Saturday, January 23, 2010

Separation of Church & Economy: Another Re-Interpretation of Jesus' Temple Cleansing

One day Jesus was in the temple and started driving people out. No wonder we don't get our ecclesiology from Jesus. Driving people out isn't exactly "seeker friendly."

John's gospel says Jesus "drove all [the money changers and the sellers of oxen, sheep, and doves] out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and he poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves he said, 'Take these things away; stop making my Father's house a place of business" (John 2:15-16, NASB). "A place of business" is not quite the "den of robbers" of Mark 11:17 and Jeremiah 7:11, but just as meaningful, at least for me.

Today, US American Christianity often praises the separation of church and state, although many people don't completely understand this distinction as they want America to go back to "its Christian roots," wish "kids could pray in school," and are outraged when people try to omit "in God we trust" from, well, anything (but hopefully we can all be glad Trijicon is taking Bible verses of off the guns they sell to the US military).

I'm not arguing for the separation of church and state, today. Instead, I want to promote another division: separation of church and economics. I see this separation upheld by Jesus, especially in John's gospel where we he says "a place of business," instead of a "den of robbers."

"It doesn't matter whether you're selling Jesus or Buddha or civil rights or 'How to Make Money in Real Estate with No Money Down.' ... Because as soon as you lay your hands on a conversation to steer it, it's not a conversation anymore; it's a pitch. And you're not a human being; you're a marketing rep." The Big Kahuna (Thanks to Heather Kirk-Davidoff in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope for this quote)

And think about how some churches promote "evangelism" and "missions." First they find a way to spread word about their church, be it word of mouth, a new sign, a new service, or a catchy name. They make their service "seeker friendly," coupled with greeters at the door before hand and coffee and donuts afterwards. And once they get you "in," they want to keep you in. Join the choir. Be a greeter. Try Sunday school. Be a teacher. Find your place to plug in ... in the church, inside the church building. And, of course, tithe. If you're going to be a member--and church membership is a virtue, or maybe even a sacrament--then you have to tithe. Although, some churches these days ask for less than 10%, in the beginning. Just wait until stewardship Sunday or, worse, stewardship month.

The church has become a market economy, another product of capitalism.

Let's set the stage again for the cleansing of the temple. Jesus is coming into the temple, one of the holiest places in the Israelite religion. For purposes of worship, it can be helpful to recognize sacred places. The Israelites knew sacred space. Ancient Israelite's knew God wasn't bound to the temple. God's home was where God's heart was--God lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, God performed mighty acts when the ark was in Philistine hands, Ezekiel saw God's glory move from Palestine to Babylon in a vision, and God oversaw the building of a new temple. God didn't need the temple and many Israelites were very aware. Still, they--the Israelites and God--placed an emphasis on sacred place, the most sacred being the holy of holies, which was in the temple, surrounded by courts of decreasing holiness (and increasing sexism and ethnocentrism), maximizing the holiest place's contact with lesser holiness.

When Jesus got into the temple, he was likely still in the least holy court. But for him, it was too close for people to be confusing God's place with a place of business, joining faith and economics. And so he drove out those capitalizing on the sacrificial system. No, the text does not say the sellers were making a gain on the sales, but what person could take their animals to the temple and engage in fair trades all day? They were likely merchants, buying animals from herders and selling them at a profit.

When Jesus got to the money changers, he didn't just drive them and their animals out. Instead, He poured out the coins, an action reminiscent of worship, of pouring out wine and oil in offerings to God (and other ancient religions, not to mention the act of pouring the wine during communion).

Not so many Christians have a large emphasis on sacred space. We have our church buildings and our altars and for a while I judged my actions with the reproving question, "Would you do this in church?"

Although I like the idea of sacred space, Christians are right not to give this practice too much credence. God is not bound to space. We need to be able to experience God wherever God is and God is everywhere. In the Bible, we often recognize the decline of sacred space when the veil of the curtain was torn and the divide between clean and unclean was shattered. The holy of holies was no longer separated from any of the less holy places. It was like everything else. (Although, there are other interpretations of the veil-tearing story. Matthew doesn't write all there is to write about this tale.)

Sacred space is now everywhere.

So what do you think Jesus would do on Wallsteet?
In a Christian bookstore?
At a Christian school?
At a Christian concert?
In Walmart?
At the grocery stores we frequent?
At the places we eat?
At the places we buy coffee?
At our work places?

Where is our zeal for our God's house, which is everywhere?

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