Sunday 4 March 2018, The Third Sunday in Lent. Fr Neil Traynor at the United Benefice of Holland Park

 Sunday 4 March 2018, The Third Sunday in Lent. Fr Neil Traynor at the United Benefice of Holland Park

One can imagine the scene.  A quiet day like any other.  Everyone going about their business.  Some families coming in together; an old man taking his time up the steps.  One can hear the sheep bleating, the cattle braying and the doves for the poor people cooing gently away in their cages.  The delicate chink of metal as money is changed on the tables. 
And then, in he comes, that young scruffy ruffian, always making trouble.  Followed by that gang of ne’er do wells that always follow him.  A right bunch they are.  Anyway, in he comes, interrupting law abiding citizens, creating havoc, disrupting the proper business of the temple.  Who does he think he is?  Doesn’t he know the law?  If people can’t buy the animals for sacrifice, then where are we?  Our covenant with God will be broken and he’ll desert us once again, and we’ll be at the mercy of our enemies.  Thank goodness for the Romans keeping the peace and troublemakers like him under control.  Calls himself a Rabbi?  I ask you. . . .Who does he think he is?
One can almost hear the next line:  he’s not the messiah; he’s a very naughty boy.
Looking at the Gospel story in this way, we can have enormous sympathy with those who were not for Jesus.  They were just trying to live their lives as best they could.  Ordinary, imperfect people living in a very imperfect world, making the best of it.
However, the phrase “who does he think he is” might hold a clue to understanding this passage, for, far from Jesus simply being a trouble maker, this can be read as Jesus challenging authority.   Specifically the authority of the Romans.

As this passage is so familiar it’s one little detail I’d like to concentrate on.  It’s one of those little details that we hear so often, we take for granted.  It was the tables of the money changers that Jesus overturned.  It is, though, worth looking at it more closely.  One might well ask, what are money changers doing in the temple?  Surely they would better belong in the markets where they were easily accessible.
There are a number of reasons, though, that they were there.  Firstly, the Temple would have acted as a sort of treasury and bank.  A safe place in which to keep money.  And if you’re dealing with large sums of money, you’d want somewhere safe to keep it.  It makes sense that they were at least near the temple, if not in it.
There is though, another reason, and I suspect the one that inspired the ire of Jesus. 
It struck me just before I was about to take the 8.00 service this morning, that there is a synergy here with another Gospel passage.  One curious thing about the four Gospels is that we don’t have precisely the same content in each, and it was the little phrase from Matthew’s Gospel that seemed to be missing:  Render unto Caesar.  Caesar, who called himself a God, and whose image was on the coinage.  This might have something to do with the obvious ire of Jesus.  And this links back with the very beginning of our first reading – the instruction that thou shalt have no other Gods than me.  Especially not in the temple.
The business of the temple was to allow worship of God.  This was its primary function.  However, full and proper worship could only be carried out through animal sacrifice.  That meant buying ones cattle or sheep or dove or grain or incense with which the sacrifice could be performed.  One can imagine that, rather like the Marks and Spencer recent campaign, these weren’t just sheep and doves, these were temple sheep and doves, and would therefore command a premium price.  It must have been good business to be selling these in the temple precincts.
I’m not certain, though, that even this was what inspired Jesus to overturn the tables of the money changers.  There is, still, another little bit of the picture I need to put in place.
Jerusalem and Israel was, in effect, under Roman control at this point.  Although the dynasty of Herod was nominally in charge, it’s clear that any major decisions were taken by the Romans.  It effectively meant that they could arrange local matters as they saw fit. 
It was, of course, quite right and proper that the peoples of Israel should pay for the beneficent oversight of the Romans, and that meant taxes being raised.  As is clear from the Gospels, tax collectors were amongst the most reviled people.  Always trying to get that little bit more to line their own pockets.
One of these taxes was directly to do with the worship in the temple.  When buying an animal for sacrifice – or even grain or wine or incense – it had to be paid for with the appropriate currency.  One might liken this to a (thankfully fictional) rule which said that one could only buy Scotch Whiskey with Scottish notes, or a decent burgundy with Euros.  Can you imagine at the till, what sort of chaos would ensue in our daily lives, especially if buying one of each in the same transaction.  Not only would this be an inconvenience, one would have to continually change currency, and pay the appropriate mark up to the money changer, and all easily open to abuse.
This, I hope you agree, puts a slightly different light on the episode of Jesus clearing the money changers from the Temple.  He wasn’t attacking the system of sacrifice; he wasn’t seeking to overthrow the Torah or Jewish law.  Instead, this is yet another instance of Jesus standing up against the authority of the Romans. 
He's wanting to put God right back at the heart of worship in the temple, and, this being a monotheistic religion, we shall have no other Gods, not even pretend ones on our coins.
No wonder those wanting good governance, a peaceful life and what they might see as the right way of doing things be offended by Jesus.  He’s not only attacking the Romans, but the established order.  And, as we get closer to Holy Week, these pressures from both sides will only mount, leading to the inevitable disaster for Jesus and his followers.

Holland Park Benefice