Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII, was a colorful character -- he rode the New York City fire trucks, took entire orphanages to baseball games and, when the New York newspapers went on strike, he got on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids.
One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served one of the poorest areas of New York City. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia. “Sir, my daughter's husband deserted her, my daughter is sick, there is no money coming in, and my two grandchildren are starving.” But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges.
“It's a real bad neighborhood, Your Honor,” the man told the mayor. “She's got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.” LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I've got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions. Ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous hat, saying, “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore, for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat, I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”
The following day, New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered man who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren. Fifty cents of that amount was contributed by the grocery store owner himself, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.
The story of Jesus' Cleansing of the Temple does not strike many people as one about compassion. In fact, it is a story that many Christians avoid because Jesus acts so forcefully. While all four gospels have this story, only John uses such emotionally charged language, so full of fury and aggression. In the Gospel of Matthew and Luke the story happens on Palm Sunday, immediately after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. In the Gospel of John, however, this event is so important and symbolic that it is portrayed as one of the first things done by Jesus in his ministry.
That many of us are uncomfortable with the story has its roots in how the church dealt with it for centuries. Over and over, the church has tried to prove that Jesus is a dove, a symbol of peace, -- and a whip in his hands, that just wouldn't be in tune with that image. Scholars tell us that the sort of whip in Jesus' hand was a flagellum, a lash made of ox hide cords, and customarily used to whip horses, slaves and criminals. Surely, for this man of peace to be so angry, so enraged, there could only be two explanations: that John misunderstood the story, or that Jesus got stressed out and lost his temper.
It must have been terribly disconcerting for the disciples to witness Jesus wielding a whip, throwing furniture, screaming at the top of his lungs, and flinging money into the air. Perhaps they ran for cover along with the crowd. Afterwards, did they look him in the eyes or shuffle their feet, stare at the ground, and make small talk? It is likely that the other three evangelists were a bit embarrassed with Jesus' behavior and that their versions are so short and factual for just that reason.
But rather than join the disciples and the synoptics and much of the official church in being shocked and embarrassed, let us see what John intended with the story and why he placed it so early in his Gospel. John groups a number of signs together, signs that indicated that Jesus was bringing radical change, a new beginning: Just before the cleansing of the temple, we have the wedding at Cana when Jesus turned water in to wine, the point of which was that the wine of the Kingdom of God had now replaced the water used for ritual washing which had been stored in those same water jars: the old Jewish rite of purification to make oneself acceptable to God was no longer relevant because he was now among them, the Messiah had come. -- A similar new beginning, literally being born again, is the point of the discussion with Nicodemus which follows the cleansing of the temple. -- Then comes the conversation with the woman at the well, signifying a new set of relationships which prominently included women, marking a new kind of worship of God 'in spirit and in truth' that would replace the old worship in the temple.
The Cleansing of the Temple is presented by John within a group of Jesus stories that show that something new is taking the place of the old. What is new about Jesus' cleansing of the temple? It has to do with the replacement of the old way of relating to God. The old way of offering sacrifices in the temple was to be replaced by celebration of new life in a new fellowship. The old temple was to be replaced by a new temple which was Christ himself. God was now to be present among people in a new way, which was open to all.
Open to all. Jesus took a whip and drove business men, traders and animals out of the temple because he realized that a lot of people were squeezed out and turned away by the temple economy of his days. The temple was not open to all any longer, and Jesus was passionate about this fact. Scholars help us understand just how the temple worked. The Jewish people would come to Jerusalem during the Passover festival as religious pilgrims. They had saved up their money during the year (which was not easy for the poor people of Palestine to do), and would use this money to pay their temple dues or tax. They would also use their money to buy animals (such as doves or lambs) to be sacrificed at the altar. The temple dues and sacrifices were essential to the Jewish religious system of that day. The Jewish people were taught by their religious elders and traditions that in order to be in a right relationship with God, they would have to pay the temple dues, and participate in the temple sacrifice.
But ... in order to participate in this temple sacrifice and tithing system, the pilgrims where required to go to the money changers in front of the temple. For a large fee, the money changers, changed their money from the Roman Coins (which could not be used in the temple, because they had the image of the Roman Emperor on them), into temple tokens that could be used to pay and purchase in the temple.
