Sometime I wish John would resist the temptation to stick his theological head into the story of Jesus he writes. We do not need the little asides and stage directions. It confuses and, worst of all, lets us step over the work we need to do to understand the story for ourselves.
We do this often as human beings. Instead of struggling with the reality of this or that situation we look for an explanation that seems reasonable and logical and allow us to move on, pretending to have dealt with the complexities of the situation while having only skipped across the surface like a bug on water.
Presently I am ploughing through Warren Mundine’s memoirs, much loved by non-Aboriginal people I know who have read it but extremely underwhelming at best. It is a ‘me too, you too’ book – if I and my family can rise to this level you can too. The content of the book is given away by the list of people who have written recommendations for it – Bess Price, Stan Grant and others much loved by non-Aboriginal Australia but not so by those still struggling to find a way out.
People read this book and think they now understand the situation and the solution but have not done the direct and difficult work of getting to grips with what happened and is still happening now. In many ways my family were similar to his and Grants but their experience was very different. A read of this book will not reveal the easy answers, we have to discern that ourselves through deep engagement with a complicated and complex story both past and present.
A cursory glance at the story John gives us, slightly different in context and setting to those in the Synoptics, may leave us bemoaning with disgust the misuse of the temple for money changing and the selling and slaughtering of beasts. We may want to grab a whip and chase them out along with Jesus. Yet, this was, at that time, an appropriate undertaking to occur in or around the temple. More and more people lived away from the land and had no animals to sacrifice. People were travelling as pilgrims and could not bring animals with them. Sacrifice was essential to their religious life. It was understandable appropriate methods for acquiring sacrificial animals and slaughtering them were available.
One could say that Jesus was unreasonable in expecting any thing else to occur. How could people fulfil their religious requirements if no means to do so was available?
It wasn’t that this was occurring, it was the disconnect between what was happening and how it was happening. It had ceased to be a modest provision of money and beasts and had become a business in which people were exploited by both the sellers and those in charge of the temple. Money was needed to run the place so a little bit was added here, and a bit more there and the obligation to sacrifice became a sacrifice of those who were using up all they had to do piety. That’s the point of the story of the widows mite, she was using all she had to fulfil her temple obligations and had nothing left to supply her daily needs.
The act of worship had become an act of slavery and exploitation. Pragmatism had taken over and it was deemed appropriate to use this opportunity to make as much as possible from as many as possible.
We, of course, find this as distasteful as Jesus did but we need to be careful, very, very careful that we don’t allow our selves to fall into the same trap, not just in terms of money. That is the obvious one. But it also relates to why we come here, what we do here and what we give primacy to in this place.
What happened in the temple was that a perfectly sensible action was taken to support the religious worship that took place. What followed was that action became more important than the religious act it was designed to support. Human nature took over and self became the centre of the act – self-interest in terms of the proprietors of the business making money out of those coming and self interest in terms of those who held responsibility for the temple.
This story asks us to be conscious of what we do and why we do it, to ensure that what we do here does not rise to such a level that it pushes out the reason we came here first – to come together as a worshipping community, humble before their God. Not because there is good music, good fellowship or an excellent social justice program, but because of the impermanence of our humanity and the permanence of God, because we come to open ourselves to the Spirits goading and the Word’s voice.
In our days of running conferences we learnt that the content and the quality of the speakers was not what people talked about after the conference. What they remembered was did the audio visual program work seamlessly, was the air conditioning right, was the accommodation good and was the food good. Only then did they talk about the speakers, remembering they came, in the first place, for the program and the speakers.
Why do you come here each Sunday? What is the real reason you give up your time for this place? Is it for the church? Is it for the music? Is it for the morning tea? Is it for the preaching or the Eucharist? Why do you come?
Do you come to be opened up and disturbed by God even though the preaching might not be the greatest, or the music not to your liking or the morning tea has no pavlova? Are you here for the purpose of giving praise and thanks to God for Gods unending grace and mercy to you despite the difficulties in your life? Do you come to hear God’s spirit encouraging you to do more here and out there, to let go of your preconceptions and preoccupations so as to be filled with the desire to put love and compassion in action. Would it matter if some of the things we take for granted were not available, would you still come?
I hope you would. I hope you would, because as Jesus said, this place and the things that happen here will pass, only the resurrection and new life we take from here into the world will last. That is the mission God gives us and it is the only reason we should come here.