N-23, I-16, B-6, O-54, G-32 ~ BINGO!
It's not about BINGO. Today's Gospel text is not about whether it's all right to play BINGO to raise money for the church. As a child growing up in a Protestant community, our anti-Catholic bias brought images of BINGO when we heard the story of Jesus and the money-changers. We knew that Catholic churches and schools had big signs on the front lawn announcing: BINGO every Tuesday. We were always waiting for Jesus to come and overturn the BINGO tables, sending all the cards flying and spilling the little numbers our of the cage still spinning round and round. Then he'd empty the cash boxes all over the social hall. Of course, we hoped that this text didn't forbid our chili supper once a year or the youth car wash.
But this story is not about BINGO. This gospel text goes to the very heart of Jesus' mission and ministry. This story, found in all four gospels, has a peculiar position in the Gospel of John. If you know this story, you probably have a memory that it comes late in the life of Jesus. We place the scene after Palm Sunday: Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem, followed by crowds shouting "Hosanna to the Son of David!" He goes to the temple and drives out the money-changers. The temple cleansing is a crisis scene, a confrontation which gives religious leaders and Roman authorities evidence that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed a trouble-maker, perhaps part of the Zealot movement trying to overthrow Rome. In Matthew, Mark and Luke that's where this story comes, shortly before Jesus' arrest, trial and crucifixion.
But today's reading is from John, chapter 2, verses 13-22. John, chapter 2. There are twenty-one chapters in John ~ many more to go before we come to the last week of Jesus' life. This story is not near the end, but close to the very beginning. What's going on here? Did Jesus chase the money-changers out of the temple more than once? Was it a habit with him? ("Hey! Grab the cash box--here comes that fanatic prophet from Nazareth!") Not likely. It is probably closer to the truth that all four gospel writers knew the same story. Indeed, there are very few stories which are so similar in all four of the gospels! But in John, this same story takes place at a very different time. It is not the crisis-point at the end of Jesus' life, but a defining-point at the beginning.
A closer look at chapter 2 brings us deeper into the heart of Jesus. There are two stories in this chapter, connected by a verse about Jesus and his family going to Capernaum. The first story is Jesus' miracle at the wedding at Cana. Do you remember? They ran out of wine at the wedding and Jesus tells the steward to fill six stone jars with water. Then, Jesus bids taste the water and ~ ah, the steward sips wine of such bouquet and body that he wonders why the host has saved the best wine for last.
But that story means something far deeper than wishing Jesus would show up at our next party! John tells us a particular detail that we may miss in our fascination with all that wine: the stone jars filled with water were used for the rites of purification. That is an important detail for John and for Jesus. Jesus turns the waters of purification into wine. Jesus overturns a system with purification at its center. An elaborate system had been developed over centuries of time which named some things "pure," others "impure." Women were impure for seven days after the birth of a son, fourteen days after the birth of a daughter. Dead bodies were impure. People with blemishes caused by leprosy and other diseases were Certain foods were unclean, and almost anything sexual was impure. The list was very long.
New Testament scholar Marcus Borg in his book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time makes a compelling case for Jesus' ministry as a confrontation with this vast purity system. He points to the profound implications of the purity system:
...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 primarily a way to enhance a party ~ it was an act of transformation, a breaking down of boundaries, a different way of seeing the world and God's presence in it. It is not accident that this miracle at Cana is the first sign Jesus performs in the gospel of John.
Nor is it accidental that the next action takes place in the temple for the temple had become the center of the purity system. The animals being sold in the courtyard are for sacrificial purposes ~ it's not like the salebarn in my hometown with spring lambs and hogs on the auction block. The cattle, sheep and doves here are the proper animals for sacrifice, sold according to your ability to pay. There were economic implications for purity: poor people who could hardly afford to give a tenth of their crop away found they were then unable to sell their grain for it was judged "impure." When it came to temple services, the poor were unable to buy the best animals. Money-changers became a very important part of this system. Roman coins were considered impure and could note be used to buy sacrifices. The money-changers weren't simply giving change for a twenty ~ they were giving "pure" tokens in exchange for "impure" money...sometimes, for an extra fee.
It's not about BINGO. Jesus challenged the purity system in almost everything he did. It cannot be accidental that there are so many stories about Jesus getting his life dirty! Touching lepers, being touched by a hemorrhaging woman. Going into a graveyard (unclean) to cast out demons and send them into a herd of pigs (also unclean). Eating with outcasts ~ that is, those at the bottom of the list of those deemed impure Hear again Marcus Borg:
Jesus brought his challenge to the center of the purity system ~ the temple ~ with his action of driving out the money-changers and the sellers of sacrificial animals. His charge that the temple authorities had turned the temple into a "den of robbers" may very well refer to the economic interest that the temple elite had in the purity system.
This is not about BINGO. Neither is it about Christians being better than Jews. Centuries before Jesus came to Jerusalem for the Passover, the prophet Jeremiah stood before the temple crying out against it. "This says the Lord, ' Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: 'This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord'...Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord." Jeremiah was calling people back to the heart of God ~ for God longed to dwell with them. God wanted to be at home with them.
Jesus came into the temple not to be destructive or disruptive, but to draw us back to the heart of God. "Let me dwell with you in this place," God had pleaded through Jeremiah. In Jesus Christ God came to dwell with us. In chapter one, that was the language John used to describe Jesus' coming ~ no shepherds or manger, no dreams or angel visions, rather this cosmic yet down-to-earth announcement: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us..." The Greek word which is translated dwell literally means "to pitch a tent." Jesus, God's eternal Word, came to pitch his tent on earth to draw us back to the heart of God. To break through all that separates us from God and from one another.
For John, this break-through must come near the beginning of the Jesus story ~ it cannot wait until the end. But the last week of Jesus' life is also different in John's gospel. Several chapters after the temple scene, Jesus comes to Jerusalem for the third time. Again, it is Passover and Jesus prepares to eat with his disciples. But when John tells the story, he says little about the meal. Jesus does not break bread, giving it to the disciples saying, "This is my body given for you." Instead, Jesus puts a towel around his waist, takes a basin and pitcher and bends down to wash the disciples' dirty feet. The teacher becomes the servant and the tables are overturned even as they were in the temple courtyard.
And finally, Jesus' life would be turned over, given up for the sake of the world, his arms stretched out on the cross in dying embrace to draw all people unto himself. After three days, his broken body was raised up. Jesus had said it would be so that day in the temple but no one understood what he meant. After all, the temple had been under construction for 46 years! But after resurrection, the disciples remembered what Jesus had said. They knew he was talking bout his body. And they remembered the words Jesus had spoken the night before he died, the night he washed their feet. "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 disciples, if you have love for one another." By this everyone will know ~ not by categories of pure and impure, not by bringing the proper sacrifice, but by how you love one another. In one sense the command was not new; it was as sold as Deuteronomy. But it was a command that could be crushed under a complex purity system. The command to love one another can seem soft and naive in a world where boundaries need to be clear, and rules preside. Yet this was the command Jesus gave his disciples on his last night with them ~ he must have thought these words were very important. We have every reason to believe Jesus meant what he said.
Jesus came to the temple to overturn every barrier that separates us from God. Jesus knelt down to wash his followers' feet and overturned categories of master and servant, pure and impure forever. Jesus pitched his tent in our midst, God's Word made forever ~ God's living temple.
This story is not about BINGO. It is Jesus' angry, loving disruption drawing us back to the heart of God.