Jesus Raises a Ruckus Pt. 2
March 8, 2020
Many of you may have guessed at this already, but I’ll confirm it for you now: I am a huge nerd. If it isn’t proof enough that I still enjoy building Legos, or that I have way too many Star Wars trivia facts stuffed inside my head, then this fun fact about me should do the trick and confirm for you how much of a nerd I am: I grew up playing competitive chess. Not just chess for fun on a whim with friends, but competitive, play in a tournament every month type of chess.
From about fourth grade to eleventh grade I would compete in at least one chess tournament a month against other kids in my age group. I would take private lessons with a chess coach, and was required to practice at least a couple hours per week with my dad, who is also quite the chess guru. In seventh grade I won the Colorado State unrated chess championship for my age group and by the end of my career I had thirty-some trophies lining the shelves in my bedroom. Do any of you still need any convincing about how big of a nerd I am?
I loved playing chess and I still do. When you’re learning how to play chess, there are many strategies you need to learn to be a competent player, but one of the first lessons you quickly learn, often through failing again and again, is that it is not enough to focus on your own pieces and what they can do on the board. You must give greater consideration to where your opponent’s pieces are and what they can do. This may sound like common sense, but when you’re enthralled in a game and your fianchettoed bishop can capture their undefended rook in a discovery lane that was just opened up (some nerdy chess speak for you), it can be hard to slow down long enough to survey the rest of the board and consider what your opponent can do on their turn.
I have lost countless games of chess because I was so focused on what I was doing with my pieces, my plan of action, that I completely missed what my opponent was doing. The best chess players win, not because they are the best at moving their own pieces, but because they slow down long enough to pay attention to what their opponents are doing with their pieces.
I share this bit of chess advice with you, not only to make you better chess players, but because I think it is wisdom that transcends the chess board. In life it can be all too easy to focus on what we are doing, on what our next move or plan of action is, that we miss what is going on around us. Often without realizing it we become self-absorbed in our own tasks, our own vision for life that we become oblivious to what others are doing around us and we miss so much.
It is like when you’re hiking: if you’re looking down the whole time at the trail in front of you, if you’re paying close attention to what you’re feet are doing, making sure you don’t trip on any stray roots, then you’ll miss the burgeoning wildflowers popping up around you, you’ll miss the cascading waterfalls, the brambling brooks, the tall-steepled evergreens. A hike is best experienced with your eyes up, paying attention to more than your own steps, just as chess is best played with your eyes up, attentive to more than your own pieces. And life is best lived with your eyes up, paying attention to more than your own tasks, whims and fancies.
In our text today, Jesus gives a good scolding to those in the temple who were too consumed with their own work and their own desires that they failed to pay attention to the others around them. Luke writes, “And Jesus entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold things, saying to them, ‘It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.’”
The Apostle John’s account of this episode is more descriptive. John recounts how Jesus entered the temple and flipped over the tables of the moneychangers and made a whip of cords to drive out those who were selling animals for sacrifice. This is not the typical Jesus we are used to seeing. This is a Jesus, who being very human, gets angry just like we do.
I heard a great line from a wonderful play we recently saw, put on by our very own Sara Goff. There’s a character that says, “Life is all about being appropriately upset.” And Jesus is livid at what he sees going on in the temple.
You’ll notice the heading in your Bible frames Jesus’ actions in the context of “cleansing the temple.”
Now imagine with me a slightly different scene: there’s a Gonzaga basketball game taking place. Out behind the stadium there are semi-tractor trailers with all sorts of equipment and generators running. Several workers are unwinding long electrical cords and hooking them up to stuff. It looks like the game is being televised.
So imagine that picture: electrical cords, TV crew vans, tractor trailer-sized generators. And then imagine someone with a giant pair of hedge trimmers, cutting all the cords outside the venue in the middle of a game. The extra lights in the arena go out. The scoreboard goes black. The cameras stop filming. We would not say that such a person was “cleansing” the basketball venue. We would say he had stopped the game.
