifling occupation. The archetypal symbol of Jewish freedom, the Temple had gradually become emblematic of the parasitic complicity between the Romans and the Temple authorities. The Romans demanded tribute—protection money. Taxes collected at the Temple were a chief source of the revenue.
The complicity was compounded with idolatry: the money intended for YHWH, King of the Universe, blessed be He, wound-up in the coffers of Tiberius, self-proclaimed god of all the world. Meanwhile, the religious leaders, concerned above all else to protect the Temple itself, acceded as the increasingly oppressive purpose of the Temple was monetized.
Money changing was perfectly legal, of course—and a real service, it could always be argued, for those who traveled long distances to worship. But profit had had overtaken prayer as the Temple’s primary enterprise. Business had subsumed the sacred. And on that Monday, Jesus tore up the place. He cleaned, as it were, God’s House.
His actions that day recall other reformers in Jewish history, Kings Hezekiah and Josiah, especially. During each of their reigns the Temple had become cluttered with stuff—booths, people, furniture and behaviors that did not belong in God’s sanctuary. These “things” were signs of syncretism and idolatry. And though God had commanded that the faithful “have no other gods” before God nor make room for any “graven image” to stand in God’s place, gradually the people had cluttered the Temple with unholy things.
We are likewise guilty, of course. The churches we attend, the temple of our hearts, the architecture of our souls–spaces are carved, built or emptied, to provide a proper venue, a meeting place, for us to experience God: a space for God alone to fill. Gradually, though, we begin to fill in the emptiness with stuff. The stuff may or may not have religious or historic value, sacramental or sacred worth. In any case such “things” come between us and God, are “before God,” shielding us from the terrible and wonderful intimacy that engenders true epiphanies.
Church “work” is one of those buffers. Behind the wall of her kitchen in Bethany Martha is busy doing making dinner for Jesus. Her work for him keeps her safely away from him. Similarly, there is a danger that for those who are busiest for God, many times their busyness is "before" God—not just in terms of priority but also proximity. Our works can be an effective shield against religious experiences, places to hide, self-styled protection against the terror and wonder of real prayer and worship.
On that long-ago Monday, Jesus’ actions in the Temple were directed against the priests and the “work” of the Temple, the religious professionals and their helpers, who like contemporary preachers and their people may do their religious work as a kind of self-care. Imagining, perhaps vainly, that we are serving God, we may find that, in truth, we are in seeking only protection, whether to from our creditors or our Creator.
What stands “before” God in your spiritual life, not so much as idol, though it could be, but perhaps as a wall, a buffer, a shield against genuine religious experience?