SERMON: Third Sunday of Lent

SERMON: Third Sunday of Lent

A sermon preached online by Hilary Pearson on 7 March 2021.

Wow! Jesus was really furious!  But why was he so angry?

“Stop making my Father’s house a market-place” – would he do the same today in a cathedral gift shop, I wonder?

I got a real idea of the scene when I visited a large and famous Hindu temple in South India.  To get into the main shrine, you had to pass through a long passageway, a covered market – darker and noisier than our Oxford covered market and with stalls rather than shops.  The stalls sold the things that people take as offerings to the shrine; flower garlands, incense, green coconuts.  The market at the Jewish Temple would have been much noisier and the smell of the animals and birds would have been much less fragrant.  The other feature of the Jewish scene was the stalls of the moneychangers.  The Roman coins in everyday use had the head of the emperor on one side, and, as we have seen from the Exodus reading, there must be no worship of idols, which meant images were forbidden.  The fact that the Roman emperor was sometimes worshipped as a god made these coins doubly unwelcome in the Temple.  As a result, there were special Temple coins which complied with the Jewish law.  Worshippers had to change Roman money for these coins for use in the Temple.  It was notorious and resented that the rate of exchange was extremely favourable to the money changers – and doubtless the Temple authorities took their cut.  The animals for sacrifice were likely also sold at a big mark up.  The divine law forbidding images and requiring sacrifice was being used to make big profits from extortion of the poor, contrary to other divine laws against cheating and oppressing the poor and powerless.  The Old Testament prophets had already condemned this; for example, Isiah, speaking of the formal religious fasting, said “In fact you serve your own interests in your fast-day and keep all your men hard at work…Is not this the fast that I require: to loose the fetters of injustice…”

This incident is mentioned in all four Gospels; however, John places it at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry whereas the three Synoptic Gospels all place it at the beginning of his final week, after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Rather than getting into a discussion about which is correct, I want to look at the message John is giving by this story.

We have to remember that none of the Gospels are “biography” as we know it today.  They were all written to convey a theme in Jesus’ life and teachings.  For example, Matthew is concerned to show that Jesus fulfilled Jewish Scripture.  John, which is very different from the other three, is the most theological of the Gospels.  Study of his Gospel shows that he carefully selected stories and teachings to illustrate the Gospel’s opening statement, that Jesus is the eternal Word. 

We can get an idea of John’s message here from looking at the context in which he placed this story.  It comes immediately after the wedding in Cana, and immediately before the visit to Jesus by Nicodemus.  In the Cana wedding ‘water into wine’ story, John is careful to tell us that the water was put into stone jars “of the kind used for the Jewish rites of purification”.  By turning this water into wine (and the best wine), Jesus is transforming a Jewish religious practice.  In the story of the conversation with Nicodemus, we are told he is a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish Council and therefore a leading religious figure.  When he fails to understand what Jesus means in talking about being born again of the Spirit, Jesus says “How is this possible.  You a teacher of Israel and ignorant of such things.”.  The established religion lacks understanding of the work of the Spirit.

Looking at the cleansing of the Temple in this context, it is also a criticism of the religious establishment.  Religious practice was being used for profit and to cheat and oppress the poor, contrary to what the prophets show is God’s real law.

What is the message for us?  I don’t think Jesus would want cathedral gift shops to be closed, at least as long as they charge fair prices and the profits to go the upkeep of the cathedral.  What does make him angry is where religion is used to fleece or oppress the ignorant and gullible.  Sadly, there are many examples of this throughout history.  In our time we have the scandal of sexual assaults by priests and pastors, made worse by being covered up by church leaders to protect the institution.   Such wrongdoing might only involve a small minority of Christians, but we are all vulnerable to the temptation to use religion as an excuse to get out of doing something we don’t want to do which would help someone in need.  “I’m sorry, I can’t look after your child while you have a doctor’s appointment because I have to go to church”.  “Sorry, I can’t give to help the homeless as I have made a donation for the flowers for church this Easter”.

It all comes back to the first commandment in Exodus 20; “you shall have no other gods before me”.  We are capable of making an idol of our religion, our church, or our religious practices.  We have been worshipping online for almost a year.  Perhaps this has been a chance to separate out our love for our beautiful church building and the joy of meeting our friends over coffee every week from the true worship of God for who he is and what he has done for us.  This has been a very trying time for us all – let us pray that it has also been a time for deepening our relationship with our loving Father God.  Amen