Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica - November 9, 2014
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What is going on in today’s Gospel?
The scene of Jesus driving the money changers out of the Temple is one of the only stories to appear in all four Gospels. Jesus is recorded as walking on water in three of the Gospels, while just two have any details about his birth and early life, and only one Gospel, John, includes the miracle of turning water into wine. But all four Gospels tell us that Jesus, in a moment of potent indignation, wigged out, flipped tables, and shouted at the businessmen plying their trade in the Temple area. Clearly it is significant.
The Temple in Jerusalem was the focal point of Jewish life. In its inner sanctum, the Temple contained the single most sacred space on earth, the Holy of Holies, in which had been kept the Ark of the Covenant, which supposedly contained the original stone tablets upon which God had written the Ten Commandments. Although the Ark of the Covenant was destroyed when the Jews were taken into exile by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, the space remained deeply sacred when the Temple was rebuilt in 20 BCE. Only the high priest could enter this innermost sanctuary, and even then only on Yom Kippur, the high holy day.
Sacrifice at Temple was considered the central act by which Jews expressed their gratitude to God, and dozens upon dozens of the prescriptions contained in the Mosaic Law dealt with who was fit to worship at Temple, and who was not. Moreover, by the time of Jesus, the religious leaders had established a byzantine set of rules governing the sacrifice of animals at Temple. These rules delineated the process by which, for instance, a particular animal might be evaluated as sufficiently blameless or free of blemish, so as to qualify for sacrifice. Animals that did not pass inspection by appointed authorities could not be used.
In addition, only certain types of currency were accepted at the Temple. Jerusalem of Jesus’ day was a cosmopolitan city composed of residents from dozens of regions. (Note that when Peter and the apostles receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and are given the ability to speak in numerous languages, the observers in the crowd ask how it is possible that these men, who are Galileeans, would be able to be understood by a crowd composed of so many different nationalities and languages.) As such, all sorts of currency were used. Pretty much any form of silver or gold could be use in economic transactions around the city, but there was only one type of coin a Jew could use at the Temple, a Hebrew shekel. Since the other coins came from foreign lands (and many contained “graven images,” such as the Roman coins that Jesus famously asked the religious authorities to produce when they asked him whether it was acceptable to pay the tax to Caesar), they were considered unclean.
So when Jews from all over the Mediterranean would descend upon Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, it is very likely that they came bearing their regional currency. Once they had arrived to offer sacrifice at Temple, they would need to convert their coins into the accepted Hebrew shekel, in order to pay the Temple tax. (The Temple tax was a fee levied on all those who came to offer sacrifice, and the money went to the priests who sacrificed the animals. Only priests were permitted to perform the actual sacrifice.) And then these same pilgrims would need to purchase the approved animals, with an additional fee paid to the authorities who had given the stamp of approval.
The end result was that a thriving industry had sprung up in the outer area of the Temple, with all sorts of commerce taking place. Once you have money being exchanged and animals being sold, it’s not much of a stretch to sell other items as well. The scene very likely looked much like any Middle Eastern bazaar, with food, clothing, and other goods being sold by merchants. As one could probably expect, many of these local businessmen would have taken advantage of the visitors. The money-changers in particular were known to tack on extra fees, such that they gained a reputation for extorting their customers, who had traveled many miles and were bound by religious custom, to make their sacrifice at Temple.
Jesus’ ire at the transactions has numerous dimensions, but two prominent ones are his outrage at the deliberate exploitation of poor pilgrims coming to worship, and the more overarching offense he took at the House of the Lord, the Temple, being turned into a center for commerce and thievery. Imagine if fans in approved tailgating areas of home football games were not allowed to bring in their own food, but could only purchase University approved hamburgers, hot dogs, and beverages. Imagine, too, if there were surcharges on all these items (already artificially expensive, like water bottles at an amusement park) and so it was possible for the average fan to come with his/her family and struggle to afford the experience. We can imagine that a diehard fan who saw all these oppressive rules, leading to financial burdens, might want to flip over some tables in protest!
So what does this have to do with us?
Jesus’ violent actions provide a powerful reminder that spaces have a purpose, and we should respect those spaces accordingly. Places that are designated for worship should be treated differently than those that are for commerce, entertainment, or relaxation. A church or a synagogue or a mosque is a different sort of space than a movie theater, ball park, or living room. They might all be built out of steel and wood and concrete, but their purpose is very different. A place of worship is built with the explicit purpose of facilitating an encounter between God and humans. That is why we hold sacraments in churches, rather than on beaches or golf courses or backyard patios. Because a sanctuary is designed to help everyone assembled come into a deeper communion with the Divine, and sacraments, like Baptisms and Marriages, are moments in which we expressly ask God to be present.
Spaces in our own lives can get cluttered, literally and metaphorically. Think of your desk. It has a purpose: work. But if it becomes cluttered with too much other stuff... empty water bottles, granola bar wrappers, stacks of papers... it becomes more difficult for us to use that space for its purpose. A garden or farm can become overrun with weeds and other unwanted items, such that it becomes more difficult to harvest its fruit. A common room in a dorm, a garage in a family home, a storage closet in the Newman Center... all can become so cluttered with “stuff” that they no longer function as they were meant to. Just as Jesus threw out all of the extraneous clutter that was clogging up the worship space, so we, too, are invited to occasionally clean out the unnecessary stuff that piles up. (Hopefully without breaking any tables or whipping too many cords.)
And metaphorically, we hear Paul remind us in the second reading that our bodies, likewise, are Temples of the Holy Spirit. “Clutter” can accumulate on our selves, just as it does in our rooms. We can become consumed by stuff--unimportant stuff, anxiety-inducing stuff, stuff that isn’t good for us, behaviors that become obstacles to being the person God calls us to be--and every so often, it’s helpful to clear out all that junk. Like a physical space, our spiritual selves require occasional cleaning. Sometimes, when rooting out behaviors that clutter our lives, we can attack with a feather duster. Other times, we may need to flip tables.
Questions for Reflection
1) What are some spaces that hold special meaning for you? Is there a particular church that you feel most at home at? A place where you encounter God in a unique way?
2) What are some ways that your own space gets cluttered up?
3) What are some ways that your life, your spiritual self, becomes cluttered with “junk” and things that prevent you from being your best self, from being used as you were designed by God? How can you throw those out and keep that spiritual space in good shape?