Cleansing of the Temple
When the children were very small I can remember being asked if they were ‘Good’ – meaning did they sleep through the night and did they refrain from crying. I’m the first to admit, a baby that sleeps through the night is a great thing and is very helpful to parents overwhelmed by what they have suddenly found themselves doing. And a baby that is content is a wonderful thing. But sleeping through the nigh is not a measure of goodness, not really. And crying, for food, or discomfort, or for mummy or daddy is not bad behaviour.
I hope the snow hasn’t only been a disruption and nuisance – certainly we enjoyed getting out tobogganing and making what was a truly British snowman, infused with mud and grass. As well as being fun and a nuisance for some, which it continues to do outside London, like in Norfolk where one friend of mine has replaced his service this morning with an attempt to dig the school out so it can reopen tomorrow after three days being closed. I am always struck how a shared challenge can put a smile on people’s faces. The smiles and greetings I’ve had as I’ve marched through the snow this week have come with a certain sparkle in the eye. People value the ability to overcome a challenge and be there for one another in the midst of adversity. Perhaps that’s why radio 4 dedicated some serious conversation this week to the plight of the homeless in this weather, and the challenges associated with it. There was a clear sense of exasperation amongst hosts though as the field reporter came back from conversations with numerous people who were unwilling to go into temporary shelters in the midst of the bad weather. They interviewed a number of experts, people who work to provide shelter throughout the year and who work to help people off the streets. The challenge is that there is not a quick fix when it’s cold – the problem is bigger and needs more than a plaster. Sure it makes the rest of us feel better if they would accept the shelter available, but many of those who are homeless need more than just a bed for a night, they need personal and professional support. Counselling perhaps, or therapy in some cases, friendship and security – but none of those things happen off the back of a single night in an emergency shelter.
Today we had a trio of readings, each with loads of material to unpack. The Old Testament reading – the giving of the ten commandments – a reminder of what not to do if we wish to live a good life. The New Testament reading – possibly one of my favourite – telling of God’s foolishness being greater than human wisdom and God’s weakness, as demonstrated in the cross, being greater than human strength. And then the Gospel reading – the story of the cleansing of the temple. This is possibly one of the most significant stories of Jesus, it appears in each of the four Gospels and is one of his most public and antagonistic actions. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke these events clearly lead directly to the chief priests making arrangements to have him arrested. And even in John’s Gospel, which we heard today, where this passage happens two years earlier, it is clearly Jesus making a public statement regarding his authority and what he is about. But what is the statement?
Much like the reality of dealing with Homelessness, answering this question is much more difficult. The purchase of animals to be sacrificed was a necessary service provided to those who were coming to Jerusalem, like Jesus’ own parents at his presentation, who came to the temple to make a sacrifice. It may have been the use of this outer temple, which was specifically set aside for God-fearers of other nationalities, who could not go further into the temple, to pray and offer their alms and homage to the God of Israel.
There is something, I believe, about injustice. In Luke, for example, Jesus refers to text describing the temple as being made into a den of robbers – Jesus was challenging directly the temple leadership, a theme throughout the Gospels as Jesus is railing against the corruption that was an issue at that time. But, while there are many interpretations of what the specifics of the corruption or the errors of the sellers or their location is – one thing is clear. Jesus is flipping angry. It’s a reminder that our emotions, all our emotions, positive and negative, are part of our created order and can drive us. Jesus has a zeal, a hunger for the righteousness of the temple. He is passionate about fighting the injustice that he sees. Too often I hear people apologising or feeling guilty for their emotions – for expressing anger. But anger is not a sin – there is not one of these 10 commandments which is though shalt not get angry. It is not a bad thing to feel. On the contrary.
The bad thing would be to bottle it up or deny it. Or to act on it in a way which did not allow us to love those with whom we are angry. Much like a child isn’t bad for crying when it’s hungry or scared or for being inquisitive and asking questions. It’s important we express how we feel with one another, to help our relationships to grow and improve based on honesty, rather than letting our emotions smoulder.
Feeling angry or annoyed about injustice, like the presenter on Radio 4 who couldn’t understand why people who were homeless wouldn’t accept the offer of emergency shelters. That kind of anger and frustration should drive us to challenge injustice, to seek to make a difference and to stand up and make our feelings known. Even when, on one level they might seem foolish or impractical or a sign of weakness. Because it is in our weakness that we can find strength and in our vulnerability that we, in Christ can be transformed and transform those around us, and help to build God’s Kingdom.
The Reverend Robin Sims-Williams