Today’s Scripture story is one many of us wait all year to hear: Jesus clearing out the temple. He’s come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover and, as all Passover pilgrims do, he enters the temple. Seeing marketers of animals and moneychangers, Jesus creates a whip and cracks it. “Get out of here! Don’t make my Abba’s house a marketplace!”
For those of us committed to living our faith actively in the world, we who’ve committed ourselves to the work of transforming unjust social systems that oppress the least of these, this Jesus–the one who gets angry and speaks truth to power (and you gotta love that whip!)–this Jesus is our hero. This is the Jesus who most often comes to mind when we make plans to act the world into wellbeing. When we march, when we rally, when we send pointed letters to our elected officials, the whip-cracking Jesus in the temple is the one we follow.
Which is good. It’s good to identify with Jesus in the temple. And yet…sometimes I wonder if we’re identifying with the right character in this story. Are we the prophet speaking truth to power? Or, as part of the religious establishment in the year 2021, do we have more in common with the moneychangers and marketers?
Let’s look again at what was happening at the temple. At the time, animal sacrifice was part of Jewish faith practices. On high holy days, tradition dictated that the faithful offer a sacrifice. And since, in their minds, God–literally–lived in the Temple, the faithful made pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer those sacrifices.
Unblemished sacrifices were required, but the likelihood of arriving in Jerusalem after several days’ travel with an unblemished sacrifice was next to nil. That’s why the animal sellers had set up shop in the Temple. They made it possible for pilgrims to fulfill their vows to God.
The moneychangers also provided a helpful service. You’ll recall that the second commandment forbade graven images. Because Roman coinage had an image of Caesar on it, the faithful weren’t allowed to use those coins to buy their offerings. The moneychangers converted Roman coinage into Tyrian coinage, which was permissible.
Sometimes, we see in this scene Jesus taking action against unjust economic practices, practices that exploited the poor, like, maybe they were price-gouging or didn’t give folks a fair exchange of money. But the text doesn’t say anything about unjust economic practices. In truth, the sellers of animals and moneychangers were providing needed services so the faithful could fulfill their religious vows.
So, if Jesus wasn’t railing against unjust economic practices or practices that exploited the poor, what was he doing? Why did he take such dramatic action that day in the Temple?
Today’s scene immediately follows the story of the wedding at Cana. That’s the one where the wine runs out and Jesus turns six stone jars of water into wine. Good wine.
The stone jars in question normally were used for religious purification rites. When Jesus repurposed them, it was a sign that his ministry was about repurposing the faith. The container that once held their faith, now was open to an abundance of something new.
In today’s story, the Temple has become the container Jesus is repurposing. When Jesus says to stop making his Abba’s house a marketplace, he isn’t railing against the sellers and moneychangers. The sellers and moneychangers were only providing a service necessitated by the religious practice of the day.
Jesus wasn’t calling the sellers and moneychangers to task; he was calling into question the whole system that necessitated their presence. He was calling into question a system that tied the faithful to a single location and that kept them dependent on religious authorities for faithful living. In short, Jesus was calling for a revolution. No longer would the Temple with all its rules and requirements be the place to encounter God. The place to encounter God now was in him. Now, Jesus was the Temple.
I know. We like identifying with the Temple-clearing Jesus. How many of you today have raised your arm and cracked the whip with Jesus?
But I have to wonder…as part of the religious establishment in 2021, are we imagining ourselves on the wrong end of the whip?
To be sure, we don’t have moneychangers or sellers of animals in the narthex, thanks be to God! But, as part of the religious establishment, are there things we’ve become blind to? Are there some practices we engage in that once felt necessary to our faith but aren’t needed any more? Practices, perhaps, that keep us from experiencing God? Practices shaped by economic exploitation…or by sexism…or by white supremacy…
I know we like to think of ourselves as whip-crackers, but what might happen if we dig deeper? What might happen if we see ourselves on the other end of the whip? What if Jesus is calling us to rethink and repurpose our faith…away from archaic traditions and toward him?
What if we followed in the footsteps of our Congregational forebears in the 1840s?
Many of those forebears already had committed themselves to the cause of the abolition of slavery. In 1839, when 53 Africans were removed from their ship, the Amistad, and taken to prison, those good church folk had a choice. How would they respond?
Here’s what had happened. The Africans had been captured and taken from their home in present-day Sierra Leone. The ship was taken to Cuba, where the Africans were sold to someone who lived on a different island in the Caribbean. When the ship set sail for that place, the Africans revolted. Fearing for their own lives, they killed two of the ship’s crew. Then they demanded that the remaining two crew members sail them back to Africa.
Instead of sailing East, the crew members sailed north. Just off the coast of Long Island, the ship was intercepted by the U.S. Navy and the Africans were taken into custody. They ended up in Connecticut. After many months of delay and a trial, they were declared free only to have that decision appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court. The Court upheld the Connecticut decision and declared the Africans free.
It was Congregationalists–in partnership with other abolitionists–who accompanied the 53 Africans during their imprisonment and the trial. They assisted with the court case. They provided financial support. They visited them in prison. They taught them to read English. Eventually, the Congregationalists and other abolitionists raised enough money to send the Africans back home. Five church people accompanied them on the return voyage. A mission was established.
A few years later, the same Congregationalists founded the American Missionary Association. After the Civil War ended, the AMA established some 500 schools and colleges for blacks in the south, including the predominantly black colleges of Howard, Fisk and Dillard Universities.
It’s a fascinating story, one we have good cause to be proud of. In our celebration of our Congregationalist forebears in the 1840s, though, let’s not lose sight of just how radical their actions were. Much of Christianity at the time condoned slavery. Because the Congregationalists who assisted with the Africans in the Amistad case were able to think outside the box of their tradition, because they were able to rethink and repurpose their Christian faith, many lives were transformed. Their creativity and faithful action dealt a strong blow to the unjust system of slavery.
What might it mean for us, we who follow Jesus in the 21st century…what might it mean for us to rethink and repurpose our Christian faith? From our vantage point nearly two centuries later, working to dismantle the heinous system of chattel slavery seems obvious.
But the remnants of that heinous system remain, don’t they? Many of our social systems continue to keep people of color in circumstances that deny their full humanity. The cash bail system. The criminal justice system. Unfair housing practices. Unequal access to healthcare.
Sometimes, I wonder if in celebrating Congregationalists’ role in the Amistad event, we distract ourselves from the work that lies before us here and now. We, too, witness every day the systemic racism that oppresses–and yes, kills–our siblings with brown and Black skin. What will we do about it? How will we respond to what remains a heinous system? What might we do that would lead our Congregational ancestors to celebrate us?
What will we do to get ourselves on the other side of the whip?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2021