Monday, March 5, 2018

Lent: Provoked into Action


Lent 2018
The Cleansing of the Temple - Sadao Watanabe
"Provoked into Action"
the witness of a temple merchant
Rev. Paul Mitchell

Vashon United Methodist Church
March 4, 2018
Exodus 20:1-21, John 2:13-25
I don’t like conflict. I never have. I come by it naturally. When I was a child, my mother would retreat into the deep corners of our lofty barn whenever there was conflict in the family. She used to say, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. She said conflict upset the birds, and upset birds were not healthy birds, which had a direct impact on our livelihood. You see, our family has sold sacrificial birds in the temple for generations. The animals must be clean and healthy. We were a favored vendor with a prime spot at the entry to the Court of Gentiles – where any God-fearer can come to pray. Of course, the doves we sold were mostly bought by the poorer families or those seeking atonement for lesser sins. But that didn’t make them any less important to us or to the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob and Rachel and Leah.
Our family status had risen over the course of my parents’ lives and mine. My father was just entering adulthood when Herod the Great began his reconstruction of the Jerusalem temple – making it one of the most glorious in all the Roman Empire. It was on higher ground thanks to the construction of an artificial plateau. It was taller than any other temple in the empire, sheathed in the finest marble, and furnished with gilded bronze. We were proud to be favored merchants even though it had been built on the sweaty backs of forced labor and funded by egregious taxes. Herod the Great and his heirs – those that survived his murderous ways – held sway under the subjugation of Judea to Rome, but having the backing of the legions meant that they could reliably extract the heavy taxes paid to both temple and empire. The birds we sold were important for the common people who could barely afford them. Now, it’s all in ruins. What are we to do? Our life, our livelihood, our temple, and our people are crushed and scattered. The empire has won the day. After three years of siege, we are beaten and bereft.

I’m an old man now, at least by the standards of the working people of Jerusalem. I’ll be 59 in a week. But I can still remember the week the rabbi from Nazareth dared to challenge the delicate three-way political balance between temple, nation, and empire. It must have been forty years ago now – I was just entering adulthood, just completing my apprenticeship as a temple merchant – but I remember it like yesterday. It was in the days leading up to the Passover. The temporary population of the city was swelling. We even had pilgrims sleeping with the birds in our barn. On the first day of the week the legion had arrived from Caesarea Maritima on the coast, marching and riding into the city from the northwest with their red capes and feathered helmets fluttering. From the temple mount we could see them arrive at the fortress of Antonia – named after Marc Antony – right next to the temple. They came to keep the peace – or rather to impose and enforce it…. The Zealots could get out of hand at Passover.
Although few witnessed it, some of us also happened to see a pathetic procession enter the opposite side of the city, from the southeast. A Galilean man, by the looks of his clothing, riding a donkey, was leading a motley parade of common people spreading their cloaks on the ground before him and waving branches – a much happier though scrappier reception than the soldiers were getting….
The next day the man turned up at the temple. He walked right past our stall into the middle of the crowded court. Though it was built for the gentiles to pray, the sale of sacrificial animals had grown to overtake the vast enclosed plaza. It would have been hard to pray with the cacophony, dust, and stench of the animals, so at first his presence did not seem to be noticed.
Then he began to upset the moneychangers’ stalls in the middle of the court, to overturn their tables, right under the eye of the centurions and temple guards watching from the roof of the surrounding colonnade.
The place suddenly went quiet.
The dust settled.
The animals calmed.
He turned and saw me – really saw me and my heart leapt. I knew that he knew that even though I was caught up in the inequity and injustice of the sacrificial temple cult, that my concern for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger were genuine. I have a feeling I was not alone in being seen so deeply that day.
Immediately he began to teach – to lay out a program for change – a roughhewn man with a prophet’s voice. Indeed, the house of God was to be open to all – not restricted by impossible requirements and empty rituals. God’s intention is for all to thrive. He said the whole enterprise – the temple and the cult – would be ruined – impossible though that may seem. But here I am today, standing in the rubble. He said he would raise it up again in three days – and his followers claim that he is the temple – the dwelling place of God – torn down and raised up again. They claim that he is the program to recover from our addiction to sin and death. I doubted it then; and have doubted it these forty years. But as I stand amid the ruins, I realize that I have seen him everywhere, every day in the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.
It’s not too late for me, is it?
Do I hear him even now calling to me across the years, saying follow me?
Or is that a voice coming from somewhere deep inside?

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