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  • Writer's pictureFr. Gustavo

"Not in my backyard!"

Jesus throwing merchants off the Temple
Christ throwing the merchants off the Temple, c. 1950 by Shirley Markham

In general, we like to think of Jesus as the “Gentle Jesus.”  The Jesus who would never raise his voice, who always would smile to all and sundry, and the Jesus who will never upset anyone and, much less, the powers that be.


But you’ll have to agree that from time to time, Jesus would challenge such image. 


But obviously, as you noticed from today’s lesson, it was not just because Jesus had a “bad hair day!”  Which, after all, as a human being He may have had.  As all the gospels recall, Jesus’ was not only unhappy and disappointed.  He chased away the vendors with a whip on his hands!


Which, as you know, caused a commotion.  So much so that not only the vendors were upset, but the Temple authorities were upset, very upset!


“Why are you messing with us?  Who do you think you are?  Can’t you see that it is us that have been appointed to look after God’s business?  How you dare?” they challenged Jesus.


So, a good question to ask is, “Why Jesus was so upset?”  And was his manner something that only was related to something that happened two thousand years ago, or is it something that speaks to us today? 


So, let’s look a little bit to the background.


All through the centuries, the Temple proper, never changed its size.  It was 90 ft long, 30 ft wide, and 60 ft high.  And, as you, know, it was surrounded by a big courtyard, where the altar of sacrifices was located, and the Holy of Holies, where the High Priest would enter only once a year.


Eventually, all the area around the temple was built up, including the living quarters for the temple officials, the temple guard, the purification and changing rooms, accountants, secretaries, receptionists, and all the sundry officers and offices that gradually where added.  Bureaucracy is nothing new!


By Jesus’ time, the Temple had been rebuilt and enlarged by the third time.  The Jewish Virtual Library tells us that “The Bible's description of Solomon's Temple (also called The First Temple) was about 20 stories or about 207 feet.”


By the time of Jesus, however, the Temple compound over the mount, had grown to about five football fields.  And, right at the temple gates, right at the best places, the moneychangers and merchants had placed their stalls.


Why were moneychangers and merchants needed?  Well, you see – Animals had to be certified by an officer as being without blemishes.  There is nothing in the Bible or written history that claims this happened, but one can easily imagine people hawking their animals as “pure breed, directly from Noah’s Ark!”  Or from the “Original and Best Choice” descendants from Abraham’s flocks!


Then, there were food stalls.  And food had to be certified kosher.  And there were clothes vendors, for people needed appropriate clothing to enter the temple.


And then, there was another hitch.  At the temple, Roman or other foreign coins were not accepted.  For they all had the Emperors or some other worthy’s face imprinted.  To buy stuff at the temple’s gates, you had to buy especially minted temple coins.  And guess who fixed the exchange rate?


So, if you were to think that it was a racket, indeed it was!  Of course, everything was done in the name of religion.


Now, if you were to carefully read the late prophets, those who preached their message between seven and six hundred years before Jesus, you will immediately notice that their message was directed against the oppression imposed by the civil rulers and religious leaders of the day.  It was a hundred percent social justice message that I am sure made the people of their days squirm, and even today!


How many messages did you hear about tithing or about minute details of the law?  And, how many messages did you hear about God’s preference for the poor, or God’s impatience with the rich and powerful?  (Amos 2:7, 4:1 and ff) Mary herself sings about a God who looked at a humble teenager but who sent aways the rich empty-handed?  (Luke 1:46-55).


So, if Jesus was mad about the temple’s situation, one can understand it.  Everything around the temple was turned into a money-making machine, wrangling money out of the empty pockets of the poorest of the poor.  Remember how Jesus commended the poor widow who offered something even out of her poverty? (Mark 12:44)


But, let me suggest, there was another reason to account for our Lord’s reaction, why He was so "Not in my backyard"?   And I submit, it is a reason that help us to read today’s gospel not just as a history lesson, but as a message for all of us, today in the here and now.


In his tirade, Jesus complains that the proper worship of God had been transformed into a transactional relationship, very much like the marketplace by the temple gates.


In other words, the religious leaders and their acolytes converted the God of love, grace, and mercy into a transactional God.  The God of “If you do this, I’ll do that.” 


But, you may ask, wasn’t it that the way God established? As Pastor Mark Tindle remarks,


“The idea of entering into a transactional relationship with God is deeply flawed, for we have nothing to bring that God doesn’t already have.  And despite certain passages in the Bible that seem to indicate otherwise, God doesn’t ever commit himself to doing everything we ask in the time frame we request it.  A quick glance at the many characters in the Bible reveal that God interacts with them in ways that cannot fit a transactional relationship.


  •      How long did Abraham and Sarah pray for God to give them a child?  It would have been easy to think that God couldn’t be relied upon.

  •      How long did Joseph languish in an Egyptian dungeon because of false accusations piled on top of treacherous sibling rivalry.  Surely during that time Joseph could have wondered if God was holding up his end of the bargain.

  •      Moses spent the prime 40 years of his life literally out to pasture.  How many long, hot days in the wilderness might he have wondered why God wasn’t doing what he asked him to do?

  •      Job, described as a righteous man, surely felt he had done his part, and yet God didn’t seem to be reciprocating.  He lost his possessions, his children, his wife, his reputation, and his health.”


And, without going too far back in time or beyond someone else’s experience and looking to our own relationship with God, isn’t it true that here and there we may catch ourselves thinking along the lines of, “Well, if I give more time to prayer (worshiping, fasting or going to Church), surely God will reward me.”


Or, conversely, we may consider ourselves as “damaged goods” and so out of whack with what God demands of us that we may think that we are beyond repair.  Somehow we built up ourselves the rock so big that not even God can move.


It the transactional false gospel, the Ten Commandments are, in a way, a sort of price list.  “Cheating?  Oh, that’s bad!  Let me see how many cows you need to offer…”  “O my gosh!  You did what?  Now, you are in real trouble.  I’m not sure if the best ten lambs will do.  Let me talk with a priest that I know to see if we can get you a good deal…”


You laugh at it, right?  But here is the thing.


The false gospel of transaction lures people today to believe, “Well, God deserves the best, right?  So, if I cannot offer the best to God, there is no way He will listen to my prayers.”  “Well, if I have not been tithing, how can expect God to help me grow my business?” 


Or, even worse, the false gospel of a transactional God gives people not other chance that begin to believe that work, family, or any other health challenge has to be God’s revenge for their unfaithfulness, or because they may have pinched a cookie without permission.


However, the Gospel – the really, really good news of God’s love, mercy, and grace encourages people to believe that God not only loves us, but He indeed likes us.


And this is why Jesus was so upset with the vendors and all those who transformed a God of love and grace into a kind of “wheeling and dealing” sort of god, who with the right sacrifice, or the “right” prayers could be bargained into dispensing a blessing here and there.


Oh no – Jesus would have nothing to do with it!  “My house is a house of worship”, Jesus said.  A place where people come to worship the God from whom all blessings flow and a God that cannot be bargained into doing us a little favor here and there, but the God who promised “to never get tired of doing us good.”


God is the God who says that He “will destroy the wisdom of all who claim to be wise. And I will confuse those who think they know so much.”  A God who, as St Paul said, decided in his wisdom and love, in his grace and mercy not to save those who would like to do business with him, but through what the world considers the utter foolishness of a gracious and loving God, who needs nothing, who knows everything, and who loves us no matter what.


And this is the Gospel of Christ, the gospel that we preach.  Even if it appears to be too good to be true, it is not.  Such is God’s love for you and for me! 


Fr. Gustavo

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