Brief synopsis of the Gospels: We need to begin choosing the correct reading. As many of us know, Sunday readings rotate on a three year cycle: A or B or C. Without getting into a long discussion, I’m going to preach on cycle B as most of us will. That said, our first reading comes to us from Exodus where we read what we all recognize as the 10 Commandments. We are commanded not to worship anyone else except God, and to honor the sabbath, etc. We all know how this goes. In John’s Gospel Jesus (just before Passover) goes up to Jerusalem. On entering the Temple “found people selling cattle and sheep and pigeons, and the money changers sitting at their counters there.” Enraged, Jesus made a whip out of cords and “drove them out of the Temple, cattle and sheep as well, scattering the money changers’ coins.” He then proclaimed: “Take all this out of here, and stop turning my Father’s house into a market.” Those he drove out demanded to know what justified this and Jesus said this: Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days I will raise it up.” John then tells us that Jesus wasn’t speaking of the Temple but instead was foreshadowing his death and resurrection.
OK, show of hands: how many of you listened to the first few lines of the first reading and then began to think of something else? It’s OK, we’ve heard (and heard about) this reading for our entire lives. The first few lines told our brain that “oh, this is the 10 Commandments. I know these. I wonder who’s going to be eliminated from “The Bachelor” this week.”
Last week I suggested that the Sacrifice of Isaac was true if not factual. I claimed that even if Abraham never tied up his son and raised a knife to him, it still matters that God will never demand us to commit murder, even though the pagans did.
This week I posit that even if Moses didn’t descend down Mt. Sinai with two tablets of five commandments each, these rules are still important. This passage is true even if it’s not factual. Our history as humans bursts with examples of communities who gather, travel, and struggle with their values going forward. We celebrate my best (though far from my only) example with the Pilgrims. In 1620 a diverse group of people boarded a small ship in England with the intent to sail to a new land where they could make a new start. When they landed in this new land (that we now as New England) they drew up a document named after the ship that brought them there: the Mayflower Compact.
They were a diverse group of people: not everyone was a pilgrim and not all of them fled religious persecution. But they all knew that they needed to depend on each other to survive in a land they didn’t know. They drew up a contract that made demands on each other because none of them could survive on their own.
The authors of the 10 Commandments recognized the same thing. The pledged their dependence on God but they also pledged their dependence on each other. And while God demanded that they not worship other gods, they demanded of each other that they would respect each other. They demanded they wouldn’t steal, murder, or lie. In a community where they needed each other’s cooperation, they couldn’t have survived if some of their members took what others needed to live, or killed someone whose labor was critical, or falsely accused someone of criminality. They knew they needed to be able to completely trust each other.
In other words, these commandments embodied their core values. They didn’t eliminate the fact that they would continue to sin against each other. This compact wouldn’t eliminate petty jealousies or grudges, nor would they put an end to hurting others out of revenge for small slights. They wouldn’t even prevent people from cheating each other.
But at the end of the day we all live with core values that guide our lives and inform our moral compass. And we recognize that events sometimes chip away from our core values. Our best example comes from John’s Gospel. Jews living under the yoke of the Roman Empire often needed to find creative solutions to Roman laws.
Last week I spoke about the near sacrifice of Isaac and when the first Temple was built in the 10th Century BCE, Israelites sacrificed animals to God. Wealthy people sacrificed large animals (like cattle) and poorer people sacrificed smaller animals (like doves). But by the time of Jesus, many Israelites lived outside of Jerusalem and traveled there only for the annual celebration of Passover. Instead of expensively purchasing animals at home and leading them to Jerusalem for sacrifice, they traveled to Jerusalem and purchased sacrifices there.
But here’s the problem: one of the commandments we just read about prohibits graven images. If you wanted to purchase an animal to sacrifice you couldn’t use a Roman coin within the Temple as it bore the image of Caesar. They got around this by setting up tables outside the Temple where you could exchange your Roman coins for coins that didn’t show graven images. These were “Temple coins” that allowed you to purchase an animal you could sacrifice in the Temple.
No problem, right? Well… here’s the problem: if you’ve been doing this long enough it’s easy to forget why you’re doing what you’re doing. After years, and decades, and generations, and centuries we can pay more attention to the coins and animals than we do for our need for God. Not to put too fine a point on this, but we can see our sacrifices as a mortgage payment more than a recognition of what God has done for us.
I think Jesus’ anger bubbled up not from what he saw so much as what he felt. I think he saw how mechanical faith had become. Those who changed their coins and purchased animals for sacrifice didn’t see this as an act of faith as much as an ordinary purchase.
And this violated his core values. Perhaps they didn’t violate any of the 10 Commandments but it did violate our belief in God. Our faith in God can’t be purchased by coins, Roman or Temple. Jesus’ anger originated in his observation that the people he saw sowed business in the false belief that God would bless their business.
I’m not claiming that the money changers should have done anything different. They were, truth be told, doing what they were told. And I don’t blame them for their anger against Jesus. But I believe that the message of this Gospel was not intended for them, but for us.
I believe that this Gospel tells us that no matter how wealthy or powerful we are, we can never fall back on the defense of the money changers. Maybe their living depended on opposition to the Roman Empire but ours do not, and we can’t buy our salvation.
Perhaps these 10 Commandments need some updating, or at least some amendments. In the second decade of the twenty first century we should write our own commandments. Here’s what I want:
Nobody dies of hunger
Nobody dies of thirst
Nobody goes to school fearing gun violence
Nobody is excluded because of his race, ethnicity, faith, or sexual orientation
Nobody gets bullied
Nobody gets excluded because he doesn’t speak English
Nobody gets excluded because of adults who believe in fake news
Nobody experiences loneliness because others see him or her as a stranger
Nobody lies to get someone else in trouble
Nobody lies to avoid taking responsibility for his own actions
Anyone else ready to get started?