Zeal

by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow

This sermon is based on John 2:13-22. Click here to listen to an audio version of this sermon.

“Making a whip of cords, Jesus drove all of them out of the temple … he said ‘Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!'”

I don’t know about you, but this story makes me uncomfortable. Jesus’ behavior here seems so completely out of character with the non-violent, non-angry Jesus that we know from every other story in the Gospels.

This is the only instance in the Gospels of Jesus using a weapon, when he makes a whip of cords to drive out the animals, the sheep and the cattle – and the merchants and moneychangers with them. And that doesn’t sound like Jesus at all.

What is it that makes Jesus so angry? What in the world could be so bad about the merchants and the moneychangers to provoke a reaction like this?

They were actually performing a valuable service, even a necessary service. People came to the Temple to worship, and that meant sacrifice. And if you’d been traveling for days, coming from far away to make pilgrimage to the Temple for Passover, as Jews from all over the Empire did, then you weren’t going to be carrying a goat or a lamb or an ox or a pair of pigeons all that way. If you wanted to make a sacrifice at the Temple, you’d need a sacrificial animal when you got there. The sellers provided that necessary service.

And the moneychangers also provided a service. Roman money was not allowed in the Temple. Roman coins carried an image of Caesar; Caesar was officially proclaimed to be a god; images of gods were idols; and idols were not allowed in the Temple. So when pilgrims came from all over the Empire, they came with Roman money, and they had to change that for Temple money, denarii for shekels, before they could enter the Temple and make their offering. The moneychangers provided a necessary service.

So why did Jesus get so mad at them?

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus appears to be angered by their injustice. He says “My house should be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.” They are robbing the people, cheating, overcharging for the animals, using rigged scales to weigh out the money and shortchanging people. It is moral outrage at their business cheating that drives his anger.

But that’s not in John’s version. There is no mention of robbers or cheating here. John shows Jesus saying “Stop making my father’s house a marketplace.” In this version, what makes Jesus angry is not their bad business practices, but that they’re conducting business in the Temple in the first place. Here they were in the Temple, the Temple that had been under construction for 46 years, the Temple that was an object of pilgrimage to thousands of people, the Temple where God had promised to make the divine Name to dwell — here they were in the Temple, and they were treating it like business as usual. An opportunity for commerce. A place to make themselves a profit. The merchants and moneychangers were in the most holy and awesome place on Earth, and they weren’t even paying attention. That was why Jesus got so angry at them.

When the disciples saw Jesus driving out the merchants and the moneychangers and the animals, they remembered a verse from the Psalms, “Zeal for your house has consumed me.” That was what Jesus had: zeal. Energy. A passion for the presence of God. A sense of intimate and empowering love of God that lifted him out of himself and attuned him to God’s ideals and God’s purposes and God’s glory and God’s mission. Zeal was what Jesus had. Zeal was what every worshiper who entered the Temple ought to have. Zeal was what the merchants and the moneychangers lacked. And lack of zeal was why Jesus drove them out.

And what all this Gospel story says to us is that zeal is what we should have, too.

Of course, as twenty-first century Christians we don’t feel our zeal directed toward a building in Jerusalem. For us “God’s house,” the place where God’s Name dwells, is something different. In the Gospel story, Jesus himself begins to change the focus of where we should look for God’s Name. When the Jewish leaders challenge Jesus about carrying on cranky in the Temple, they ask “What sign do you give for your authority to act in this way?” And Jesus says “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days” —  and just to make sure we don’t miss the point, the narrator adds “he was speaking of the temple of his body.” According to the Hebrew Scriptures the Temple was the place God’s Name dwelt. But according to John’s Gospel, Jesus’ body is the place where the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus’ body is the focal point of God’s effective presence.

And since Jesus’ death and resurrection and ascension, we Christians believe that Jesus’ body is effectively present with us in every Eucharist: when we break the bread and share the wine in Jesus’ Name, then Jesus’ Body and Blood are really present with us. And when we eat that bread and drink that wine, the living real presence of Jesus comes to dwell in us — we are what we eat, after all — and we are the places God has caused his Word to dwell, and it is through us that God’s will and God’s purpose and God’s mission is carried out into the world. The zeal for God’s house that consumes us is not just passion for a building, but energy and enthusiasm and joy for joining with God to co-create justice and peace and love in all the places we go, all the situations and circumstances our selves, our souls and bodies, enter into.

So this Gospel story asks us: Where in our lives are we filled with zeal like Jesus – and where in our lives have we grown complacent, like the merchants and the moneychangers, standing in the sacred place where God’s Name dwells and treating it like business as usual? Where do we need to get our priorities turned over, and get whipped up with some holy, enthusiastic zeal?

Today is now the Third Sunday in Lent. And so far this Lent, I have asked you to use your Lenten disciplines – your fasting and abstaining and self-denial, your almsgiving and works of mercy, your devotions and prayers and Bible-reading and meditations – whatever your disciplines may be – I have asked you to use your Lenten disciplines to consider how you might be with wild beasts and angels, to recreate right-relationships with nature, humanity, and God around you. I have asked you to use your Lenten disciplines to take up your cross, to look for those places in your life where the grace of God takes up the broken bits and pieces and puts them together to make new signs of life.

And today I’m going to take that a step farther: today I ask you to use your Lenten disciplines to look for the zeal in your life.

Where do you experience special joy and energy and enthusiasm in the things you do? Where are you especially aware of intimate and empowering love of God? Where do you see potentials for communion, for people coming together in giving and receiving with generosity and freedom for right-relationships of mutual well-being – and where are you drawn to join in that? And, more challengingly, where do you see barriers to that kind of communion, not giving and receiving but buying and selling, not freedom and generosity but manipulation and complacency – and where do you sense Jesus calling you to overturn a little business-as-usual to open space for God’s Word to come and dwell around you? Where in your life can you share in Jesus’ zeal? And how can you use the disciplines of Lent to bring that zeal to the surface?

The good news of this uncomfortable story today is that God will give us the gift of zeal, the gift of energy and passion to be the places where God’s Word of communion can dwell. Let us pray for that gift, in this season of Lent, and in all the seasons of our lives. Amen.