The following article is adapted from a sermon delivered by Dennis Knight, Minister at Pakachoag Church, during the First Sunday Worship service on March 4, 2018.
As with so much of the Bible, the story of Jesus casting out the money lenders, which is the central imagery of this passage, is not just an historical recounting, but is imbued with allegorical or symbolic meaning meant to convey a message.
The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which share common sources, all place this story at the end of Jesus’ ministry, as part of the culmination leading to his trial and crucifixion. They cast it as part of the dramatic crescendo of his final clash with the established authorities of his time.
John, which is an independent gospel with different literary roots from the three synoptics, places this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, using it as a prologue of what is to come.
A Common Theme: Authenticity
An element that is common to all the gospels, however, is the notion of purging or cleansing, and there is a reason for this.
To recap the text, Jesus comes into the temple area, which is the most hallowed ground in all of Judaism, and finds it cluttered, congested with all sorts of “hangers on,” vendors, barkers, hackers, and money changers in particular, who in Jesus’ eyes were turning the sacredness of the Temple into a sideshow.
John is trying to convey in Jesus’ apparently tempestuous reaction of overturning tables and driving vendors from the area, the notion that he is a prophet who, literally in this instance, would upend the established practices and leadership of his time.
We are further to understand that just as he cast out the money changers and others, he was going to expunge the Hebrew faith of its impurities and corruption and set it back on its true foundations.
As was his message stated elsewhere, Matthew 5:17 for instance, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill,” his intent was restorative and his aim purifying.
A central question is, what was the direction of Jesus’ reform? What was it that he was pointing to or seeking to fulfill?
Stripping Away the Clutter
Let me recount a story here as a way to get at an answer to that question.
My childhood minister had an immensely impressive resume. Over the course of his life he was awarded three honorary doctorate degrees, one from Piedmont College, one from University of Maine, and one from Brown University. He published two books, and toward the end of his life, the Rhode Island Historical Society asked for his papers to be placed in their permanent archives. For all of that stature, he was immensely approachable and had a folksy, unselfconscious, manner about him. He could reduce the most complex issues to simple, understandable bits.
For example, one evening, he and his wife were late to a dinner party at which several of us were also invited. When at last they arrived, well after everyone else, he offered his apologies, saying that they were just returning from having their taxes completed by their accountant, and the whole exchange had turned into a much more time consuming event than expected, to which he added,
“Accountants are like ministers, they spend entirely too many years in school learning how to make the perfectly obvious perfectly obscure.”
Jesus, I think, approached his world, overburdened as it was by complex formulations of religious law, and overrun with people who fed off the artifice of all that, essentially took the stand that he was going to cut through it all, eliminate the malarkey—as Joe Biden famously said, invoking a word that was not widely known—and get to the heart of what should be perfectly obvious.
Jesus was a reformer who sought to refocus religious expression on certain fundamental truths and free it from all the contrivances, artificiality, arcane formulations, and hierarchies that had grown up around it in his day.
Jesus’ interest was in the essentials and not the clutter.
Illustrating Jesus’ Point
Three images come to mind that illustrate how Jesus approached his ministry.
The first involves vinegar, such as any of us might buy off a grocery shelf. There is a key word that appears on the label of a bottle of vinegar, and that is “distilled.” Distilling is a refining process that removes impurities, which when completed leaves only the essential product remaining.
Jesus sought in his time to distill the essentials of the law, filtering out its impurities.
Similarly, another product that is found on any grocery shelf is vanilla. It too, like vinegar, has a key word on its label, and that word is “extract.” In this case, what is extracted is the pure flavor of the vanilla bean, which is then, in concentrated form, bottled for consumption.
Like distilling, extraction is a refining process, and similarly bears comparison to Jesus’ sense of his ministry, which was to extract the essential equation of God’s love for humanity, rendering it from the needless and self-serving complexities of contemporary practices, and offer that up as a new standard.
Lastly, the image of a lemon or orange comes to mind. Recipes often call for the rind of these fruit, or more specifically, the zest, as an ingredient. The very word implies what zest provides, namely an infusion of the essence of the fruit in the mix.
Yet again, it is evident Jesus understood the core elements of faith, its zest, and prescribed ways we could fold that essence into the mix of daily living. Jesus sought to make us aware and inform us about the purity of God’s interaction with the created order.
Facing the Same Challenge Today
Now, that same challenge that faced Jesus in his time remains before us today, namely, how to get at the heart of faith and dispense with the peripheral non-essentials.
Contemporary Christianity, like the Judaism of Jesus’ day has acquired clutter about it. It is burdened by lots of layering that entails assertions or formulations about what is right and proper, and who is following the moral course, and conversely who is following the wrong course.
Furthermore, as in Jesus’ day, religion, American Christianity in particular, is hopelessly and inappropriately enmeshed with the political order. I cannot help noting here the continued efforts on the part of the Christian right to impose a religious—and how truly that is grounded in fundamental Christian precepts is to be questioned-—overlay, generally in the form of exemptions, on the civil rights of the LGBTQ community.
There is much that has accrued around Christianity that obscures its core message, and which, were Jesus with us today, I think he would seek to cast away, just as he drove the money lenders out of the temple.
A quick Google search indicates there are 1,189 chapters, 31,173 verses, and 807,739 words in the King James Version of the Bible. Taking the Bible as a basic source, can we summarize that in short form? Is it possible to identify that core message, unearth a few simple, primary, values and set them front and center, cleared away of all the embellishments? Can we distill the hundreds of thousands of words into a few core constructs?
I think yes. Like my childhood minister, I embrace the idea that there are some principles and precepts that are perfectly obvious. Of course, the question is how to identify them and test their validity.
Contrasting Views in Contemporary Christianity
Contemporary Christianity seems to have fallen out in two major camps or points of view that distill down to very different essentials or essences, extracts, or zests.
There is the Clenched Fist Christianity, and there is the Open Hand Christianity.
The Clenched Fist point of view is angry, judgmental, normative, excluding, tribal, at least in part racist, partisan, self and clan focused, and seeks conformity.
Open Hand Christianity is embracing, tolerant, non-judgmental, caring, and values diversity.
Clenched Fist characteristics are encumbering and hindering. They are not universal in application and they bind people in confining and even self-loathing and self-destructive ways.
Open Hand characteristics are freeing and enabling, and provide for inclusion and broad participation.
I suggest that it is the posture of progressive Christianity to be about casting out those inhibiting and restrictive characteristics that leave some people behind or standing in judgement through their application, and replace them with the freeing characteristics of an embracing, simple, and welcoming, faith. In that way I believe we will more fully express and manifest the essence of the faith to a needy and yearning-to-be-healed world.