We are all familiar with this gospel story often called the “cleansing of the Temple.” For some people, Jesus showing anger, making a whip, upsetting tables, and driving people out the Temple seems too much of a stretch from the Jesus they grew up with. Afterall, did Jesus not ask us to be tolerant, loving (even of enemies), patient, and just nice to one another? The truth is Jesus never asked us to settle for nice. In fact, the word “nice” is never spoken from the mouth of Jesus and is not found anywhere in the entire Bible. Jesus does not command us to be nice, but to be faithful—faithful to God. In being faithful, there are times when we should get angry at the state of how many of our brothers and sisters have to live in this world: little affordable housing, religious persecution, contaminated water, inhuman working conditions, child soldiers, manipulation into the sex trade, the trivialization of human life, and the list goes on. These deserve not a self-serving anger but a “righteous anger,” the kind of anger Jesus displayed in the Temple 2000 years ago. Yet, these concerns were far, far, far from the minds of the temple authorities in today’s gospel story. Their minds and hearts were far from love of God and even farther from love of neighbour. For them, and sadly, for many today, God is bought and sold more than loved, waited for, and surrendered to.
I read, from a reliable researcher, that close to 90% of Jerusalem’s economy, in Jesus’ time, revolved around the Temple itself, more precisely, the exchange of money and the selling of animals for sacrifice. The Temple authorities were the self-appointed middlemen who convince the common folk that without their services connection to God would be near impossible. The religious authorities had an airtight system for determining who got into the Temple, whose sins got forgiven, and who was deemed worthy. And it all revolved around money. Surprise, surprise! Has anything changed all that much? The money changers would exchange street money—money that bore the image of pagan rulers—for Temple money, so that God would not be offended. Of course, the money changers would gouge the people, line their own pockets, and convince everyone that offering Temple money was the only way to please God. Likewise, there were three major Jewish holy days where all Jews, no matter where you lived, were expect to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and to the Temple, in particular. Since most of the pilgrims traveled long distances, bringing an animal for sacrifice was not practical. Again, the merchants would sell overpriced cattle, sheep and doves at the Temple entrance convincing the pilgrims that they should buy and offer this unblemished sheep rather than the sad looking one they brought from their own village. Afterall, a perfect God would only be pleased with a perfect offering.
Underneath the obvious greed, a very flawed theology was at work, that is, a false idea of who God is. The false idea of God is that God is never happy with you, because there is a huge gap between God, who is all good and you, who are a sinner. To this day, many Christians believe God allowed his Son, Jesus, to pay the price for your sins but will forever send you the bill. You should feel duly unworthy until you pay the bill, every last cent of it. Since you are so far in debt to God, the logic continues, you will have to earn back God’s love through your own efforts. That is the false god, the god who never existed, but who seemingly– for a reality that never existed–still holds power over the minds of many people down to this day. There are many Catholics still trying to earn God’s love. I guess the Cross, the unmistakable sign of God’s love, wasn’t good enough.
When I was 18 years old, I went on a vocation discernment retreat. The retreat master said something to the group that has stayed with me for the past 37 years. He said, “Don’t ask the question ‘what is God’s will for me?’ because that makes a big assumption; it assumes we can fully know God’s mind. On a good day I barely know what I am about let alone what God is about. (For God’s foolishness is great than human wisdom as St. Paul tells us in that second reading). Instead, he said ask yourself this question, ‘What is the most loving response I can make to God–right here right now–to the fact that God has loved me so much?’ To that question, you will always find an answer.” You see it’s a response to already being loved.
Notice how the 10 Commandments are introduced in today first reading from the Book of Exodus. Before God speaks the 10 Commandments, God reminds the people of what came first, what takes priority. It goes like this: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” That is what came first. Before you could do anything for me, I already loved you; I already set you free from slavery. You following the Commandments is a response to the fact that I have already loved you. You follow the Commandments out of gratitude for having been liberated; you don’t follow the Commandments in the hopes of being liberated some day… that is, if God deems you good enough. God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good. You cannot earn what is freely given; you can only open to it and live a life of gratitude for it. The Temple authorities convinced the people that God’s love could be something earned or, even worse, bought! This kind of thinking must be turned upside down in your mind and in mine. Perhaps Jesus was not so much turning the tables upside down as he was daring to turn them right side up.
I was never a big fan of Leonard Cohen’s music until a few years ago when I heard his song “Anthem” at a retreat. The refrain goes like this:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
In fact, I would say, that’s the only way the light gets it. Everything you have ever offered to God, or ever will offer, was and is flawed. If it was a perfect offering, it was an offering of the ego that just cannot believe it is loved in its imperfection. It is the sincerity of the giver and never the gift alone that pleases God. That is probably why some of the best theology comes from 4-year-olds who hand you a coloring they just completed and say, “I made this just for you, Mommy.” An imperfect child, offering an imperfect gift from the heart to an imperfect mother. How could that not be an acceptable offering to the Lord? Forget your perfect offering. There is crack in everything, including you and me; that’s how the light gets in.
One last image. The Navajo of Southwestern United States, who have been weaving rugs for the last 500 years, intentionally build into each rug a tiny flaw. The imperfection is called the “spirit line” or the “spirit pathway.” This imperfection serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it reminds the weaver that they are imperfect, and everything they offer to the Great Spirit (God) will be both imperfect and, at the same time, totally acceptable. It is a reminder to remain humble. Secondly, this imperfection, this “spirit pathway” is how the weaver’s spirit exits the rug and how God enters the rug. God enters through the imperfection. So, forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
Fr. Phil Mulligan