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Friday, 13 March 2009

Getting back to basics

There are times when I look at the lectionary readings and my reaction is almost one of panic – whatever am I supposed to say about this? And the Ten Commandments is definitely one of those readings. Especially when linked to the clearing out of the Temple!

The trouble with the Ten Commandments is that people think they know them, but they don’t, not really. Every so often you see on television them asking random people to say what they are – everybody knows the ones addressed to human behaviour, about honouring your parents,not murdering, not committing adultery, not stealing, and, usually, not bearing false witness and not coveting, but they don’t place them in the context of the first four commandments, which are the ones about our relationship with God. The ones about worshipping God alone, not making graven images, not taking God’s name in vain, and keeping the Sabbath day holy.

And I think, if you take the last six commandments out of context, as we are all apt to do, you get the wrong impression. You get the impression that it’s all about the “Thou shalt nots”. Christianity – well, Judaeo-Christianity, I suppose – comes across as very negative and joyless. But I don’t think it was meant to be like that.

There are plenty of very detailed commandments in the Old Testament about how God’s people were meant to live, especially while they were a travelling, nomadic race. Many of them were about the health and sanitation of the community – what could be safely eaten, for instance, or how to isolate infection, or even the basic hygiene of going outside the perimeter of the camp and taking a shovel with you when you needed a “natural break” as the sports commentators call it. Others were about criminal law, and still others about how you treated outsiders in your midst, and who you should be looking after. They go into huge detail, have a read of Leviticus or Deuteronomy sometime, ideally in a modern paraphrase.

But the basic Ten Commandments, as given in Exodus, are different. They are a summary of the Law – if you like, they are the Constitution for God’s people. In our modern world, except perhaps for prohibitions on murder and stealing, they are seen as anachronistic, not relevant to most people. Our very economy is based on the fact that people covet things they do not yet own, and advertising hopes to make you want something you didn’t know you wanted. And most people don’t even bother to think about God at all, never mind putting Him first.

But we, us, we who are here this morning, we are God’s people. What if we did live like this? We would like to think we did, of course, but you know as well as I do that we don’t! We fall far short of God’s ideal for us.

As, of course, everybody has since the Law was first given. We know that it’s not possible to keep the Law perfectly, we know we are going to fall short. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes carelessly, sometimes even just going rather over the top. That’s what was happening in our Gospel reading – I don’t necessarily mean that Jesus was going over the top, although possibly he was; that’s an interesting thought, which I’ll come back to in a minute. But right now, let’s look at what prompted his outburst.

I don’t really know what the Temple was like, and find it rather hard to imagine. I believe the actual central bit was quite small, but it was surrounded by a series of courtyards. Anybody could go into the outermost courtyard, which was called the courtyard of the Gentiles. Next in was the courtyard of the Women – any Jewish person could go in there, but no Gentile could. Then came the courtyard of the Israelites, where only Jewish men could go. Then you had the court of the priests, which is where the sacrifices were performed, by the priests, and finally the Temple itself, with the altar where incense was burnt, and inside that was the Most Holy Place where the High Priest alone could go, once a year, with blood.

So you approached God – at least, if you were a Jewish man you did – via a series of courtyards, getting closer and closer. In an ideal world, you arrived in Jerusalem, went to the ritual baths and cleansed yourself, and then took yourself and whichever animal you had brought to sacrifice into the Temple.

But.

And there is always a “but”, isn’t there. In this case, two “buts”. Firstly, it wasn’t always practical to bring a sacrificial animal with you, and sometimes, if you did, the priests would tell you that it was flawed and Would Not Do. So it was a lot easier to buy your animal when you arrived, and if you bought it in the Temple, the priests couldn’t tell you it wouldn’t do. But then there was a problem with money, or rather, with the coinage. You see, for everyday use you used Roman coins, but they, unfortunately, had a picture of the Emperor on them, which was thought to be just possibly a graven image, so you couldn’t use them in the Temple, but had to change them into Temple money, which had no such problems. And, of course, the rate of exchange often wasn’t what it might have been, and the commission may have been just slightly higher than strictly necessary, and then the animals might be just that much more expensive than you would have paid in the street (“After all, this sheep is guaranteed free from any flaws. Gotta pay a premium for that!”).

And even if it wasn’t, the whole atmosphere was more like a market-place than anything conducive to worship. And Jesus snapped.

Now, we don’t know what caused him to snap. He’d been to the Temple umpteen times before – St Luke tells us his parents took him every year for the major festivals. Perhaps he saw someone having to settle for a lesser animal than they’d planned. Or perhaps he had just prepared himself for the Temple and was feeling quiet and worshipful – and the atmosphere in the Court of the Gentiles simply wasn’t conducive to that. Whatever. He snapped, and we know the rest.

St John links the episode with Jesus’ saying “Destroy this temple, and I will rebuild it in three days”, which was looking forward to the Resurrection, as the disciples realised once this had happened. At the time, it did nothing but infuriate the religious authorities, and arguably signed Jesus’ death-warrant.

The money-changers and traders and souvenir-stalls and so on may not have been wrong in themselves, but they were in the wrong place. They were cluttering up the Temple and making it difficult to get an unbroken progression from the ritual bath up to the sacrifice. They were turning the house of God into a market-place, and this Would Not Do. They needed to get back to basics.

Jesus was clearing out the Temple, taking it back to basics. Was he over the top? Probably, yes. But then, Jesus always was over the top, wasn’t he? When he changed the water into wine, he didn’t really need to produce over 700 bottles of the finest quality wine at the tag-end of a party. When he fed the five thousand out of a small boy’s packed lunch he didn’t really need to provide twelve basketsful of leftovers. It is well within Jesus’ character to be over the top, in this case, wanting to take the Temple back to basics.

Jesus was forever trying to take people back to basics. The trouble was, because they thought you pleased God by keeping the Law absolutely perfectly, they kept having to provide “What if....” scenarios. What, exactly, was work – how did you keep the Sabbath Day holy? And it sometimes got a bit ridiculous; Jesus points that out on a number of occasions. When it got so that you fussed about tithing the contents of your herb garden at the expense of your elderly relatives, who should have had first call on you. When it got so that you fussed about how thoroughly you washed yourself before eating, but forgot to worry about how clean your heart was before God. When it go so that you worried about whether healing somebody on the Sabbath was work, or whether you ought to be allowed to pick a head of wheat and eat the berries if it was the Sabbath – wasn’t that reaping? Jesus picks up on all these things, and others besides.

For Jesus, what mattered was your relationship with God, pure and simple. In the end, as we know, it was his body that would become the Temple, that would be raised in three days, and that would be given us to eat, in symbolic form, at his table. And it was his Spirit that was sent to indwell us and help us to become the people we were created to be.

We know that if we try in our own strength, we shall fail. We cannot even keep the Ten Commandments, let alone any of the rest of the law. But we don’t have to do it in our own strength; if we try, we will inevitably fail. Thank God for Jesus! He cleaned out the Temple of the extraneous stalls and merchants that had crept in – although I doubt they stayed away for very long – to remind us that what matters is our relationship with God. We don’t have to go through intermediaries. We don’t have to struggle to keep the Law. We just need to rest in Him. Amen.