What was the Jerusalem Temple and why was it a big deal?
In Jesus’ time many people would have gathered regularly for Scripture study and prayer in local synagogues. But if you needed to *do* something in your relationship with God – make an offering to atone for a wrong action, or give thanks for a blessing – you would go to the Great Temple, if you could. We saw that a few weeks ago with the story of Jesus’ parents going to the Temple to make an offering to present their firstborn son to God, and to restore Mary to ritual purity after childbirth.
I was going to say, It’s hard for us to imagine doing the regular teaching and prayer of the community in one place, and ritual and sacramental actions in another – but maybe it isn’t. Maybe this year we can understand that in a way we couldn’t in other years. The Temple was where you’d do the kinds of things we can’t do very well, or at all, over Zoom. Things that involve fire and water and bread and blood and movement and mess.
So, why the livestock and money changers in the Temple courtyard? People visited the Temple from all over, bringing with them all kinds of currencies. They had to change their money into Jewish shekels to be able to make offerings at the Temple. And the animals were there for people to buy, to use as offerings and sacrifices. Like Jesus’ parents offering two doves.
Of course there’d be a fee for the exchanging your money. And of course if you buy your goat at the Temple instead of in the normal marketplace, there’s probably a markup. Anyone who’s bought gum in an airport is familiar with how that works.
So, functionally, the outer court of the Temple – a new-ish addition – was kind of a holy marketplace where people wanting to visit the Temple could get the things they felt they needed to approach God… for a price.
It was one of those things where people say, “I know it’s not ideal but it just has to be that way”. There are a lot of things like that, right?
But Jesus is not having it.
The whip of cords is only in John’s version of this story and it caught my attention. I did a little research. It’s a pretty standard, and ancient, type of whip used in driving livestock, made from leather cord elaborately braided into a tapering tube.
It’s the sharp cracking sound made by the end of the whip breaking the sound barrier that actually gets the animals to move. Out of curiosity, I looked for tutorials – which stressed that making such a whip is NOT a beginner project. I’d always sort of imagined Jesus just, I don’t know, twisting some stuff together. Now, instead, I’m picturing him buying the cords several days earlier… or maybe someone just gave them to him, the way people just gave him what he needed. And he spent a few evenings quietly braiding them into this stock whip. His friends would ask him what he was doing and he’d just smile.
And then he uses the whip to drive the livestock out of the temple court. He does not – let’s be clear – use the whip on the people. But he absolutely does make a significant mess – not only with the animals, but also pouring out coins and turning over tables, and yelling at people.
Jesus is modeling non-violent protest here: making a ruckus and causing some property damage, but not actually harming people. He focuses on attacking the symbols of a religious system that has become commercial and exploitative. That distances people from God, instead of bringing them closer.
Jesus does not seem to be a big fan of the Temple overall. When he says “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” it’s both a prediction of his execution and resurrection – and a de-centering, even a dismissing, of the actual Temple. People’s indignation at his remark highlights how important the Temple was, for many Jews.
The first Great Temple, built in the time of King Solomon, David’s son, was the pride and joy of the people Israel. They saw Jerusalem as the heart of the world, and the Temple as the heart of Jerusalem. When Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the armies of Babylon, in 587 BCE, that heart was ripped out. It took a couple of generations in exile for the people to learn they could still be God’s people even without the Temple. And then when they were set free and sent back to their homeland, right away they built ANOTHER Temple. The temple Jesus visits, about five and a half centuries later… (Though there were some renovations underway during Jesus’ time – hence the laugh line: “This Temple has been under construction for forty-six years!…”)
That Temple – the Second Temple – is destroyed in 70 CE, about forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Romans crush and burn it, in the process of putting down a revolt in Judea. It’s a violent and tragic event; traces of that trauma can be seen all over the Gospels and Epistles. The Temple has not been rebuilt.
God’s people spent a number of generations seeing the Temple as the heart of their faith and practice. Let me be clear: As Episcopalians, we have zero grounds to question or criticize that mindset. We belong to a denomination that is struggling mightily against changing its established institutional and bureaucratic ways of being. We should have empathy aplenty for another way of faith that was deeply invested, to the point of myopia, in stability and grandeur.
But Judaism survived the loss of the Temple. Not every kind of Judaism. Ways of being Jewish that were centered on the Temple fell by the wayside. Ways of being Jewish that were focused on learning and praying together in a synagogue, and on everyday faith practices, survived – and eventually became the many kinds of Judaism in the world today.
