I can remember clearly the picture we were given in Sunday School to colour in of Jesus driving the moneychangers from the temple. There was an angry Jesus in flowing robes, with a rope whip in his hands. The table was in the process of falling, spilling scales and coins. Sheep and oxen were milling around. The picture and the lesson that day were clear: God’s house should be a place of quiet prayer and spirituality – not a market place! Economics has nothing to do with prayer and faith!
Politics, economics and the gospel: seeing Jesus through new eyes
Interestingly, nothing disturbed that picture for many, many years. And why should it? I lived in a country (Rhodesia) in which politics and economics were one thing, and faith was something entirely different – individual, private and interior. Ironically, it wasn’t until I was about 26, living in Durham during the miners’ strike, and being faced with some destitute families begging outside the church door as we worshippers all emerged, wrapped against the biting wind and clearly well-breakfasted, that I began to be uneasy and to wonder whether there wasn’t something desperately wrong with a gospel that had nothing to say to real human need. Having had my world cracked open just a fraction meant that I began to read the Bible through different eyes. Old stories suddenly took on disturbing, startling new contours. And I began to “get” Jesus for the first time.
The Law and Life (Psalm 19)
The notion that Jesus is trying to clear economics out of the temple is as wrong-headed as it’s possible to be. That is utterly alien to biblical piety. Psalm 19 is a psalm that moves from a celebration of creation to a celebration of the Law. The two are intrinsically linked. Yahweh has created the universe for the good of its inhabitants and for Yahweh’s own joy (hence the wedding imagery in vv 4bff). The psalmist launches directly from this into a hymn of praise for Yahweh’s Law, because “in keeping them there is great reward” (v11). The primary context of “reward” isn’t legal, but has to do with life. Life lived in obedience to the Law is rich and full. It is “sweeter than honey, and the drippings of the honeycomb” (v10) – infinitely desirable.
To be “innocent of transgression” is important in itself, because Yahweh is the judge of human hearts and actions. But more importantly, it means to be living life as Yahweh intends to experience its fullness and gift. It means to experience life with God.
The 10 Commandments – fellowship with Yahweh (Exodus 20: 1-7)
In other words, the universe belongs to God, who intends good for the creation. All of reality and all of living is embraced by Yahweh’s intentions for good. The Law is not intended primarily to provide a legal framework for society (although it does so by extension) but to reveal Yahweh’s character. The Law (which is given in the account we have this week in Exodus 20: 1-17) does not establish Yahweh as the great legal eagle in the sky. Rather it explains the Exodus! It explains grace! This is the kind of life Yahweh intends for people – that is why Yahweh heard their cries in the slave pits and delivered them out of Egypt! To be Yahweh’s people is not so much a case of being given laws to live by but being given Yahweh’s fellowship – hence the primacy of the first commandment. It is Yahweh’s self-gift. And it therefore follows that the same sorts of attitudes and character should begin to take root in Yahweh’s people – rather in the manner that owners become more and more like their dogs! One of the most important aspects about the 10 commandments is that they embrace all of life – religious, social, political and economic.
It follows, therefore, that true worship of the true God does not exempt any area of human existence from the reign of God. That is what it means to confess God as Lord. It is also what Jesus means when he talks about the Kingdom of God – not some other-worldly, spiritual reality or place, but human existence lived in the company of God.
Taking on a corrupt system: the cleansing of the Temple
Let us return to the cleansing of the temple for a moment. Jesus is not angry because there are animals fouling God’s house, or money-changers changing coinage from all over the realm into the temple currency. That business is necessary if the temple is to fulfil its function – be a place for all peoples and enable them to make sacrifices in worship. The problem, in Jesus’ eyes, is what it had become – a corrupt system that had its own dynamic that was “exempt” from the laws of God. What had started out to facilitate worship had become an exploitative economic system in its own right.
