“Turning the Tables”
Margaret LaMotte Torrence
March 4, 2018
Third Sunday in Lent
I Corinthians 1:18-25/ John 2:13-22
I decided to work from home on Friday; I needed to make a start on this sermon. It had been a busy week, and all I had on paper was the title I’d submitted on Tuesday. “Turning the Tables” had been on the signboard on Franklin Street ever since, reminding me, each time I walked by, that there was a big table that needed to be both set and cleared before Sunday. Of course before leaving the office Thursday night I’d written my cell phone number on the white board, in case anyone needed to reach me.
We weren’t far into the morning on Friday when the first call came. It hadn’t occurred to me that Friday was the second day of the new month. Anyone who hadn’t been able to pay rent on the first, was now feeling the heat of that deadline come and gone. And so I tried not to begrudge the time it took to make a few phone calls and send a few emails to be sure that the landlord would wait until a small check could be cut to make up what was lacking. In truth, Jeanette and Katharine in the office did the real work; I only connected the dots. Even so, I was aware of my own impatience.
While I waited for calls to be returned and emails to be answered, I sat with our gospel text, trying to see more clearly the picture John paints. What is it that makes Jesus so angry, anyway, I wondered. Each gospel contains a version of this story, but John’s stands apart. He doesn’t suggest that anyone is being cheated here in the temple court—there is no allusion to a den of thieves. John’s portrait is more “business as usual.” Everyone is just doing what is expected in the temple as a busy holiday season approaches.
John’s version stands out for another reason, too. John plants this story at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, rather than at the end, where the others place it. You’ll notice this morning we’re only in chapter two. Jesus has just come from a wedding in Cana, and a few days with friends and family in Capernaum. There have been no reports of tension with religious authorities. The stage has not been set for anger or disruption. But that is what we get. Nothing looks out of place until Jesus arrives. These merchants, these animals—they are all where they belong.
You see, by Jesus’ day, the feast of the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread had been combined into one long springtime festival, lasting 8 days. Enormous crowds made their way to Jerusalem for the celebration. The ancient historian Josephus estimates more than 2 million pilgrims would come. And it wasn’t just a crowd made of persons. Cattle, sheep and birds were all required for various temple sacrifices, and also many lambs for Passover meals. Pilgrims traveled great distances, and could not always bring the perfect animals required for sacrifice with them. So purchases needed to be made after the travelers arrived in the city. But the temple could not accept payment in Greek or Roman coins, which bore the images of emperors, so those coins had to be exchanged for local currency acceptable to the temple. All those animals and all that coinage were necessary for appropriate worship to take place. So Jesus’ appearance on the scene upends more than tables. He forces a new assessment of business as usual in the house of God. Jesus insists that the fundamental realities that lie at the heart of worship be reexamined.
In order to understand the temple authorities’ baffled response to Jesus’ actions, it helps to know the rationale that lay behind temple practice.
The temple was understood to be the place where God dwelled. Access to God—to the holy of holies, which lay at the center of the temple compound—was limited for the safety of the people. Sacrifices were one way to draw closer to God in a regulated, protected practice. When Jesus disrupts the temple’s systems, he prevents the offering of both sacrifices and tithes.
As Jesus chases the vendors from the temple, he says, “Stop making my Father’s house, a house of commerce.” It’s important to realize that Jesus means no disrespect to the temple as he lashes out. In fact, he means nothing but respect. For Jesus, the temple is holy, but it is also intimate, familial space, and he is intent upon offering to others the same unfettered access to God that he himself knows.
Though no one will understand these words until after he has been raised from the dead, Jesus’ followers will later remember their teacher saying that his body is a new kind of temple—where God’s life and human life come together for the healing of the nations. Like the prophets of old,
Jesus challenges a system so captive to its own understandings, that it is not open to a new and living word from God.
As I pondered this story, Jesus anger, which is so unexpected here, made me wonder afresh about other times I am surprised by anger—about times when, from my insulated perspective, it seems to be business as usual, until I am helped to see that not all others have the same access to God’s good gifts of shelter, safety, education, clean water, nourishing food, life-giving care, freedom to make mistakes, communities of support. Others don’t have the same access to these good gifts, on which I lean every day.
The woman who had called looking for assistance Monday morning called again in the late afternoon as she was getting off from work, just to find out how things had gone with her landlord and when she might pick up the check. She thanked us repeatedly and profusely and then she said, “I just knew if I would be patient that God would provide, but it takes so much patience. Sometimes the patience is hard to come by.”
I did not hear anger in her voice but I did hear the deep weariness of someone whose life is full of obstacles. In that moment, I found my own reflection in John’s temple narrative. I knew that I was the moneylender engaged in business as usual, dispensing my thimble full of provision after all the forms had been completed. Confusing our institutional practice with the mercy of God. As though I had more pressing things to think about on Friday morning, when this sister was the sermon God wanted to write on my heart.
You see, the Passover Feast when it is celebrated in combination with the Feast of Unleavened Bread commemorates two central truths about the God we worship. The first is that God liberates God’s people from all that enslaves and oppresses. The second is that God provides what is needed for us to live in right relationship with our Creator and our neighbor. Because we dare to call ourselves Christians, that work also is ours.
Every time we fail to love our neighbor as we love our selves, every time we equivocate or delay, every time we build a wall or withhold a cup of water, every time we look away—we are the table that needs to be overturned.
Jesus turns the tables out of love. He turns the tables because he needs more and better from us.
As our Mission Study proceeds in the weeks to come, one of the questions you will be asked is why you come to this place week after week. Here’s part of my answer: I need the gift of these texts; I need the courage and insight of other believers; I need the strength that is found in the meal we are about to share.
Let me close with one bit of history:
Temple practice maintained that the blood of God’s creatures was never to be consumed by a human being, because the creature’s life was understood to be in its blood, and life belongs to God. Throughout the Old Testament, when an animal was slaughtered, its blood, its life, was poured out on the ground so that it could go directly back to God. You need to know that, in order to understand just how revolutionary is what we do at that table. For Jesus said, no, my life won’t go back to God through the ground. Not before I pour it into all of you. Not before you drink it.
We come this day to take his life inside of us; to offer for overturning, all the tables we have set with care; to let zeal for his way be the mark that defines us.
To God be the glory, now and always.
 Gail O’Day, John, New Interpreter’s Bible, A Commentary in Twelve Volumes. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, p. 542.  Ibid.  Ibid.  an insight shared with me by my father, John Hunter LaMotte