Empty Ritual

Mark 11:15-19 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 are texts about showing how empty some common practices have become. Jesus erupts seemingly out of nowhere, upsetting the civic peace that the Roman and Jewish authorities work so hard to maintain. hat is Jesus up to? Aren’t Jesus’ actions immoderate?

It strikes me that Jesus is blowing the whistle on temple practices that have taken on a life and importance of their own, and have no bearing on worshipping or promoting faith in God. Jesus appears to be acting recklessly, by attacking the status quo at the temple. At the same time, the temple practices themselves are deemed foolish and even abusive in the eyes of Jesus.

 As a child, I found the various Gospel lessons about “the cleansing of the Temple” quite reassuring. Like most children, I had a temper and when I didn’t get my way, I found slamming doors and throwing things quite satisfying — even if it did bring my parent’s wrath down on my head. As a child I didn’t have the capacity to determine of anger was righteous or not – it was enough that I was angry. That’s why hearing about Jesus loosing control in “church,” of all places, was eminently satisfying, especially since most of the time Jesus was so even tempered. It made me actually believe that Jesus was human as well as divine.

As an adult, I still find this reading reassuring, although it speaks to me of different things.

The story is much more complex than a childish understanding could grasp. The whole system of commerce in the Temple was well established, and indeed, quite a profit-making business for the temple authorities. Historians tell us that once a year, Jewish homeowners had to pay a temple tax, and that tax could be paid only in temple coin, not with Roman or Greek coins. Hence the moneychangers. But the moneychangers charged an exhorbitant fee for the exchange; often up to half the amount being changed went into their pockets, out of which the temple took its substantial cut.

Additionally any sacrifice offered at Passover had to be that of an animal without blemish. The temple authorities offered perfect animals for sale. Anyone bringing their own animal had to have it inspected by the priests. If the animal was rejected, the person had to buy another from the priests. This happened more often than not. Scholars tell us that a bird bought outside the Temple cost about 15 of our cents, but one from inside the Temple could cost many times as much.

So it was not simply the presence of the moneychangers and the animals offered for sale that so angered Jesus — after all, they were services meant for the convenience of people who had to travel long distances to get to Jerusalem. No, it was the misuse of authority in the blatant and gross overcharging of even the poorest people that set Jesus off. The practice itself, while seeming to serve a purpose for worship, established an oblique way of excluding the poor from regular temple worship, as well as extorting money from those who came to worship.

 The obvious arrangement was that people could acquire at the temple what they needed to worship. The tacit or veiled plan, however, limited worship only to those who could pay for the essentials in the first place. Worship was so important that people, if they could, would suffer greatly just for the ability and “privilege” to worship at the temple. In a way, Jesus takes a stand for all the people who are being taken advantage of for not being ‘good enough’ or ‘pure enough’ for God that they have been misled with empty practices so those in power can make money at their expense, or even be rejected from the temple.

Like the child who exposes the emperor’s nakedness in The Emperor’s New Clothes, Jesus is shouting out the truth that immediately becomes obvious:  ‘God is not locked up in the Holy of Holies waiting for you to bankrupt yourself to get pure enough to get closer –  God loves you, is present with you now – does not want your burnt offerings when they threaten your very existence – God wants you to be transformed by God’s love! Come as you are and worship God in spirit and in truth’.

This is liberation for the poor, and for the oppressors, from empty practices. This is a prophetic-political act of outrage directed not only against the sellers and the buyers, but also the temple authorities who encourage this abuse of devout people who only want to worship God. This is a grand public gesture and a threat – “I will cause the reality as you practice it to come to an end”. 

This person, Jesus, is not ‘moderate’ or ‘reasonable’ or ‘logical’ or ‘prudent’ or ‘safe’. Jesus is blowing the whistle on practices that consciously or unconsciously keep people out. We, as hearers of the gospel today, are invited to examine our own practices – to look around and underneath them to see if they, in some way, empty practices that exclude or discourage people who God has claimed as children.

Paul is saying the same thing in a wonderful challenge to those who follow eloquent, reasonable philosophical discourse on the one hand, and those who are turned off by the idea of worshipping a failed, executed criminal on the other. Paul is also whistle-blowing –  exposing the ease with which we deliberately ‘misunderstand’ the cross. God’s wisdom is not moderate or reasonable or logical or prudent or safe – it is driven by passionate love for the world and everything in it. This wisdom is about realizing the extraordinary and difficult act that will be necessary to save the world from itself – from empty practices and futile acts of self-justification.

There’s nothing reasonable or safe about this kind of love at all! To reject the idea of Christ crucified and resurrected is to reject the wisdom of salvation offered by God.

Whistle-blowing is about telling the truth in the face of danger, exposing the emptiness of how some traditions are practiced. It is those who ‘do the truth’ who come to the light, and it is by knowing the truth that the world itself can be set free from its greed and abuse of power, self-justification and personal self-satisfaction. Ultimately, this truth is the reality of God made present, and of God’s claim upon the world – expressed and acknowledged in love.

We are not all called to be prophets. We will not all make dramatic public gestures of protest. But that does not prevent us from standing with what is right. Christ is controversial – certainly uncomfortable to be around if you are into the world’s status quo. Isn’t that also true for Christ’s followers?

The upshot of Jesus’ actions are found in the verses that are actually quotes from Isaiah – from the prophets that Jesus considered scripture. ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people!’ It is not only inappropriate to place barriers in front of those who wish to worship the living God, it is downright ungodly … it is an empty practice. When we hear the phrase “a house of prayer for all people”, can any of us think of someone that does not qualify?

We are collectively contemplating a future – in the power of the Holy Spirit trying to envision the future of this church. We begin this contemplation by thinking about our practices or attitudes and how they might discourage people. While we know they are not intentional, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. We are embarking on a journey of self-discovery in God’s love to discern a future – a future that God has in store, one that God is calling us to share. Let us dare to do this by willingly examining our own practices to which we have become so accustomed, but that may may no longer be wise considering our desire to embrace people when they come in.

This may, of course, be uncomfortable. But comfort is not a priority. It may be that an encounter with the whistle-blowing Jesus is just the thing to prompt believers into asking anew the age-old questions; re-acquainting themselves with the dynamic, challenging, controversial Jesus. And deciding again what it means to be a follower of Christ in this time and in this place.

1 Response to “Empty Ritual”

  1. 1 Adam Roper
    May 7, 2009 at 10:07 PM

    Well said. I do think, every so often, churches need to revisit the reasons why we do things. Otherwise churches just stagnate and become ineffective.

    Thanks for this article. I enjoyed it muchly.

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... or, preaching from both ends


That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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