Heart and Soul: A sermon on the cleansing of the Temple

There were three things you had to be good at handling if you were going to work in the Temple: people, money and animals. The people were pretty easy – they tended to come in three main groups: the pious, the gullible and the desperate. The pious – well that was the bulk of the load – some say up to four hundred thousand at once over Passover. That’s a lot of people, but if you are good with animals then you are good with flocks and herds, keeping them happy together, under control, flowing freely through the courtyards. Entrance, commerce, cleansing, ceremony, exit. Commerce, that’s where the money and the animals come in. The Temple was a big business, A financial powerhouse, a divine license to mint money. And the pious, the gullible, the desperate, they were the ones who pick up the tab and keep the wheels of commerce whirling.

But, first, let me introduce myself: my name is Caleb, and for three generations my family served the pilgrims at the Temple. We provided the purest of pure animals for Temple sacrifice. Sheep, cattle, doves, pigeons, all without spot or stain or blemish, no damaged limbs, no skin complaints, nothing missing, crooked or twisted, all young, never mated, the cattle never yoked. Only the perfect could be offered to the Lord. Such animals came at a price. We had our own herds: carefully tended, lovingly groomed, but there was always a need for more and so while my younger brothers tended our flocks and our sisters watched over the doves, my father Rueben, used to travel the countryside sourcing fine beasts from other herds. I managed our stall in the Courtyard of the Gentiles.

Pure beasts cost more to breed or buy, so of course we were going to charge premium prices and of course we were going to make sure we made a profit. We might be providing a vital service for the smooth running of the faith, but that didn’t mean that we should go home empty-handed. We were a large family with many mouths to feed. And we weren’t just charging for guaranteed purity, we were charging also for convenience.

Making the Passover pilgrimage from across the Empire was hard enough as it was without having to worry about bringing your own sacrifice with you and having to keep it alive, healthy and pure on the journey. Which is what we always said when the pilgrims grumbled that they could buy as good a beast for a quarter the price in the market place back home.

The grumbling got worse under the Romans after Herod died. Taxes went up, harvests were bad and there was a sudden swell of itinerant preachers and zealous politicos travelling the countryside, lodging in the towns, stirring up ferment, telling the pious, the gullible, the desperate, that their lives didn’t have to be this way, that the system was rotten, that the priests were in bed with the Empire, that the Messiah was on his way and that the cleansing would soon begin.

At least our animals were pure and in fine form and my arguments about their costly breeding made sense to most of those who moaned about the price. The real culprits in the courtyard, the major targets of the grumblers’ ire, were the money changers, like my cousin Harmon and his family.

Every pilgrim who wanted to enter the Temple paid Temple tax – half a shekel, or about two days wages for most folk. And then they had to buy their pure sacrificial beasts. But the Romans were in charge so everyone received their pay in Roman or Greek coinage. Coins with heads on, heads of emperors, graven images. Such coins were banned for Temple usage, they broke the commandment. Buy your beast with denarii and its purity was lost.

So the coinage of the Temple was the shekel, the coins of our forefathers, coins with no human images. Which meant that to pay all your Temple dues you had to go to Harmon and his like and change your denarii into shekels. For which they charged you. Then, at the end of the day, when all your business had been done, any shekels left in your purse would be useless outside the Temple precinct. You returned to the money changers to get them turned back into Roman coin
and they charged you again. Caught every way. Of course, it was an essential financial service, something the public needed, but as we all know, when a service is essential, exploitation seems inevitably to follow.

So there we were, the Jerusalem Temple, the beating spiritual heart of the faith, the beating commercial heart of the city, a vast and packed thirty-five acre site of concentric courtyards: the Court of the Gentiles, the Court of the Women, the Court of the Israelites, the Court of the Priests, all surrounding and protecting the vital organ, the pure emptiness of the Holy of Holies. It was truly our heart, pumping sacrificial smoke skywards, pumping prayers heavenwards, pumping cash inwards and pumping people back out into the dark reality of an occupied land.

And then the preacher came, the teacher, the wanderer, the healer – Jesus. One man with a whip, and a purpose, and a fierce righteousness who stopped the heart for a day. Stopped it, only God knows how, on his own – his followers weren’t any help, standing gawping like the rest of us. Stopped it, at Passover, when the place was packed. Stopped it, he said, because the heart was being stifled, it had grown flabby with layers of fat, the spiritual blood that it still pumped was weak and old and watered down. Stopped it, he said, because he was a new heart, one connected directly to the heart of God,
one whose blood flowed fresh and pure, living water for all people.

And the Court of the Gentiles, he said was the outer layer of all that fatty flab. The Court of the Gentiles – the only place where the non-Jewish nations came into the sacred presence of the one true God. Israel, the light of the nations, had filled its lamp with wadding, the light had grown dim and the nations couldn’t see the Way. The Court of the Gentiles, stuffed full of trade, heaving with animals, deafened by the babble of the crowds and the clink of coinage being weighed in the moneychangers’ scales.

So he stopped the flow. The Temple died a little death, had a heart attack, a heart murmur. The revenue stream was damned, the smoke from the sacrifices was dampened and maybe, just maybe, a tiny tear began to form in the veil hiding the Holy of Holies from plain sight.

The Temple authorities came running through every portico, from every direction. But he was not to be stopped, the crowd was on his side, a riot in the Temple would have meant a full scale closure for ritual cleansing.

So they clenched their fists, hardened their hearts, asked him their questions and probed his authority. And he told them. God is here. Not there, in the centre of all this hubbub, in the empty space, but here, in the living man. God really is with us. He has pitched his tent among us. A tent, a temporary structure, a traveller’s home. Not a solid bricks and mortar Temple set immovable. God’s heart beats in the human heart. A frail structure of flesh, easily cut down, but one in which God’s blood forever flows, one which will rise again. Unlike this empty heart made of stone.

And then, before the words could sink in, he was gone, message proclaimed, and the Temple heart shuddered and stuttered and beat once more to its time hallowed rhythm, oiled by the flow of coins into the treasury and the careful attentions of the authorities.

But that was then, forty years ago, a different age, seen through the dust of history.

The careful attentions of the authorities saw to it that the irritant Jesus was stopped, strung up and killed. When they pierced his side his blood flowed freely, out into the earth, and the veil of the Temple split from top to bottom. When they sealed his body behind the stone of the tomb, he, just as he said he would, sprang back to back to life. There was no sealed chamber which could contain God. No sealed chamber should contain God, God lives among us not apart from us.

And that’s why now, when the stone heart of the Temple has been reduced to rubble and all the walls of fat that kept God muffled, smothered, tamed have been trampled by Roman boots into the soil, little groups of Jesus people all around the city, the countryside and the Empire gather together to celebrate a heart which still beats with love, a love that flows outwards into the world.

Tonight, on the eve of the celebration of that heart’s rising from the stone of the grave, I, Caleb, am sitting with others
listening to our Scriptures, singing our Psalms and sharing our stories of Jesus. Those who are teaching us, those how have long been following the Way of Jesus are recounting that day in the Temple once more as reminder that as Jesus cleared out the fat in the Temple, made it cleaner and purer than the animals I used to sell, so tomorrow, as we new Jesus people are dipped in the waters of baptism, so we will be clean and pure as new lambs. Already my heart is beating harder and faster. God lives among us – now and always. We must live as if God is among us – now and always. We cannot keep God to ourselves, we must share God with the world – now and always.
Amen.

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