Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Angry Jesus

Matthew 21-22 includes the account of Jesus getting angry at the moneychangers in the temple. It's a fascinating little story. It comes on the heels of the Triumphal Entry story, which is also chock full of wonder.

Both of these stories electrify Jesus' persona in Jerusalem. Most of Jesus' ministry has been in Galilee, the northern section of Israel - hill country surrounding a lake. It was a rural, farming region, alot of shepherds, vineyards, cropfields, with scattered villages and some larger towns like Capernaum which had a synagogue. Jesus didn't venture down to Jerusalem very much, but when he did, it usually sparked controversy, and as a result strengthend resolve of those that breathed death threats against him. So going to Jerusalem was a very strategic move, Jesus wasn't stupid.

When he enters on a donkey with the colt trailing behind, Jesus is making an enormous statement about his royal heritage and his royal intentions. All this talk about the kingdom of heaven/God takes on a palapable sense when he rides in as royalty. A king would enter a city on a stallion if he came to declare victory or threaten war; a king would enter on a donkey if he came to declare peace and reconciliation.

Matthew records the crowds buzz over this entry: "...the whole city was stirred and asked, 'Who is this?' The crowds answered, 'This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.'"

Coming from Galilee was not something one wanted to admit, in the cultured, powerful, legendary city of Jerusalem, being from up north was an embarrassment. Especially from Nazareth, everybody knew that "nothing good comes out of Nazareth".

So Jesus has three strikes against him already: from Galilee with the accent, from Nazareth with the reputation, and rode in as a king...he is stirring up the pot big time.

Then he walks into the temple and makes an enormous mess.
"Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the benches of those selling doves."

Jesus was disrupting an ancient custom, a practice going back centuries and centuries and centuries. Temples always served as financial centers, in almost every culture and religion. So why is Jesus getting so irate over a practice that God had initially approved? Apparently there is nothing wrong with the exhange of coins in a temple, but there is something wrong when you forget why you are doing it.

Jesus declares: "My house will be called a house of prayer, bu you are making it a den of robbers"

This angry tirade by Jesus is not just about the temple and money, it is about a whole way of life, a way of relating to God, a way of relating to fellow citizens and believers, a way of loving.

Jesus' reference to "a house of prayer" is quote from Isaiah 56:7, a beautiful poem that opens with these words:
"Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed."

Wow! Did you catch that? Jesus was opposed to the injustice - the extortion cheating that was occuring in the exchange of money, in the buying and selling; the taking advantage of "supply and demand" to make an ungodly profit, that really riled up Jesus - especially when they do it in God's name and proclaim a God's blessing upon themselves for their ingenuity.

Jesus' name means salvation, I'd say he is close at hand to these financial finagelers. The cross will soon reveal his righteousness. Jesus is able to say so much with so few words.

The Isaiah poem goes on:
"And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD - these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a hous of prayer for all nations."

Not everybody raised livestock, so when they went to the temple to make the presrcibed sacrifices, they would pay money and purchase the necessary animal. The rich would purchase an ox, or a sheep; the poor could only afford a dove. You have to make the temple sacrifice, and who wants to purchase it on the outskirts of town and have to get the livestock through the busy streets, it is just easier to buy the animal on the temple mount: law of supply and demand drives up the prices...and the resulting profits fuel greed by the sellers and resentment by the buyers; not a good attitude to be fostered just before your worship service. Foreigners who were coming to the temple, this is what they saw? This was the beautiful covenant of God at work? People were profiting at God's expense? This did not bring the bulk of the people joy...and this upset Jesus.

The second part of Jesus declaration comes from Jeremiah 7:11
"Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD."

The whole chapter is an indictment against the religion that Israel had been engaging in, a perversion of God's covenant, it was now worthless, and God was upset about it. He lays it all out for His people:

"If you really chage your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly,
if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow
and do not shed innocent blood in this place,
and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm,
then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever.

But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.

Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and swear by false gods,
burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known,
and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name,
and say, "We are safe" - safe to do all these detestable things?

Jeremiah and Isaiah lived and preached and loved and had their hearts-broken when the land of Judah (southern Israel) went into exile around 586BC. And now, almost 450 years later, the prophet of Nazareth is preaching and loving and having his heart broke by the same kind of things.

In Matthew's account, Jesus follows up his tirade of justice with a time of healing of the blind and the lame. Amongst the broken tables, spilled coins, bleating sheep and fluttering doves, amongst the chaos of shouting, irate business men and religous leaders, Jesus hears the lamens and pains of the oppressed, the fatherless and the widows, the foreigners - and lays his hand of justice on their heads and brings them mercy.

Jesusians are those who get angry when shalom is obstructed, when righteousness is prevented from coming to those hungering for it. Jesus got angry about it, he cleared space for the ones needing God's shalom - and then brought it.

Is God's house a place of joy?
Is God's house a place of prayer for all nations?
Is God's hosue a place of shalom?
Is God's hosue a place of rightness?
Is God's house a place of restoration?
Is God's house a place for Jesus?

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