The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” … When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
We’re in John chapter 2 today, following the Lentern pattern of jumping around into different sections of the Gospels and landing upon passages that are appropriately sombre and challenging. And we’ve landed on a dousie this week – a passage that contains not one but two rather unique and entirely disturbing depictions of Jesus!
The passage begins with an account of Jesus tearing up the temple – swinging a whip, shouting, angry – and it finishes with a short note about how Jesus didn’t trust anyone – “many believed in his name”, we are told, “because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them … for he himself knew what was in everyone.”
It is a bizarre depiction of Jesus – angry and untrusting – and I confess that I’m using the Catholic lectionary reading this week. The Anglican and Protestant churches, it seems, when they chose what reading to use this week, decided to leave out these last three verses about the untrusting nature of Jesus, no doubt sensing that the first part of the passage was troublesome enough. But not one to be outdone by Father Elias and his mob, I decided we’d join them in taking the longer reading and so grasp the bull by both horns!
Mind you, I suspect that you who have heard me preach over any length of time will be thinking, ‘Oh, there’s nothing to worry about here. Dave seems to get some strange delight out of making Bible passages initially appear more disturbing than they really are. Give him another ten minutes and he’ll diffuse this thing, and we’ll realise that Jesus is a much more comfortable figure than these images suggest.’ I’m sorry. No such promises. Indeed, I was seriously considering ending the sermon here. I mean we’ve had a baptism this morning and there are a lot of other things going on today. Maybe an especially short sermon is called for today: ‘Jesus is angry and He doesn’t trust you.’ Amen! Let’s sing hymn number …
Well, no … I decided that it was worth reflecting on these stories a little longer, but I can’t promise that this depiction of Jesus we get here is thereby going to become any more palatable.
Jesus is angry. There is no getting around that. And, as Thomas Fuller said, “when the heart is afire, some sparks will fly out of the mouth”, and there are plenty of sparks flying in this scene in the Temple.
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild – that’s the image of Jesus we are more familiar with, and that’s what makes it so hard to come to terms with this sleeves-rolled-up, down-to-business, whip-in-hand Jesus!
I had the privilege last year of being invited to an art exhibition, displaying the works of a local girl who, in a series of paintings, had depicted Jesus as a boxer – a ring fighter. Even so, the images were of Jesus slumped in the corner between rounds, being attended to by his team, or of Him being lifted from the canvas by those who loved Him. There were no depictions of Jesus beating his opponent to a pulp. That’s just not how we envisage Jesus. It is not an image we can get comfortable with.
I wonder how we would react if we were quietly going about our Sunday worship here – in the middle of a baptism perhaps – when some fiery figure, looking like Indiana Jones – roughly shaven, weapon in hand, came crashing in through the back door, cracking his whip!
I guess we’d run, and we’d call the police. And I guess that’s what they did. They ran and called the police, though some evidently did stand their ground and challenged Jesus: ‘what makes you think you had the right to do this?’
For there had been no warning. Jesus had not nailed 39 theses to the temple door, concluding with a warning that if they did not comply He would be back and He would be armed. No. It must have been like when one of those terrible bombs goes off, with no warning whatsoever. One moment everyone is quietly going about their business as usual – praying, sacrificing, buying and selling – and then the next moment … absolute mayhem!
Why did He do it? His disciples saw it as a fulfilment of Scripture – “Zeal for Thy house will consume me.” They believed, in other words, that ‘it was written’ that He going was to get that angry, and so we shouldn’t have been surprised. Even so, I don’t think we were ready for it.
Why did Jesus get so angry? It was His love of the temple, the Scriptures said. More specifically, it was because they had turned His beloved temple into a marketplace. It was because their church had become a business!
And that’s a little chilling, isn’t it, as we know ourselves that this is not a problem only our forefathers had to deal with.
Eugene Peterson observed some time back that his fellow American pastors had become ‘a company of shopkeepers’. “They are preoccupied with shopkeepers’ concerns – how to get new customers, how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street.” That is not just an American problem, is It?
Indeed, look at the way our church leadership is structured. It’s quite disturbing.