In the same way that you need electricity to play a game inside a basketball arena, you need cattle and sheep and doves and money changers to run the Jewish temple. Jesus makes it impossible for people to buy animals for the required sacrifices, and impossible for those who have come from all over the Empire to change their money and pay their tithes. Jesus is stopping the game.
But why? If you were raised in the church, you probably learned somewhere along the line that the problem was corruption: people were not just selling animals, they were cheating other people as they did. The moneychangers and peddlers were trying to make an extra buck, and it was often at the expense of the poorer class. And so Jesus accuses them and the leaders of the temple of making it a “den of robbers, rather than a house of prayer.” Jesus drives them out. He has no tolerance for selfish religion that exists at the expense of others. He knows that religion is all too easily set in service of accomplishing our own desires, our own agenda, often at the expense of others.
Jesus raises a ruckus at the temple to protest the corruption going on there, but this is about more than communicating a list of moral “do’s” and “do nots” at the temple. This is about redefining what it means to be human. In strong terms, Jesus rebukes the practitioners of temple corruption for not paying attention; he rebukes them for staring at the ground in front of them on this adventurous hike through life; he rebukes them for not looking beyond their own pieces on the board. He rebukes them for settling for a life of self-absorption, a life of worshipping the self with its own desires, its own plans, its own whims. He rebukes them for turning a religion that was meant to be self-giving, into a tool that is self-serving. The place that was meant to be a house of prayer was turned into a den of robbers.
When Jesus contrasts a house of prayer with a den of robbers, he is speaking about more than just the space at the temple; he’s speaking about the way we live our life. We all know the temple in Jerusalem was eventually destroyed and Jesus alluded to this in his ministry. The Apostle Paul in a letter to the Corinthians says that our bodies are a temple for God’s Spirit, and so it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that Jesus is asking us the same probing question: “have you defiled the temple that is your body by turning it from a house of prayer into a den of robbers?” In other words: “have you stopped paying attention to what is going on around you? Are you so absorbed by your own tasks, your own plans, your own way of living that you miss what is going on around you?” You were meant for a life of reverence, a life of looking up and noticing the beauty in creation and in each other.
Most of us do not realize when we are absorbed in our own worlds, we do not intentionally start our days thinking: “you know, I’m just gonna ignore everyone else around me and do what I want to do.” But we slip into these habits anyway because it’s easy, it’s satisfying, and like the moneychangers and peddlers in the temple court, we ignore the needs of others, we unintentionally hurt them by steamrolling ahead with our own agenda, we do not treat them with the reverence or attention they deserve.
As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Reverence for creation comes fairly easy for most people. Reverence for other people presents more of a challenge, especially if those people’s lives happen to impinge upon your own.” I know that I have an easier time loving humankind than I do loving particular human beings.
Particular human beings hug my bumper in rush-hour traffic and flip me off when I tap my brakes. Particular human beings lean their chairs back too far on airplanes that already don’t provide enough leg room for someone like me. Particular human beings talk on their cell phones too loudly while I’m trying to read at a coffee shop; they talk on their cell phones while they should be ordering from the menu and not holding up the rest of the line; they talk on their cell phones while I am trying to step past them on the side walk. Particular human beings rarely do things the way I think they should do them, and when they prevent me from doing what I think I should be doing, then I can run short on reverence for them (inspired by Barbara Brown Taylor).
One remedy for my condition is to slow down enough to pay attention to them when I can, even when they are in my way. Just for a moment I look for the human being instead of the obstacle. I notice that the young man who is talking too loudly on his phone while I try to read my book has probably never learned proper coffee shop etiquette. He’s what, sixteen years old and has never known a time in his life where cell phones didn’t exist. I notice that he has such a bad case of acne that it must hurt when he lays his face on his pillow at night. His fingernails are chewed on and he seems to be working so hard to impress the girl on the other side of the phone call. It is no wonder that he doesn’t see me or the quiet reading I’m trying to get done.
But I see him, and for just a moment he is more than an annoying kid in a coffee shop. He is a kid with his own demons, his own bad skin and budding romance. I pay attention to him and the fist in my chest lets go. When I am able to look beyond my own agenda, my own pieces on the board, then I am able to have a little more grace and reverence for the person in front of me (inspired by Barbara Brown Taylor).
