It's not about bingo. Maybe that never occurred to you, but having grown up in Auglaize County, this Gospel reading brings bingo to mind. Not the game itself, so much…but the notion of playing bingo to raise money for the church. Actually, looking back, I think it was more about Catholics than about bingo. We Protestants had managed to develop a pretty formidable anti-Catholic bias expressed in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Parents worried that their sons or daughters might marry Roman Catholics. And, of course, I’m old enough to remember that when John Kennedy ran for president, some folks worried that the pope would soon be running America. We were suspicious of Roman Catholics and they seemed kind of suspicious of us…which is why there are all those little one steeple towns over in that part of the state. And bingo was proof that Catholics were up to no good because they played bingo in church and Protestants didn't. We were always waiting for Jesus to come and overturn the tables, sending the cards flying all over the church basement and spilling the little numbers out of the cage that spun them around. "Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" Jesus would shout as he tipped over the cash boxes. At the same time, we were quite sure that Jesus would not have been at all upset with the fundraising that took place at the men’s Fried Rabbit Dinner or the Ladies Fall Bazaar. Jesus loves fried rabbit.
But it's not about bingo. Jesus' disruption that day in the temple was a deep and powerful sign of who Jesus really was…and of the disruption that would mean for the way things were. We usually think of this story coming near the end of Jesus' life, after he had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey. It's a crisis scene, a confrontation that gave the authorities the evidence they needed. Jesus of Nazareth was a troublemaker, probably part of the zealot movement trying to overthrow the government. Just by the placement of the story in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it’s easy to interpret Jesus' outburst in the temple as one of the last straws that led to his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.
But in John's Gospel, the story comes in chapter 2…not near the end but very near the beginning. What's going on here? Did Jesus chase the moneychangers more than once? Was it a habit with him? “Watch out! Here comes that fellow from Nazareth again. Grab the cash box!” Meh…I think it's more likely that all four Gospel writers knew the same story, but John saw in it particular meaning. For John, this wasn't only a political catalyst leading to Jesus' arrest. For John, Jesus' actions in the temple pointed to the heart of Jesus’ identity and purpose. It had to come at the beginning, not at the end.
A bit more background: There are two stories in this chapter connected by a little verse about Jesus and his family going to Capernaum. The first story is Jesus' miracle at the wedding in Cana. Do you remember? They ran out of wine at the wedding and Jesus told the steward to fill six stone jars with water. Then he told the steward to taste the water, and—bless my grapes – the water had been turned to wine of such bouquet and resonance that the steward wondered why the host had saved it for last.
That story is deeper than wishing Jesus would come to our parties! John tells us a particular detail that we sometimes miss in our fascination with all that wine: The stone jars were used for the rites of purification. Jesus turns the purification water into wine. You see…by the time of Jesus, an elaborate system of purification had been developed. Some things were considered pure and others impure. Women were impure seven days after the birth of a son, 14 days after the birth of a daughter. Dead bodies were impure. People with blemishes were impure. Certain foods were impure and almost anything sexual was impure. The list had gotten very, very long…with the effect being the creation of a world with sharp social boundaries: pure and impure, righteous and sinner, whole and not whole, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile.
Changing water into wine, you see, was not so much the way to a great party as a way of breaking down the barriers. It was a different way of seeing the world and God's presence in it. It's no accident that the miracle at Cana was the first sign Jesus performed in the Gospel of John.
And it's also no accident that the next action takes place in the temple, for the temple was at the heart of the purity system. The animals being sold there are for sacrificial purposes. This is not like the sale barn at the stockyards with spring lambs and hogs on the auction block. These animals were required for sacrifice, and there were economic implications because poor people couldn't afford to buy the best animals.
Moneychangers were an essential part of the system. It was idolatrous to use Roman coins stamped with the emperor's image to buy your sacrifice; thus, the moneychangers weren't simply making change for a twenty; they were giving pure tokens in exchange for impure.
Now, I need to interrupt myself right here because this sounds like Jesus was opposed to all things Jewish. Just as my childhood taught me to hear this story as anti-Roman Catholic, Christians too often hear this story as anti-Jewish. But Jesus was deeply Jewish, shaped by Torah, committed to teaching in the synagogue. He was not the first Jew to cry out against abusing the temple. Centuries before Jesus, the prophet Micah asked, "Will God be pleased with thousands of rams, with 10,000 rivers of oil?.... God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" We’re going to sing that in just a few minutes. The prophet Amos raised a similar cry and so does Jeremiah. So it’s not about being Jewish any more than it’s about bingo; it’s about the system.
And Jesus challenged that purity system in almost everything he did. I don’t think it’s an accident that so many Gospel stories talk about Jesus getting his life dirty. Story after story, person after person, like Israel's greatest prophets, Jesus longed to draw people back to the heart of God, back to that first commandment: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no others god before me." This is a commandment grounded in relationship--the relationship between God and God's people. Remember who you are, Jesus was saying, and even more importantly, remember whose you are. Your worth is not measured in sharp-edged categories but in the liberating miracle of God that brought you out of Egypt, out of exile, out of whatever bondage you were in, out of whatever binds you now.
Jesus' life and ministry challenged the rules that kept people apart from God. It is a call of deep mercy, God’s own grace…and it runs through John's Gospel like a stream of living water…grace for the Samaritan woman at the well who was considered impure by bloodline and behavior. Grace for the woman accused of adultery threatened with stoning. Grace for a man born blind. Grace for sheep who are not yet part of God's fold. Grace for confused disciples and for a grieving mother at the foot of his cross. Grace for you. Grace for me. Grace for all those hurting and lost and despairing ones around us.
So you see…it's not about bingo. I know that now. It's about the deep, disruptive compassion of God that tears down the barriers, that heals our divides, and that sets us free to live as His people in the world. It’s about the fact that, at the heart of our faith, all we need and all we have ever needed is the grace and mercy of God made known among us in Jesus…the Christ, the sacrifice, the temple of the Lord. And consider: though we are scattered in our present circumstance, still he comes among us…by means of word and meal and fellowship…so that God’s on-going work of reconciliation and healing might continue through us. Sisters and brothers, I can think of no better prayer for this community of faith…no matter where we are gathered this morning…than that God would disrupt us by his grace…that God would overturn our own hearts so that divine goodness and purpose might be clearly seen in us for the sake of a hurting and waiting world. Amen? Amen.