The Anglican parish system is such that we employ one person to look after ministry – ie. the parish priest (me). That single individual is responsible for all ministry activities in the parish – all prayer and worship meetings, sermons, Bible studies, small groups, mission, outreach, staffing, the appointment of a choir, musical director, organist, secretarial staff, ministry assistants, etc., along with pastoral care, hospital visitation, and just about every other activity you can think of. Our system places all these responsibilities in the hands of one single individual – the parish priest – BUT it elects a body of 12 people to have authority over one other area – the money!
Now I’m not suggesting that this reflects the way we actually operate as a parish, but it is the system that we have inherited, where most of the emphasis seems to be placed on the securing of the finances, and where the Parish Priest is (in theory) left to look after everything else.
And you probably know the flip-side of that coin is that there are only three reasons that a Parish Priest in our system can ever be de-frocked (and technically ex-communicated), and those three are heresy, immorality and bankruptcy, which in my case is a real and present danger (bankruptcy at any rate).
We, the church, seem to be preoccupied with money, and it would appear that this sort of thing doesn’t just displease the Lord Jesus. It puts Him in a mad, fuming rage!
Ironically, I was having a discussion with a good friend this week, where he was saying that I had to get over my embarrassment about asking people for money. “You don’t keep the money yourself”, he said. “It all goes to a good cause. Why should you feel embarrassed in appealing for what you need?” And yet I do find it embarrassing, and I think a lot of it goes back to this, because money is never supposed to be what it is about.
I appreciate that budgets do need to be set and met, and if you’re familiar with the struggles I’m having at the moment trying to keep our bush retreat ministry going, you’ll know that I’m doing my best to come up with business-savvy solutions so that we can keep trading, and yet I know that money is NOT what it is about.
And I don’t know where we are supposed to draw the line. I don’t know at what point the attention you give to the finances is such that you’ve now gone from being ‘financially responsible’ to becoming a ‘marketplace’, but I guess that by the time you hear that crash at the back of the church and turn to see the silhouetted, whip-brandishing figure of Jesus coming in through the rear entrance, you know you’ve let things drift a bit too far!
Let’s leave that image there for a moment while we conclude with a quick reflection on the other disturbing depiction of Jesus that was given to us in our reading this morning, where we were told that He didn’t trust anybody.
“Many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone” (John 2:23-25)
Now I don’t know how we are supposed to take that. Are we meant to understand from this that Jesus never trusted anybody or that He just didn’t trust anyone in that particular group at that particular time? It’s hard to know.
Normally when we say that we don’t trust someone it means that we are not making ourselves vulnerable to them. We are not allowing ourselves to be hurt by them. This was obviously not the case with Jesus. He was vulnerable. He did allow himself to be hurt and indeed killed by His peers, so whatever His refusal to trust meant, it didn’t mean that He shut Himself off.
If it means anything though to say that Jesus did not ‘trust Himself to them’ it must at least have meant that He held something of Himself back from his contemporaries, and I guess we knew that.
The Biblical record makes reasonably clear to us that Jesus never gave Himself sexually to anybody, and neither do you ever see Jesus unreservedly pouring out his heart to his friends. He shares, certainly, but it would appear from the Gospels that the only time He poured Himself out without reservation was when He was in prayer, when the sweat would sometimes pour down like drops of blood. The rest of the time He was careful about what He said.
Now, we’re not saying something here that is not true of every relationship. Even in the very best of intimate human relationships we do sometimes have to be careful about what we say. We don’t just ventilate everything, but instead recognise that sometimes those we love might not be able to bear all we that is on our hearts and minds.
Jesus, it seems, likewise spares us from complete transparency because He knows our limitations, and yet we take on board with this that this means there are indeed dimensions of Jesus that we do not know because He did not disclose them to us.
I think that’s a good thing to keep in mind when we read this whole passage – that Jesus is not someone we can ever presume to fully understand.
Why didn’t He trust these people? Why did the temple business make Him so angry? The Scripture gives us plenty of clues, but maybe the Lord Jesus also had His own deep-seated reasons for getting so angry – reasons that I’m not able to penetrate to because I don’t know Him well enough.
What we do know is that it does get Him riled up. And we who are in the modern-day business of doing church need to be very aware of that … lest we assume too great a familiarity with Him. Lest we allow ourselves to start thinking that whatever is our will is His will. Lest we forget who is the Lord of the church, and so find ourselves at the wrong end of His fiery, havoc-wreaking whip!’
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, March 2009.