Scripture: John 2:13-25
I was a teenager in the 1990’s. I am not sure if you remember or are very attuned to church happenings during that time, but in the 1990’s I think every single youth group or teens Sunday School class was dominated by the same four letters: WWJD. “What Would Jesus Do?” was all of the rage in the 1990s. The little bracelets with WWJD on them were everywhere. I seriously think asking “what would Jesus do” was the basis for at least half of the youth group meetings I attended in high school. The common approach was to set up a scene and then ask “what would Jesus do?” in that given scene. Often the teacher or youth minister was looking for a specific answer. In any given situation asking someone to consider “what would Jesus do” was essentially asking them to consider what is the calmest, most loving, and peaceful way they can handle the situation. These WWJD lessons always made Jesus come off a bit like a holy version of Mr. Rogers. The problem with that mindset is it totally forgets this morning’s scripture exist, because flipping the tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibility for what Jesus would do. The whole idea behind WWJD in the 90’s was to get people to consider how their faith was lived out intentionally in their everyday life. However, the unintended consequence was that it put Jesus in a very tame box. Scriptures like this morning remind us that Jesus was actually a bit of a rebel. Jesus was not afraid to speak truth to power, challenge authority, or even engage in active protest like this morning’s scripture. One of the ironies is that the originator of the phrase “What would Jesus do” understood this because he was a bit of a rebel as well.
What would Jesus do finds its origins all the way back in 1886. A Kansas preacher named Charles Sheldon was an accomplished storyteller. He would end his services with a story he wove and ask his congregation, what would Jesus do? This would be a cliff hanger, and he would not answer his own question until the next week. Eventually, Sheldon collected these stories in a book entitled In his Steps: What Would Jesus Do? During his lifetime, the book made the list of the top 50 bestselling books of all time. Over the decades the book faded into obscurity until a youth minister in 1989 read it, and she placed a custom order of bracelets for their youth group that had the letters WWJD on them as a reminder. Sheldon first popularized asking “what would Jesus do?” and he understood Jesus’ more rebellious tendencies, because Sheldon himself was a bit of a radical. In an era when racism was even more mainstream, Sheldon fully integrated his Kansas church and welcomed people of all skin color. He was not afraid to denounce the KKK and actively oppose them. Even more controversial for the era, he actively encouraged the women of his congregation to be involved in politics, he campaigned for women’s suffrage, and advocated for fair and equal treatment of women in the workplace. He was also not afraid to criticize the wealthy and he was quick to point out how many of their business practices were cruel to the poor. Charles Sheldon sought to live what he preached, and he preached “what would Jesus do.” Seeking to answer this question led Sheldon to be a radical and rebel against the culture of his day. Disciples of Jesus seeking to follow their Lord, can still find themselves rebels today. Throughout Lent we have considered the aspects of Jesus that can be found in the scriptures. Today, we focus on Jesus as rebel.
The incident with Jesus driving out the money changers appears in all four gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke it is recorded as part of the Holy Week events leading up to the crucifixion. However, this morning’s scripture from the gospel of John places it at the beginning of Jesus ministry. This has led to some debate as if Jesus cleared the temple twice of it John put the story out of chronological order for stylistic and theological reasons. Regardless of when the event happened, the craziest part of the story is that Jesus did not get arrested then and there. It was not like these moneychangers and merchants had just set up shop. They had been there for years. In fact, when Herod the Great expanded the temple he created a colonnaded area for the very purpose of commerce. Jesus was not putting some disrespectful upstarts in their place. He was disrupting an established business. Jesus was not peacefully protesting. He was violently resisting a great wrong. He was intentionally taking an action that was technically illegal. There is no way around this: In this scripture Jesus is a rebel. He takes direct action. He takes a stand and actively resist what is wrong.
There is a specific injustice here that has Jesus riled up. In the Old Testament law, there is a rule that states that all Jewish men are to come to the temple to make sacrifices three times a year. In the second temple period, during the time of Jesus this rule had a less literal interpretation. As Jewish people spread across the Roman world it was impractical to travel back to Jerusalem three times a year. For many people it was an annual tradition, and of the three festivals Passover was the largest. Jews came from all over the world to make sacrifices to God as their act of worship. People who traveled, especially from a long distance, could not bring the sacrificial animal with them they would have to buy them when they got to Jerusalem. This is why there is an area set up on the temple complex for commerce.
If that is all that was going on, it would not be so insidious but it goes one step beyond that. Because the temple was considered holy, only ceremonially clean things were permitted past the outer courts. In the second temple period, where the Roman issued coins pictures Caesar, the religious leaders decided this also included money. Moneychangers would take the regular currency and exchange it for the temple currency so that people could buy the required sacrificial animals. However, the exchange rate was not equal. Any parent who has ever been to Chuck E. Cheese knows how this racket work. I give them US dollars for their token currency, which my kids then turn into a ticket currency that they can spend at the Chuck E. Cheese store. Chuck E. Cheese is brutally honest, one ticket equal one penny. Because of the age of my children it has been a few years since we have visited Chuck E. Cheese. However, I can remember one time we went there and did extremely well. Both kids managed to get lucky and get a big ticket payout one at least one game. So when we counted up our hundreds of tickets, I did the math. We managed to turn twenty real dollars into eight dollars’ worth of tickets.