It is the Synoptic Gospels, rather than John’s, that emphasise the corruption of the system and the way in which it militated against the poorest people. Jesus’ problem was not that it made sacrifice possible, but that it made increasingly impossible for the poorest! It made access to God dependent on economic circumstances – and God’s grace and compassion was, in fact extended to the neediest first. This is what drives Jesus as he drives the traders from the temple.
A sign of the Passion to come
Of course, in John’s gospel, the cleansing is also tied up with John’s theology of the signs. It follows immediately on the heels of the wedding at Cana – the first of the signs that reveal to Jesus’ disciples who their Master is. Significantly, the signs are usually in the Galilee – the disciples’ territory. This section is interestingly full of Jesus trafficking between Jerusalem and Capernaum. The significance is that the cleansing is also a “sign”. In John’s hands, it points forward to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection – a sign to be seen and understood by those who are sincerely looking. The Jews – Jesus opponents – fail totally to comprehend what is being taught. The disciples are watching – and remembering. It is a sign that will make sense to them after the resurrection (v22). But this is a strange sign!
The foolishness of the cross (1 Corinthians 1: 18-25)
A crucified Messiah is an anathema! Who can take seriously someone who is crucified? More importantly, if crucifixion was reserved for the lowest of the low in the criminal world, and pointed to the crucified one as god-forsaken as well as forsaken by the rest of humanity, how can the cross be disclosive of God’s love and salvation? That is pure nonsense!
This is precisely Paul’s point in calling the preaching of the cross “foolishness” in the first letter to the Corinthians. It is divine folly – madness, rather than simply “ridiculous”! It cannot be a “sign” of anything, or demonstration of any sort of compelling wisdom (cf 1 Corinthians 1: 22). Its wisdom and power are seen in the fact that it brings Life – in John’s terms, “life in all its incredible fullness” (John 10:10).
So we are back to the all-embracing nature of God’s presence with us and our world. Back, in other words, to the economics of it all (in the case of the temple cleansing). Jesus was aware of how economic systems take on a life of their own, and benefit some at the expense of others. That is why it is so appropriate that Fair Trade fortnight falls in Lent. Here we are, looking at the cleansing of the temple – a conflict which points beyond itself. This conflict between Jesus and the temple authorities will grow ever more deadly. Here, at the outset of the gospel, John sets an incident that brings the shadow of the cross and the promise of resurrection into the gospel story. It is an economic conflict – and a conflict about the very nature of God. This will be a conflict that will cost Jesus his life – because those who benefit from the system will not be able to face it being challenged.
Fair Trade, signs of salvation and the cleansing of the Temple
Fair Trade is all about recognising the economic systems we create, and their destructive powers. Discipleship of Jesus requires that we don’t exempt our economic lives from faith and worship. We are well aware of the ways in which the global economy links us all. What I choose to buy here in England determines how others will live in the Third World. I eat shop and live at the expense of others. I am therefore stuck. I cannot carry on doing what I do now that I know, but neither can I effect the changes I want to in order to eat, shop and live faithfully. The global economy is the only game in town – on the planet, in fact! Yet within that, there are small opportunities for doing things differently – spaces of integrity, like Fair Trade. I can begin to make a difference. And, small though they are, they are signs of something bigger.
The point about “signs” in John’s gospel is that they share in the reality they point to. In other words, they are not just empty gestures, but infused with the truth they point to. It’s the same thing with Fair Trade: shopping fairly, however small and insignificant it may seem, actually does make a difference. It changes lives.
And here’s the promise: God is the God of mustard seeds. Small things can make a difference far out of proportion to their size. The global economy, like the Temple, may seem impregnable. But the incident in John’s gospel reminds us both of the impregnability and fragility of huge systems (v20). The temple had been around for people’s lifetimes – and was still being built. Yet by the time of the gospel’s writing, it had been utterly destroyed. The global economy may seem as impregnable and durable as Apartheid, the Berlin Wall or Communism. Yet we have seen all of these toppled in our life times. Make Poverty History has made a huge difference to world debt. So will Fair Trade. Because, at this point in our Lenten journey, John reminds us, we are not just in the shadow of the cross but already also in the first faint glow of resurrection.