On 9th Avenue in New York City sits one of our nation’s busiest soup kitchens – Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen at Holy Apostles Episcopal Church. Each and every weekday a team of volunteers prepares and serves a meal to countless people who find rest and warmth, good food, and acknowledgment of their humanity. And it all happens in the middle of a church sanctuary.
It didn’t actually have to be that way. When the Soup Kitchen first opened it was held in the sanctuary out of necessity. With space at such a premium in Manhattan, the sanctuary was the church’s only large room, with capacity to feed the amount of people they wanted. So pews were replaced with moveable chairs and folding tables. The sound of the grand pipe organ and choir on Sunday gave way to the banging of pots and pans and dishes on weekdays. This continued for some time, but in 1991, the building caught fire. The City aimed to help immediately, and offered not only to repair the sanctuary, but also to build a brand new dining facility to meet the demands of the feeding program. But after much prayer and discernment, the congregation declined the offer. They wanted the soup kitchen to remain in the sanctuary. There was something deeply faithful and theological for them about feeding people in their sanctuary. They recognized that God was no less present at weekday lunch than in Sunday service. God could be praised not merely with the soaring sounds of worship, but also with the hum of a Hobart dishwasher, the den of conversation, and the banging of pots and pans.
This morning’s Scripture text is about what happens in the house of God, and how Jesus was willing to flip that – to turn things over, and dump things out, in order to ensure that his Father’s house was used faithfully. We see in this episode a theme that runs throughout scripture, and over the course of the life and ministry of Jesus – what the prophet Micah once described as the first thing the Lord asks of us: to seek justice.
Throughout this Lenten season, we’re considering practices of our faith – how we move beyond professing our faith, to practicing it, worshipping God not only in a service, but in things like washing dishes, and serving others, and in the worship that is our very lives. We’re finding in the lectionary gospel passages some of the longstanding commitments and practices of Christian faith, like today’s practice of justice.
Biblical scholar, Walter Bruegemann, considering the theme of justice that runs throughout the Bible, once defined the practice this way: “Biblical justice is finding out what belongs to whom and returning it to them…” even if that means turning things over and pouring things out, to set things straight. (1)
One justice-minded urban minister has used the well-known fishing metaphor to outline this theme. You can give someone a fish, the work of charity and compassion. You can teach someone how to fish, the work of education and empowerment. But then there’s the practice of justice, where you also must also concern yourself with the fishing conditions. (2)
In our scripture text today, Jesus is concerned about the conditions – specifically the conditions and systems of the Temple as he finds it.
E.P. Sanders – the great New Testament scholar – has said, “It would be almost impossible to overstate the importance of the Temple for Jews in the first century.” (3) Solomon’s temple was not just one of the houses of God among many. This was God’s house. This was the place God dwelled.
And in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, it was also a place where there dwelled some collusion between religion and imperial control. You could find some abuses of power. You could hear the noise of coins and commerce, cattle, sheep and doves. It seems in Jesus’s estimation, you could see in the temple a misuse of the traditions of Judaism. And you could find the presence of systems that allowed access more readily to some than others. All of this was especially concentrated with the Passover near, and that’s when Jesus enters.
Only John tells of a temple incident at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus enters the Temple at the end of his ministry. Some think that means it happened twice, but I think it shows how the gospel writers and their communities recollect the story of Jesus differently. John himself in this passage says that after his death, resurrection and ascension, his followers looked back on his life to understand its meaning… and as they did, I think they were inspired by the Spirit in their telling of the story to place this incident at different places in Jesus’ ministry, to remind us of different aspects of the fullness of his person.
So maybe Matthew, Mark and Luke have the timing right, at the end. But John, I think, gets the prominence right. At the beginning.
In John, this moment is so essential, it’s placed right up front where we can’t miss it, and it becomes a lens through which we understand the whole of Jesus’ ministry. Because it’s a ministry of finding what belonged to whom and returning it to them. In this case, that meant the presence of God, accessible to all people. Christ’s very body as the place where God could be known. Jesus himself as the new Temple, with openness to all. And in this moment at the start, we remember that Jesus’ ministry included passionate opposition to any person, place or system that kept people from knowing this fully.
His actions in the Temple are a rush of passion and a flurry of action, actually one long run-on sentence in the Greek language: Jesus came into the temple, found the people selling cattle, sheep and doves for sacrifice and all the people involved in exchanging currency and Jesus made a whip of the ropes and chased the people and the animals out of the Temple, and he scattered the coins and overturned the tables and said to them all “Get these things out don’t make my father’s house a place of business.”
John never uses the word anger, but that does seem to be what fills Jesus. Sometimes it’s cited as evidence that he was human, and felt anger just like us. But then, Jesus’ anger and passion are also divine, and tied to his ministry and his redemptive work. As Augustine
once said, “Hope has two daughters: anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they don’t remain as they are.”
As we see in this incident, Jesus’s anger was coupled with the commitment to spend his life overturning the things that kept people from encountering God and receiving abundant life.