Now pay to play arcade games make sense. I might complain about the bad investment but I knew what I was getting into when I walked in there with my kids. However, pay to play worship is something else entirely, and Jesus treated it like the evil it was. For the Jews to worship God, as the law stated they had to make sacrifices, and the merchants and moneychangers were profiting off of the piety of others. People were earnestly trying to come to God, and the system was adding obstacles and roadblocks that hampered people from getting to God. This was wrong and evil, but this was not what really got Jesus upset. What drove Jesus to the point of chasing people out with a whip is who the merchants and moneychangers were taking advantage of the most.
When Jesus is clearing the temple courts, the gospel of John records him shouting “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” It is worth noting who Jesus direct this statement towards. According to verse 16 Jesus said this to “those who sold doves.” It is not an accident that Jesus directed his ire to this group. During the Passover the standard offering was a lamb. However, the realities every family could not afford an unblemished lamb for a sacrifice. To allow for this it was acceptable for the very poor to make a dove sacrifice. Jesus was angered that the merchants and moneychangers were profiting off of the poorest and most vulnerable people. For the wealthy buying a lamb, even at inflated prices with a bad exchange rate would not have been a major sacrifice. However, for the poorest of the poor, just buying a dove to sacrifice would have potentially meant sacrificing money that would have been needed for basic provisions. The fact that people were selfishly profiting for this sacrifice, filled Jesus with righteous anger and compelled him to take action.
Making the faithful devotion of others into a profitable business model by intentionally fleecing the poor is vile and evil. Yet, at the same time we cannot gloss over the fact that it was the established practices of the day. Even though in hindsight we can clearly see how it was wrong for the people of the day it was the accepted status quo of just how business was done. If we are being honest, Jesus’ actions might make us uncomfortable. To confront the systematic injustice taking place at the temple, Jesus did not write a strongly worded letter and he did not peacefully protest by holding a sign in a way that did not convenience others. Jesus took direct action, he disrupted what was considered a reputable business, and he literally upended everything. Jesus was being a rebel. He was stepping out of line, he was challenging the system, and he was not take no for an answer. The Jewish leaders challenged Jesus on his authority to do this, and Jesus did not back down. Jesus challenged the cultural and religious institution of his day. If we are going to seriously ask ourselves and consider “what would Jesus do?” then we have to be ready. Because sometimes the answer is “Jesus would rebel.” Sometimes the answer is Jesus would take direct action to oppose the systemic evils that take advantage of others. The whole idea behind asking “what would Jesus do” is to consider how to better follow and be like Jesus in our modern world. This morning’s scripture point that sometimes what Jesus would do is take a stand against evil and actively oppose systems that oppress the poor and vulnerable. When we consider our world today, what would Jesus do?
Unfortunately, there is not a shortage of systemic evils that oppress and take advantage of people today. What evil in the world really upsets you? Does it anger you that worldwide up to 4 million people, the majority being women and children, are caught in human trafficking? Does it anger you that 795 million people in the world are chronically malnourished and are at risk of starvation? We have enough food in the world to feed everyone, yet because it is not profitable we do not. Does it anger you that one out of ten people in the world do not have access to clean water? Does it anger you that in this country some people have to choose between paying utilities or buying insulin to live, while pharmaceutical companies post record profits year to year? Does it anger you that while all of these people are suffering greed has fueled income inequality to unprecedented levels?
There is a lot wrong with the world, much of these wrongs are accepted as just the way things are. Sadly, many of these wrongs have been codified into law as a way to package something evil as right. We cannot fix all of the wrong in the world, but we can certainly care enough to work on some of them. What evil in the world gets you riled up? Figure that and then do something about it. Be an advocate, give a voice to those without a voice, and get involved. Be willing to be bold and fearless in standing for the truth, because that is the only way to do it. To do this requires going against the grain, it might require direct action. It will require being a rebel, and it requires acting like Jesus.
One of the reasons why Jesus did what he did in this morning’s scripture is recorded in verse 17. It states, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” I love the use of the world zeal. Zeal is great enthusiasm that leads to action. In this morning’s scripture, it is Jesus’ love for God the father and love for others that leads him to action. So May God give us zeal in our compassion for others. In whatever way you feel most led, may you act on that compassion. May a holy discontent rise up within you so that you can no longer accept a status quo that allows greed, selfishness, and evil to flourish. When we are confronted by things in this world that we know are wrong, then may we truly be willing to ask what would Jesus do; but may we be willing to accept that the answer could be Jesus might make a scene opposing this. May we be comfortable with that, and may we follow the example of our Lord and Savior. When necessary, may we be a rebel like Jesus for the greater glory of God.