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What Would Jesus Do?

A sermon on John 2:13-22.

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here.]

There’s a delightfully snarky meme that has been making the rounds of clergy circles this week as lectionary preachers meditate on the gospel story we just heard.

The meme says: “If someone asks, ‘What would Jesus do?’… remind them that turning over tables and breaking out whips is a possibility.”

As with much pop culture-humor, this one-liner leverages the comic power of the unexpected.

We hear the phrase “what would Jesus do” and (along with mid-90’s era, WWJD bracelets) we are conditioned to conjure up a particular image of Jesus:

Jesus the wise and compassionate teacher, loving his enemies and welcoming the little children to come unto him.

THAT is the Jesus we are supposed to invoke as a guide to our moral decision-making, right?

Well… yes. Jesus does clearly call us to love our enemies, and to welcome the neglected and marginalized among us… but does that mean we are NOT supposed to also follow his example from the temple?

No! I don’t think it does. I think the meme is funny because we know it’s true – unexpected as it might be.

And actually, it shouldn’t even really be that unexpected… because today’s gospel scene is a fair rendering of another one of those baptismal commitments we’ve been talking about throughout Lent:

in this case, the promised intention, “to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”

Now, I can imagine some of you might be thinking, “Umm, Pastor… did you get stuck in meme-mind? Because overturning tables and driving animals and merchants alike out of the temple with a whip isn’t exactly a typical image of ‘striving for peace.’”

And, I know… but maybe it should be.

Peace is, I believe, one of the most misunderstood and oversimplified of the Christian virtues.

Because biblical peace, whether shalom[1] or eirene[2] in the original languages, is about so much more than just tranquility. It’s about wholeness… the kind of balance that comes from the presence of justice, rather than just the absence of conflict.

That’s why our baptismal commitment pairs justice and peace together… because they cannot actually exist one without the other.

And that means that striving for peace sometimes HAS to look a lot more like disruption than tranquility if the status quo is one of injustice and incompleteness.

And the scene to which Jesus is responding in today’s gospel is exactly such a status quo in need of some disruptive peace-making.

But to understand that we need to get a little context that isn’t obvious in the reading.

The gospel writer simply tells us that Jesus found the marketplace “in the temple,” and then proceeds to describe Jesus’s temple-clearing display and his invocation to “not make my Father’s house a place of business.”

And even though the scene messes a bit with Jesus’ “gentle, good shepherd” vibe, we can actually understand the upset, right?

Like, if we walked into the church sanctuary one Sunday to find all the chairs replaced by vendor stalls and a cash-register on the altar, we might get a little disturbed about the conversion of our sacred space too.

But, if that were a comparable situation, then it’s a little hard to understand the response of the Jewish leaders, who demanded to know Jesus’s authority for his display.

After all, shouldn’t they have been just as protective of their own temple?

But here’s where we need to understand the context:

The first Century Jerusalem temple was constructed with a series of “courts” of decreasing size, leading toward the center of the Temple proper where the ritual sacrifices at the heart of the religious practice were performed.

The marketplace wasn’t actually butting up against the altar, it was in the outer-most court.

And in a lot of ways, this was a super-convenient and logical arrangement.

Because it’s a lot more efficient for pilgrims coming from all over the country, not to mention those travelling from the Diaspora, to buy their sacrificial animals at the Temple, rather than transporting them dozens, or hundreds of miles.

And the annual Temple tax required of all Jewish men had to be paid in half-shekels (which did NOT have the idolatrous image of a Roman-emperor-claiming-divine-status on it), so people NEEDED a way to exchange their Roman coins, in order to meet their religious duty.  

And here was this convenient, large, open court where all of the necessary economic functions of the Temple could so easily be conducted.

Where was the problem?!

The problem was in the purpose of the outer-most temple court.

In a perfect design, there might have been a court specifically set-aside for the necessary business transactions to support the temple functions, but the actual outer court had not been designed for that purpose.

It was designed as the court of the Gentiles… the only space within the temple compound where those who had converted to the worship of Israel’s God were allowed to gather, and to pray, and to offer their worship to the God of their salvation.

They didn’t have access to the temple proper. They only had the outermost court…. Except they didn’t. Because that’s where the currency exchanges and animal stalls were set up.

Which creates a status quo of injustice and incompleteness.

Those already disadvantaged and marginalized in the religious practices of the temple had what little space was allotted to them taken away.

And their voices meant to be part of the wholeness of God’s worship were drowned out by animal bleats and merchant’s calls.

And in response to that, Jesus shows us what it sometimes looks like to strive for justice and peace.

What Would Jesus Do?

He would make space for those whose space has been taken away.

He would give voice to the objections of those whose voices had been drowned out.

Even if in doing so he made people angry.

That might be the most important element for us about Jesus’s model of striving for justice and peace.

Because the toxic volume of anger in our current social context has worn most of us down to the point where we have started to define peace as just people being civil to each other.

We aren’t even longing for the absence of conflict anymore, just the ability to disagree respectfully, without anyone getting dehumanized, or all efforts at understanding sacrificed on the altar of I’m-right-and-anyone-who-disagrees-is-an-idiot.

And that all can make us feel like the goal is for no one to be angry.

But that’s not peace.

And it’s not justice.

And it cannot be our goal if we are committed to striving for justice and peace in all the earth.

Not that the alternative is easy.

Jesus, of all people, understood that there can be very serious consequences of making people angry.

It’s no coincidence that his response to the temple leader’s inquisition was to make a veiled reference to his own future execution.

But the focus of that prediction was not actually on the destruction of his body, it was on its resurrection.

Because Jesus understood that destruction is sometimes what has to happen to raise up something new and whole… a life of justice and peace.

In our baptismal calling I certainly hope that none of us are called upon to give up our lives in the pursuit of justice and peace.

But I also hope that none of us give up the pursuit of true peace, the kind that only comes with justice and wholeness, with the inclusion of the excluded and the willingness to make people angry in order to provoke real change.

I am convinced that ONLY the pursuit of that kind of peace is What Jesus Would Do.

Thanks be to God.


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