This scene always recalls the 1989 Canadian film, “Jesus of Montreal” – my favorite film adaptation of the life of Jesus. It’s a contemporary rendering of the story of Jesus set in contemporary Montreal among a group of actors. The central character and Christ figure, Daniel, is charged with updating a church’s passion play for Holy Week, and his story begins to parallel the gospel story. For instance, in the beginning another actor points to Daniel and says he is “a much better actor than I” – almost as if he’s John the Baptist, unfit to lace his sandles. In another scene, Daniel is tempted not by a devil in the wilderness, but by an agent in a high rise office building who tries to get him to sign a contract. He gathers a group of actors around him – some of whom are leaving much more stable jobs because of something they find compelling in his vision.
And then there’s this highly charged scene, Daniel is sitting with some among his group at an audition and casting session by a major corporate advertising agency. The casting director seems to enjoy humiliating participants, and displays deep contempt for them. He even asks one of Daniel’s friends to remove her clothes.
At which point Daniel comes forward – “You want to see a scene?” he says. And he flips a table full of food. He kicks a camera to the ground. He rips wires from their outlets. He rages at the casting director and the corporate reps, “Out!”
But then he returns to his his friend, and he looks rather poignantly and says, “You’re better than this.”
In all the rage and dramatic action of the scene, I wonder if Jesus is not saying, “I want the best for you and from you. There is a better way. You’re better than that.”
Isn’t that the call of biblical Justice? That God in Christ seeks our best. And God in Christ wants our best. That God in Christ refuses to be satisfied with any less than our best.
In John’s gospel, this incident in the Temple comes right after the wedding at Cana. These two stories are paired together in the same chapter. And both of them give evidence of the one who always seeks the best for us, and from us. One story, the wedding feast, is about the abundance of the gospel, as jars of wine overflow. The other story, the Temple, highlights the challenge of the gospel, as tables are overturned. First is the blessing Jesus offers, then the change Jesus requires. A life of faith and following after Jesus will always include both: abundance and challenge, blessing and change.
Because God gives the best to us in Christ, God expects the best from us in what we offer to one another and this world. And that means seeing the world as Jesus does, letting our lives reflect the anger and courage of Christ, being moved by the same things that moved him, and giving our lives not only to a ministry of filling jars to overflowing, but also turning over tables when something is broken and unjust and calling for even systems themselves to be reborn.
So while Matt, Mark and Luke tell the story of the Temple and describe Jesus accusing people who are selling and buying things in the temple of having made God’s house a den of robbers, or a hideout for crooks, in John’s telling of the story, Jesus doesn’t speak about robbers or crooks. Because he’s not merely concerned with the individuals. He’s upset that his father’s house has become “a place of business.” He’s not identifying cracks in the system. He’s calling for renewal in the system itself.
The last time I was at the Soup Kitchen at Holy Apostles was with a group of students from Wake Forest a few years ago as part of a class I was leading. I remember the usual bustle of activity at the lunch hour, as that congregation had made the house of God a place of provision for so many. But along with the food being served, on the podium of the church a conversation was taking place between members of that church, leaders in the community, city leadership, and others. It was a conversation about poverty, and what it might take for people to have a living wage. The noises of pots and pans continued, while alongside of it came voices calling for equity and opportunity for all. There were no tables overturned, no coins dumped on the floor, but there were people calling for more and better. There was a congregation not only meeting the immediate need of those hungry and gathered and filling plates to overflowing, but also expressing their determination that things need not stay the same. That the kingdom could come more vividly to earth as it is in heaven. That God’s people are better than this – than simply standing in a line waiting for their bread to be passed across a counter. They were not only feeding people, you see, but asking why people are hungry to begin with.
That’s the practice of justice, flowing from the heart of God’s people, and constantly turning over the things that hinder the abundant life that God intends for all.
That’s the ministry of Jesus, who reoriented the Temple, and then from there went on to break laws to heal on the Sabbath, or cross boundaries to greet a Samaritan woman at the well, or say to those who would judge a woman caught in adultery “let anyone without sin cast the first stone,” or speak passionately about the need for his followers to love one another and to show that love in acts of forgiveness, service, and sacrifice. And he did all of this in a world where sometimes it seems we’d do just about anything for things to stay just as they are. So in the gospel of John, it’s his love for the world – and it’s public manifestation – that basically what gets him killed.
But as he himself says, “You can destroy this temple… but it will be raised again in three days.” You can resist it, deny it, forget it, overshadow it. You can imprison it, humiliate it you, can try to kill the love of God, entomb it, but it will keep rising.
And John says that after his death, Jesus’ followers remembered that he had said this, and they believed. And we know it gave them the courage they needed not only to profess that belief, but to practice it, and seek the same justice they saw revealed in him.
And may it be so for us.
1. In Reverberations of Faith
2. In Sabbath in the City
3. In The Historical Figure of Jesus