This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Money Changes Everything.

Cleansing the Temple.

            The story occurs in all four gospels.  Jesus enters the Temple in Jerusalem, sees the way commercial interests had taken over the place, and reacts with, anger and, even violence.   It is one of the few places where Jesus expresses rage, and the only place where he uses physical force.  He drives the money-changers out of the Temple.  He overturns tables.  He makes a whip and flails it around.  He says, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:16).  This incident may have been the final piece of evidence used against him to bring about his death, which in three of the gospels happens five days later.
            It is a story that refers beyond its historicality.  In Scripture, “Temple” has broader meanings.  For instance, “temple” refers to Jesus’ own body (John 2:21), and to the human body, as the dwelling place of the spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19).   If we consider other places where the Spirit dwells, we also have to include the Earth.  Scripture talks about the creation itself as a place infused with God’s presence and power, and gifted with a voice giving praise to God.   (See Psalm 19:4; 24:1; 33:5; 46:10; 47:2, 7; 48:10; 57:5, 11; 66:1, 4; 69:34; 72:19; 78:69 (earth as temple); 89:11; 96:1, 9, 11; 98:4; 100:1; 104:5; 105:7; 108:5; and 119:64). 
            Old Testament scholar Margaret Barker makes the point that the Tabernacle/Temple was designed to represent the creation.  Earth and Temple are intimately related in the Scriptures.  Indeed, we might even say that God’s dwelling in human bodies is an aspect of God’s dwelling in all creation/matter, which is symbolized in the design and function of the Tabernacle/Temple.
            When Jesus drives the moneychangers out of the Temple, he gives us an example.  It means resisting and removing all mercenary impulses from one’s self (Psalm 119:36, 127), from the human community, and from the Earth.  In order to participate in what Jesus is about here, we have to realize that the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 3:3, 8; 6:10; 2 Timothy 3:2; Hebrews 13:5), and purge this obsession from our personal and common life.  Money corrupts and defiles.
            At least in this case, money is what the Bible has in mind when identifying impurity. This story is traditionally called “the cleansing of the Temple,” even though words meaning cleansing and purity do not explicitly appear in the text.  What Jesus is doing is clearly a matter of purification.  He is removing a defiling element from the Temple.  He is restoring the Temple to its original purpose as a house of prayer.  The financial transactions going on there were debasing the Temple, corrupting what went on there.  
            We have been conditioned to think of “impurity” as a mainly sexual category.  But even when Scripture does talk about sexual sin, it is often in the context of prostitution, which brings us back to… money.  For instance, in 1 Corinthians 6:13-20, we see Paul railing against “fornication” which he explicitly identifies with prostitution (v. 16).  We think fornication means “sex outside of marriage.”  But here we see that for Paul, it is not the institution of marriage that makes the difference between fornication and licit sex, but the degree to which the sex is prostitution, that is, associated with an exchange of money.  Sex becomes fornication when money is introduced into the equation.  According to Scripture, purification does not mean getting rid of the sex; it means getting rid of the connection to money.
            All this might lead us to ask, “What’s so bad about money?”  Isn’t money just an amoral, neutral tool, an economic convenience, something that makes commerce easier and therefore something which benefits everyone?
            Money is an abstraction.  This was true in Jesus’ time, when money was still mainly coins made of precious metals with some value.  Today, however, money is not just paper, but electrons, stored and exchanged by computers.  Its separation from anything of real value is practically complete. 
            Jesus lived in an agricultural society.  Farmers inherently distrust money and financiers, for good reason.  People who work the land understand real value.  They know hard work.  They know the costs of producing a harvest.  They also know that this effort has no bearing on the price they get in the market for their produce.  That price is set by people who don’t do the work, but who sit in offices far away from any actual field, trading and speculating in commodities. 
            The people would have seen immediately that this abstraction – money, and their manipulation of it – was being used by unscrupulous traders to exploit people coming to the Temple to worship.  Jesus saw this too.  The traders were playing with the exchange rates and the prices of sacrificial animals.  It defiled the Temple, which God intended to be a house of prayer for all peoples, by injecting a strong element of injustice into people’s worship.
            Money is not neutral.  It is inherently unjust.  It privileges those who know how to play with the system for their own benefit.  It gives way more power to people who already have it, when compared with people who don’t.  And it reduces those who do real work to subservient status.
            Money was a defilement of the Temple because by its very nature it contradicted and militated against God’s Law, which promotes justice and equality.  Money essentially transgresses the commandment against stealing.  It is bad enough that society is corrupted by money and moneyed interests; Jesus would not have the people’s worship and prayer corrupted by it as well.
            The two groups of people that Jesus was most famous/infamous for accepting into his circle are prostitutes and tax collectors.  Both of these have a problematic relationship with money. 
            The first group is exclusively women whom society and the economy force to sell their own bodies in exchange for the money they need to survive.   Who decided that one needs money to survive?  The people with the money, of course.   If prostitution may be more broadly defined as selling yourself for money, then we are all prostitutes.  Prostitution is the foundation of our economy.  We’re all selling our minds, bodies, time, etc., to people with money so that we can have a little of their money.  And we don’t get anywhere near the actual value of our work.  The people with the money get to keep the surplus.
            The tax collectors were exclusively men who had money, and they bought the power to make even more money.  They were professional extortionists who sucked as much value out of people’s work as possible… and a lot was possible when you had the world’s most ruthless military at your disposal.  Of course, they worked for other even richer professional extortionists, on up the line to king and emperor.
            So these two groups whom Jesus attracted were the horribly oppressed, and the horrible oppressors.  And the way he attracted them was to point out that it doesn’t have to be this way.  Both groups were suffering.  They were forced into a relationship of hostility by a system run by those with even more wealth and power.  And he founded a new kind of community in which tax collectors and prostitutes, like the lions and lambs of Isaiah’s prophecy, could dwell together in peace.
            It was a community of forgiveness, sharing, humility, healing, joy, and acceptance.  Jesus called it The Kingdom of God.  It anticipated and reflected the perfect community God would fulfill at the end.  But it was established and worked here and now.
            Jesus’ new Temple, his Body, the Church, was supposed to be purified of the corruption and injustice, of which money is the main indication.  Hence this description of the earliest church and its economics: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.  And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44-47).  
          That’s what God’s Temple looks like without money.

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