It’s easy to demonize the moneychangers and peddlers in the temple, but I don’t think we’re so different from them. Like them, we settle for a life of looking down at our own feet, missing everything and everyone else that is along for the journey on this grand hike called life. Jesus pulls the plug on our self-absorbed ways of living and the game is up. He gives us a choice between a life of prayer, or a life of self-absorption, which will always lead us to exploit and take advantage of others, failing to treat them with the reverence and attention they deserve. Jesus asks us, “Does your life resemble a house of prayer or a den of robbers?”
A life of prayer is one that slows down and doesn’t give into the anxious need to be busy all the time. When we slow down, we are able to look others in the eye and consider who they are and where they come from. To regard someone else with the reverence they deserve is an act of prayer. A praying life is one that looks for the divine image in every person you come in contact with.
A life of prayer is also one that is humble. When we are connected with God in prayer, or when we regard our fellow human beings as God’s craftsmanship, our heart takes a humble posture. All of the sudden our own way of doing things, our need to be right, our need to accomplish our own agenda doesn’t seem quite so important. When regarded prayerfully, the people in front of us who were once obstacles are now reflections of the divine image – they are all God’s craftsmanship and bear the image of God.
In St. Petersburg, Russia, Rembrandt’s masterpiece painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son hangs. It’s worth a fortune. Now, just imagine if one day you visit St. Petersburg, and there in a back-alley dumpster you discover Rembrandt’s masterpiece, but it’s hardly recognizable. It’s covered in mud and dirt, it’s stained and the canvas has been torn. You wouldn’t recognize it at all, except you notice the famous hand of the father on the ragged son’s back.
How would you treat the painting? Like trash? It’s in mud, stained and torn—is it worthless? Do you treat it like it’s worthless? Or would you treat it like a million-dollar masterpiece that needs to be handled with care and restored? My guess is that all of us could see past the mud and even the damage to recognize the immense value inherent in this one-of-a-kind work of art.
So why do we struggle to treat people like the immensely valuable, one-of-a-kind Masterpiece God created with God’s own hand? (illustration taken from John Burke). If our heart is a den of robbers, we will not notice the masterpieces standing in front of us, we only see obstacles and we will treat them as means to an end. But if our heart is a house of prayer, we will recognize the divine image in the person standing in front of us, and we will see them for who they are.
As Jesus raises a ruckus in the temple, he knows we were created to be so much more than what we settle for. We settle for a life of self-absorption, rather than a life of prayer. But for all of his good intentions, Jesus was eventually killed. Because of what Jesus did at the temple, Luke writes, “The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him.”
Jesus was killed for ending the game. He was killed for calling into question the things we don’t want questioned, for pointing out the flaws we don’t want to notice, for asking us to pay attention to the people we would rather ignore. Jesus threatened the power and the way of life that the religious leaders had grown accustomed to. As I preached on two weeks ago, it was not God that killed Jesus, it was the religious leaders, it was the people who were ok settling for a life of inattention and irreverence. It was us who killed Jesus. It was our own stubborn ways of living and settling and not treating others with the grace and love they deserve, that led Jesus to die on the cross, in order to show us a better way to live.
On the cross we see what our inattention, our settling and our self-absorption does. People who are meant to be revered as masterpieces are seen as obstacles in our way—just as Jesus was—and we steamroll past them and over them, often without realizing it. During this season of Lent we are offered the opportunity to reflect on our lives, to allow God’s Spirit to peer deeply into our hearts and reveal what still resembles a den of robbers and is in need of transformation.
As we’ve seen these last two weeks and will continue to see over the next few weeks, Jesus’ life was inevitably going to lead him to the cross.
But as Jesus hung on that cross, a man who also hung limp next to him on his own cross asks Jesus for mercy. The man is a robber, also being executed by Rome. And one of Jesus’ dying acts is to extend mercy even to the man who had likely spent most of his life being inattentive to others. Jesus treats the man with the reverence that the man failed to show others. Grace is extended, always and forever. It is never too late to turn your life around. It is never too late to begin a life of prayer, of attentiveness, of reverence. Grace covers us all the way. Amen.