Sunday, March 04, 2018

Third Sunday of Lent

John 2
13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”[a]
18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

Two weeks of preaching instruction, and I can already feel them judging me.

It’s a bit like travelling to the end of the yellow-brick road and discovering the guy behind the curtain is just a guy and not some sort of all-powerful preaching wizard.

Already, they’re thinking “that’s not where I would go with this passage—he’s ignoring the Sitz im Leben of the text, taking it way out of context, and he really should emphasize Heilsgeschichte—God’s saving acts.” My students are very clever—they practically think in High German.

Of course it’s only two weeks in, so all has not yet been revealed. Take, for example, the simple lesson that the sermon and the text should align. If the lesson is poetry, your sermon should be more poetic. If it’s a parable, the sermon should unfold like a parable—create a world, watch it sour, and then reveal some sign of the Kingdom.

And so for today, Jesus with his whip of cords angrily overturning the tables in the Temple, expect a bit of appropriate anger in the sermon, say in about six or seven minutes, the sermon mirroring the emotion in the text. To do otherwise would fail to accurately represent the authors intent, and somehow take the whole thing out of context. (“Setting watches...he’s going to mention Money Mart in six minutes”)

This middle bit of the sermon (that’s the technical term—the middle bit) will follow a suggestion Dr. Jim made near the end of the second class—refer to and do a word search. You have to know, of course, what you’re searching for, and in this case it’s doves. Our nascent preachers will tell you that you need to scan the text and see what stands out, what seems unusual, or something you’re noticing for the first time.

So doves. I’ve read this passage countless times and only now did I notice that it’s the dove sellers that really set Jesus off:

15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”

So imagine the scene: some joker has moved a herd a cattle into the outer court of the most sacred spot in the world, and another joker (this one a shepherd) has moved a flock of sheep into the holy places, and yet another joker or set of jokers has been trading hard-earned denarii for Temple funny-money—and Jesus loses it over some doves? So what’s with the doves?

Enter But before we turn to this most-helpful-of-sites, I should say you don’t need the internet to write a sermon. Back in my day, we didn’t have Biblegateway or, we had Cruden's Complete Concordance to the Holy Scriptures, published in 1737. That’s how old I am. Cruden’s is a complete index of every word in the Bible, published by a very nice Scottish man who didn’t suffer the distraction of television.

Doves come up 46 times in the Bible. The first few mentions you know, famous as a sign that the ark is approaching dry land. Then there is the first mention of a dove as an offering—from Abram as a response to his covenant with God. And then we move into Leviticus.

The dove appears nine times in Leviticus, which makes sense since this is the source of the code that leads people to make such an offering in the Temple. The dove is an offering for poor people—something we will see again when we get to the dedication of the baby Jesus—and this regulation gets repeated again and again in the law.

Doves are mentioned in a couple of psalms, and in that book of Hebrew erotica hidden in the middle of your Bibles (“Open to me, my sister, my darling, my dove, my flawless one. My head is drenched with dew, my hair with the dampness of the night.”) Now I’m blushing.

There are a number of mentions in the prophets, mostly related to the mournful sound a dove makes—or their innocence—something that Jesus repeats when he tells us to be “shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Lastly, doves appear in all four gospels, as the Spirit descends in the form of a dove—a sign of blessing and divine sanction on God’s beloved son.

As a symbol, then, the dove comes freighted with the idea of promise, then offering (and particularly as a offering for the most vulnerable), then innocence, and then the blessing of God through the Holy Spirit. There is a lot going on in that little bird, and this alone might explain Jesus’ reaction to the sellers—a kind of desecration of a well-loved symbol.

And that might be our answer, except for another clue among our examples, this one from Leviticus 5:

If, however, they cannot afford two doves or two young pigeons, they are to bring as an offering for their sin a tenth of an ephah of the finest flour for a sin offering. They must not put olive oil or incense on it, because it is a sin offering. (5.11)

We won’t do a word study on an ephah—but since you’re wondering—an ephah is equal to ten omers. What this single verse tells us is that even below the poverty offering of two doves is small quantity of grain—a tenth of a bushel—that still allows you to maintain the covenant obligations set down in the law. And while we don’t know the precise value, a few cups of grain must have been within the means of the very poor, and even easier to access that a couple of doves, something that with a little time you could simply catch.

Perhaps Jesus is reacting to the dove sellers that are taking money for something that can be sourced for free. Perhaps Jesus is reacting to the dove sellers who are offering an item more expensive than a bit of grain. Whatever the precise reason, it certainly relates to exploitation, taking advantage of the most vulnerable among the Temple visitors, those scrambling to secure an acceptable sacrifice for the Lord.

Has it been six minutes? There is a special place in hell—yeah, I said it—there is a special place in hell for those who engage in predatory loan practices, targeting the most vulnerable. The so-called payday loan is aimed at those who are short near the end of the month—hence the name payday loan. The problem is that people turn to these places when they have exhausted other sources—cards are maxed out, no line of credit, friends and family turn them away.

And when the Star looked at this issue recently and reached for a stock photo to illustrate the article, they chose—you guessed it—Weston Road looking north from Lawrence Avenue. We are payday loan central. Those of us with money are borrowing at prime-plus-one or prime-plus-two, while our poorest neighbours are playing $15 to borrow $100—an effective rate of an eye-watering 3,724% when you spread this cost over a year.

Why haven’t we simply outlawed the whole payday loan industry? Quebec did. Why would we permit this to continue when last year over 30% of bankruptcies listed payday loans as a contributing factor? Next time you see your MPP ask her about payday loans. Leave your whip of cords at home, but take the anger with you.

That tenth of an ephah the poor could bring—also called an omer—that’s the daily ration of manna that settled on the desert floor each morning, feeding the Israelites at their time of deepest need. When Jesus said “give us this day our daily bread” he was speaking of an omer, one portion, given by God, enough to meet our needs. Those who gathered more watched it rot, while those too weak to gather an omer saw their cup miraculously fill itself.

Like the dove, God has made allowances for the poor, an offering that functions as a means test and a way to allow even the poorest a way to participate in the rituals of faith. Add gleaning laws, and Jesus’ various teachings about money, and you get a picture of a God who cares deeply about the poor.

May we remain mindful of the needs of the most vulnerable, and God help us continue to help, now and always. Amen.