Meanwhile, Christianity was taking shape and becoming its own way of faith, rooted in Judaism but increasingly distinct. One thing early Christians did was wonder: what is our Jewish faith heritage – beyond the Temple? Before the Temple? And one of the places they go is Abraham.
The Epistles talk about Abraham a lot. It makes sense. They were looking for a pre-Temple Judaism – a pre-Moses Judaism, before Exodus and Leviticus laid out a way of living as God’s people. I think early Christians liked Abraham because he, too, was called to follow a God he didn’t fully know or understand… to respond to that call with faith and hope, even thought it meant walking away from everything he’d ever known. Both Jewish and Gentile Christians in the early generations could resonate with that.
God invites Abraham into covenant – a new relationship between God and a people who are called to live in God’s ways. Today’s lesson from Genesis is one of several times when God has to re-affirm the Abrahamic covenant – there will be more! Abraham had a hard time fully believing – or keeping believing – that God would fulfill God’s promises.
The first statement of the covenant with Abraham is back in Genesis chapter 12. God says to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Follow me and I will bless you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. That’s the heart of it, the deepest foundation stone of Judaism and Christianity alike. Respond to God’s call, commit to life as God’s people; and through you, God will bless all the peoples of the earth.
But what does that mean? Blessing is one of those church words that’s hard to unpack, hard to define adequately with other words. Most of us are pretty good at naming the blessings in our lives – things that bring us joy or peace or clarity or connection. But it might be a little harder to get our heads and hearts around what it looks like to be a blessing to others. As a calling. As a way of life.
A couple of weeks ago, On Being, an interview program focused on matters of spirituality and faith, featured Ariel Burger, a rabbi who studied extensively with Holocaust survivor, writer and teacher Elie Wiesel. Burger has also founded a program to train people to use the resources of faith and wisdom traditions to help build a more moral world. He believes that there are core ideas in our religious traditions that our society and world need, right now, to repair and renew.
It’s a wonderful interview; I commend it to you. Burger and Krista Tippett, the interviewer, explore a number of big faith ideas. Bearing witness. Lamentation. Redemption. And blessing.
Burger said, “… The fundamental principle, for me… of all of Jewish tradition, is three words: Be a blessing. Be a blessing… But what’s so fascinating is that the Hebrew language is very profound, and the word for “blessing” is related [to] the word … for the knees. The knees and the way that you bend your knees… There’s a way that a blessing is heavy to carry.”
Burger shared a story – about a friend of his son, whose grandparents had survived Auschwitz. The grandmother had been transferred to a rabbit farm on the outskirts of the camp. The Nazis were doing experiments on the rabbits, trying to find a cure for typhus. The farm was run by a Polish man who noticed that the rabbits were getting better food and care than the Jewish prisoners who were forced to work there. So he started to sneak in food for the workers.
Then the grandmother cut her arm on barbed wire, and the cut became infected. That’s not dangerous if you have antibiotics – but an infected wound can kill you, without modern medicine. And the Nazis were not giving out antibiotics to the Jewish prisoners. They didn’t care.
So the Polish man who ran the rabbit farm cut his own arm. He placed his wound on her wound so it would also get infected. Then he told the Nazis, “Look, I’m one of your best managers, you’d better get me some antibiotics if you want me to keep running this farm.” And they gave him antibiotics. And he shared them with the woman, who would survive and become Burger’s son’s friend’s grandmother.
Burger said, “What does it take to be the kind of person who will share someone else’s wound, in spite of all the pressure to see them as less valuable than a rabbit? What does it take to push against all that pressure and do the right thing, with courage and moral clarity, and to see another person as a person, when everything around you is telling you not to?”
The covenant of Abraham is God’s first, foundational invitation to humanity to be in partnership with God. And it’s not about the temple or the cathedral. It’s not about grandeur and status or stability. It’s about being blessed to be a blessing. Blessed to share other’s wounds. Blessed to bend our knees as we help bear the load. Blessed to love and serve.
Burger concluded the interview this way: “We’re being asked to carry a lot right now. We’re being asked to carry our own lives; that’s heavy enough, with everything that we’re all going through as individuals, our families, our communities, … the suffering of the world and people around the world. We’re asked to carry all of that. It’s hard. It’s daunting…. But a blessing is something that’s heavy, and at the same time, it lifts us up. It’s liberating to live for something bigger than myself. It frees me of my own smallness, my self-consciousness, my anxieties. Compassion is the greatest medicine for anxiety, the greatest medicine for small-mindedness. And so there’s a way that we can be a blessing to each other… and really get in there with one another with a lot of openness. And that will lift us up. That’s what a blessing really is.”