It's not about bingo. Maybe that never occurred to you, but when I was growing up, this Gospel reading often brought bingo to mind. Oh, it wasn't the game itself--it was the notion of playing bingo to raise money for the church. Looking back, I think it was more about Catholics than about bingo. We Protestants had picked up an anti-Catholic bias in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Parents worried that their sons or daughters might marry Roman Catholics. And when John Kennedy ran for president, some worried that the pope would soon be running America. We were suspicious of Roman Catholics even though there wasn't a Catholic church in my small Iowa town. Bingo was further proof that Catholics were up to no good because they played bingo in church and Lutherans didn't. We were always waiting for Jesus to come and overturn the bingo tables, sending the cards flying all over the church basement and spilling the little numbers out of the cage that spun them around. "Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" Jesus would shout as he tipped over the cash boxes. We were quite sure that Jesus would not have been upset with the oyster stew supper or the strawberry festival to raise money for missions.
But it's not about bingo. Jesus' disruption that day in the temple was a powerful sign of Jesus' disruption of the way things were. We usually think of this story coming near the end of Jesus' life, after he had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey. It's a crisis scene, a confrontation that gave the authorities the evidence they needed. Jesus of Nazareth was a troublemaker, probably part of the zealot movement trying to overthrow the government. Now it is true that this story does come near the end in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Jesus' outburst in the temple was one of the last straws that led to his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.
But in John's Gospel, the story comes in chapter 2. It's not near the end but very near the beginning. What's going on here? Did Jesus chase the moneychangers more than once? Was it a habit with him? Watch out! Here comes that fellow from Nazareth again. Grab the cash box! I think it's more likely that all four Gospel writers knew the same story, but John saw in it particular meaning. This wasn't only a political catalyst leading to Jesus' arrest. For John, Jesus' actions in the temple pointed to the heart of who Jesus was and what he had come to do. It had to come at the beginning, not at the end.
A closer look at this chapter brings us deep into the heart of Jesus. There are two stories in this chapter connected by a little verse about Jesus and his family going to Capernaum. The first story is Jesus' miracle at the wedding in Cana. Do you remember? They ran out of wine at the wedding and Jesus told the steward to fill six stone jars with water. Then he told the steward to taste the water, and--ahhhhh--the water had been turned to wine with such bouquet and resonance that the steward wondered why the host had saved the best for last.
That story is deeper than wishing Jesus would come to our parties! John tells us a particular detail that we sometimes miss in our fascination with all that wine: The stone jars were used for the rites of purification. Jesus turns the purification water into wine. By the time of Jesus, an elaborate system of purification had been developed. Some things were considered pure and others impure. Women were impure seven days after the birth of a son, 14 days after the birth of a daughter. Dead bodies were impure. People with blemishes such as leprosy were impure. Certain foods were impure and almost anything sexual was impure. The list had gotten very, very long.
In his book "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time," Marcus Borg sees Jesus challenging this vast purity system. It was a system that had profound implications for all of life:
"...the effect of the purity system was to create a world with sharp social boundaries; between pure and impure, righteous and sinner, whole and not whole, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile..."
Changing water into wine was not so much the way to a great party as a way of breaking down the barriers. It was a different way of seeing the world and God's presence in it. It's no accident that the miracle at Cana was the first sign Jesus performed in the Gospel of John.
It's also no accident that the next action takes place in the temple, for the temple was at the heart of the purity system. The animals being sold there are for sacrificial purposes--it's not like the sale barn in my hometown with spring lambs and hogs on the auction block. These animals were required for sacrifice, and there were economic implications because poor people couldn't afford to buy the best animals. Moneychangers were an essential part of the system. It was idolatrous to use Roman coins stamped with the emperor's image to buy your sacrifice; thus, the moneychangers weren't simply making change for a twenty; they were giving pure tokens in exchange for impure money.
Now, I need to interrupt myself right here because this sounds like Jesus was opposed to all things Jewish. Just as my childhood taught me to hear this story as anti-Roman Catholic, Christians too often hear this story as anti-Jewish. But Jesus was deeply Jewish, shaped by Torah, committed to teaching in the synagogue. He was not the first Jew to cry out against abusing the temple. Centuries before Jesus, the prophet Micah asked, "Will God be pleased with thousands of rams, with 10,000 rivers of oil?.... God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" The prophet Amos raised a similar cry, "Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them," says God, "but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream." Some years later God called the prophet Jeremiah to stand at the very gate of the temple. "Hear the word of the Lord," he cried out. "Do not trust in these deceptive words: 'This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.' But act justly. Do not oppress the alien, the orphan and the widow. Do not go after other gods. Then I will dwell with you in this place."
Jesus challenged the purity system in almost everything he did. It cannot be accidental that so many Gospel stories talk about Jesus getting his life dirty. Story after story, person after person, like Israel's greatest prophets, Jesus longed to draw people back to the heart of God, back to the first commandment: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no others god before me." This is a commandment grounded in relationship--the relationship between God and God's people. Remember who you are, Jesus was saying, and even more importantly, remember whose you are. Your worth is not measured in categories but in God's liberating miracle bringing you out of Egypt, out of exile, out of whatever bondage you were in, out of whatever binds you now.
Jesus' life and ministry challenged the rules that named things and people pure or impure. Such categories were overturned by God's compassion. For Marcus Borg it is this conflict between purity codes and compassion that shapes Jesus' ministry. He says:
"In the message and activity of Jesus, we see an alternative social vision:
a community shaped not by the ethos and politics of purity, but by the
ethos and politics of compassion."
This was also the calling that shaped the great prophets of Judaism. This call to compassion runs throughout John's Gospel like a stream of living water--
Compassion for the Samaritan woman at the well. She was considered impure by bloodline and behavior.
Compassion for the woman accused of adultery threatened with stoning. She was surely considered impure and the written laws said so.
Compassion for sheep who are not yet part of God's fold. Who are those people in our communities?
It's not so strange, then, that the temple cleansing comes early in John's Gospel. When we come to the last week of Jesus' life, John again departs from the other Gospel writers. In the story we often call The Last Supper, John has no words about the bread and wine. Jesus never says, "Do this in remembrance of me." Instead, Jesus gets down on his knees and washes his disciples' dirty feet. Once more, the tables are overturned. Who is the master? Who's the servant? Then Jesus says to his friends: "I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another." By this everyone will know that you are my disciples--not by maintaining the boundaries, not by naming some pure and others impure, not by protecting the church from getting dirty, but by this love you have for one another.
It's not about bingo. It's about the deep disruptive compassion of God.
Let us pray.
O God, we give you thanks for your compassion beyond measure. Draw us so close to you that we can rest secure in your love. Overturn the tables of every system that names some of your children as unclean. Comfort and disrupt us with your love. Amen.