While this temple economy of buying and selling and coin changing was central to the operation of the temple, the witness of history tells us that it was a thoroughly corrupt system. The money changers and the temple priests, took a cut of the money. They became rich through the fees charged to the pilgrims when the pilgrims entered and participated in the temple worship. In Mark Chapter 12, Jesus accuses the scribes and Pharisees of “devouring the widow’s houses” through their practices in the temple. So, here is the central issue for Jesus, the one that makes him lash out, and literally so: Because of the fees and high cost of the sacrifices, the reality was that many, if not most, people could not participate in temple worship.
Most did not have enough money. If you were poor, you could not buy the proper sacrifice or pay the temple dues, and that meant you couldn't right your relationship with God. Jesus realized that the house of his father had become what the Greek called an emporium, a house of business, a market place; people dear to his heart were being attacked, and his passion for them was stirred. He saw the injustice of the system set up by the religious authorities; he felt for those who were excluded and had compassion. Passion and compassion set him afire.
While the priests and the business people all escaped outside shouting, “This man has gone mad!”, some of the people pushed away by the temple system understood that someone had just stood up for them. John tells us that the disciples, some time later on finally understood Jesus' passion and compassion. The words passion and compassion are both derived from the Greek word for “suffering”, pascho. For a person to become passionate or compassionate, he or she must first witness something that gives them pause and makes them suffer, and then makes them act to right the wrong. What Mayor LaGuardia did in 1935, and what Jesus did in the gospel has one prerequisite. You cannot become passionate or compassionate without feeling love first.
I struggled with that prerequisite, love, when I was asked last year to present a young pastor before a committee that was to review her skills as a hospital chaplain. After receiving a thick envelope with her materials, I began reading, and the more I read the more I disliked what I saw. Her writing made me think that she was closed off and had trouble communicating. She had a tendency to impatiently dismiss the input of others and preferred doing her ministry by herself, apart from her team. Yet, the most troubling aspect was that she seemed convinced that she was one of the best chaplains that ever lived. I was troubled.
How could I feel passionate or compassionate about this chaplain when I couldn't feel any love for her? That night I remembered how lonely I had been in my first parish when I felt that nobody was pulling with me, and how somehow everybody knew better and yet nobody helped when I needed it. Little by little I found myself in this chaplain's shoes. I recognized her suffering as I remembered my own. I knew she was afraid because I had been as well. So when I wrote my report, my main question for her session the next morning was, "What are you afraid of?"
The next morning came, and when the chaplain read my question, she answered that she was not afraid of anything and complained at great length that somehow I had misunderstood her. Over and over she repeated that she was perfectly fine, and stated, "It seems as though you should have understood me from my paperwork. It should have clear to you that I couldn't be better. I am fine. I really am!"
For a half hour I and the rest of the committee tried to tell her that being afraid was nothing to be ashamed of and that we wanted to be there for her. She politely declined and kept up a face that betrayed absolutely nothing. When we were almost done with the 45 minute session, I looked at her and said, "I have spent all this time trying to love you, but you have pushed me away." All of a sudden, her face dropped and so did her voice. In the voice of a lonely little girl she said, "I am so sorry". Her epiphany and ours lasted but thirty seconds. Then the chaplain resumed her defensive posture. I knew, however, that I had gotten through to her, and that my passion and compassion had not been in vain.
Christ's compassion for each of us can profoundly change us; it can set us right with God and with ourselves; it can make us whole. A Christian mystic of the first century named Symeon the Theologian wrote this:
We awaken in Christ’s body as Christ awakens ours, and my poor hand is Christ, He enters my foot, and is infinitely me. I move my hand, and wonderfully my hand becomes Christ, becomes all Christ – for God is indivisibly whole, seamless in Godhood. I move my foot, and at once God appears like a flash of lightning. Do my words seem blasphemous? Then open your heart to God and let yourself receive the One who is opening to you so deeply. For if we genuinely love God, we wake up inside Christ’s body where all our body, all over, every most hidden part of it, is realized in joy as Christ, making us utterly real, And everything that is hurt, everything that seemed to us dark, harsh shameful, maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged, is in God transformed and recognized as whole, as lovely, and radiant in God’s light. As we awaken as the Beloved in every last part of our body.
John 2: 13-22