A Lectionary Reflection on Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-22 for Lent 3B
Human beings have an amazing capacity for turning our freedoms into slavery and for turning slavery into freedom. The latter gift is often recognised and celebrated – not least in the famous musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. The former capacity, though, holds a tragically destructive power and we seem almost incapable of acknowledging and correcting it.
This week’s Lectionary readings seem to be addressing this self-destructive tendency in humanity as the account of God’s gift of the Ten Commandments is placed beside John’s account of Jesus cleansing the Temple. The Old Testament reading takes us to the foot of Mount Sinai just after the Israelites have been liberated from Egypt. God is starting the process of transforming this ragtag group of slaves into a liberated and liberating community, a nation that will reflect God’s presence and purpose. To do so, God starts with giving them the basic guidelines for how a liberated people should live together. The commandments (or ten words as they are known in Jewish scholarly circles) are not intended to restrict the people, but to free them from all the things that would have been destroying them in Egypt – the idolatry, oppression, strife, self-interest, and fragmentation. The first four commandments focus on the actions and attitudes that create a liberating relationship with God, and the last six describe what liberating human relationships look like. The implication is that these instructions provide the basic systems and structures for peace, justice, freedom, compassion and love. So clearly has their liberating value been seen that the Ten Commandments have formed the basis of much human morality through the millennia.
However, centuries later, as the Rabbi Jesus comes to the Temple which is the national and religious centre of God’s liberated people, he finds that, even though the slaves had been taken out of Egypt, Egypt had not yet been taken out of the slaves. What should have been a sign of a liberated people – in spite of the Roman Occupation – a place where God’s grace, compassion, generosity and justice were daily on display, Jesus found a corrupt and oppressive place where the love for God and neighbour had all but been forgotten. The sacrificial system was based on the offering of animals that had been approved by the priests as free of blemish. However, few if any of the animals brought into the Temple by worshippers were ever approved. This meant that pre-approved animals had to be purchased, at an exorbitant price, from the Temple merchants who gave the priests a kick-back. To purchase these animals, only Temple currency could be used which was exchanged for ordinary currency at an exchange rate that favoured the money changers and ensured that the priests would, again, receive a cut. According to Richard Rohr, ninety percent of Jerusalem’s economy was based on this corrupt system, which fleeced the poor and enriched the priests.
As Jesus angrily overturned the tools of the corrupt, he quoted a sentence from a prophecy of Jeremiah (7:11). His hearers would have known what the rest of the prophecy was – an indictment on the people of Israel for breaking the Ten Commandments, for murdering, lying, cheating, and blaspheming, for trading love of God and neighbour for power, wealth and self-interest.
Naturally, the religious leaders come running to challenge Jesus, asking him by what authority he has committed this Messianic act and seeking a miracle to prove that he is the One who has the right to cleanse God’s Temple. It seems that Jesus plays with them a little here, offering them a miracle which they could never risk attempting. If they destroy the Temple, he says, he will raise it again in three days. If they were to do as Jesus says, it would already have proved that they believed he had the authority. However, because of their unbelief, they could never risk harming the Temple, and so they will never actually be able to test Jesus’ claim. It’s a conundrum that must have been deeply frustrating for them.
What they didn’t know, but that John’s Gospel points out, is that Jesus often associated himself with the Temple, and so the Gospel makes the comment that Jesus meant that his body would be destroyed and raised. The point Jesus is driving home, both in actions and in his words, is that the life of Israel has come to resemble the life of Egypt far more than the life of God’s Reign. The Temple – as indicated by the Jeremiah reference – has become an idol. Rather than providing a place to experience intimate, liberating encounter with God, it has become an end in itself, with God largely forgotten – so much so that when God is embodied in a person rather than a building, they cannot recognise it. Further, this place which was meant to teach God’s people how to love and serve one another, had become a place of exploitation, dishonesty and injustice. The very things that we are the heart of their liberated life – the Temple and the Commandments which on which it was founded – had become the instruments of enslavement.
Unfortunately, it seems that we have yet to learn the lesson Jesus was trying to teach. We still turn our places of worship and the Scriptures which they are supposed to teach into idols. We still use faith as a means to oppress, exploit and marginalise others. We still turn the freedom we have in Christ into slavery for ourselves and for all who fail to live according our view of things. But, even beyond the Church, our tendency to sacrifice our freedom remains. In Africa we have witnessed more than one liberation movement turn into a corrupt and exploitative organisation. In the United States I have read comments from those who believe that laws like the Patriot Act in the aftermath of 9/11 sacrificed freedom on the altar of security. There is no question in my mind that the way we manage wealth, assign power and use the resources of our planet all show signs of choosing slavery over true freedom.
We could use the overturning of a few tables in our systems, and we could do worse than seeking to learn again from the One who has the authority to overturn corrupt systems how to love God and love one another. The Ten Commandments still have as much relevance today as they ever did. As Benjamin Franklin famously said: “Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”