What are the things in this world that make you angry? Really angry. The things that make you want to kick things and throw things! Or are you the kind of person that seems to calmly accept everything, on the surface, and yet are really seething underneath? The columns of our newspapers are filled with letters that could be signed, “angry of Arran” or “angry of Arimathea”. Throughout the centuries there have been armies of angry young men and women who have tried and continue to try to change the world for the better. How many people have died for instance to try to eradicate racism or oppression or injustice of one sort or another? We’ve seen riots recently and placards from places like Greece, ordinary people really angry at what they see as the double-dealings of those in the global financial sector, the seeming incompetence of their government and the drastic nature of the cuts that are proposed in their public spending. We too are angry, angry that the greed of a few has led to a rise in austerity for those who are not responsible for the situation. Pensioners who saved carefully finding their money doesn’t go far enough. Young folks saving for a house who can’t get a mortgage. Folks who bought homes at high cost and now cannot sell them when they need to. Honest hard-working people who are set to lose their jobs or who have been asked to take less pay for the same working day. Others who have had to leave home and family and work and travel far away to keep things going. IT IS NOT FAIR! And it’s the unfairness of it that makes us so angry.
Jesus was angry. We don’t often think about him in the way. We like to think of him as the Jesus of the Christmas songs, gentle Jesus meek and mild. The Jesus who healed and helped and told stories. We’re comfortable with that Jesus. Are we so comfortable with the Jesus who makes a whip, who turns over tables and drives people and animals out of the temple in a fit of extreme anger?
Why was he SO angry? Let’s have a wee look at that.
So the background to this story of Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem. The timing? Well it’s Passover time and so the places in heaving, really really busy. For Jews from all over the world to be in Jerusalem at Passover time is the absolute zenith of their religious life. Jewish Law said that any man living within 15 miles of Jerusalem was required to be there for Passover and it was the ambition of other Jews from all over the world to be there too. Some had travelled huge distances and so there were many different currencies in many a traveller’s pocket. It was estimated by historians that at some points there were more than 2 million people in the city (that’s hard to take in) even in those times. And while they were there they had to pay the Temple Tax… a church tax would certainly keep the Churches in Scotland going, is anyone voting for that? Anyway, the tax had to be paid in Jewish shekels and of course those who had travelled from a distance would have different types of coinage. The money changers were just that, they were the currency dealers of the day. Just like the money exchanges we see in the airport or in any large city, they bought and sold currency so that pilgrims could pay their taxes in the coinage that the temple rulers required. So they were doing their job BUT they were not doing it fairly. They were charging exorbitant rates and it was common practice to charge twice! The tax amount was half a shekel so they charged a rate to change the half shekel and they charged another rate for every half shekel they had to return.. so for instance if you had a coin that was worth 2 shekels, then there was a charge to change it an for every half shekel over the tax amount there was another charge for the change. The commission could be as much as a day’s wages! The money changers made a good profit when you consider that the Temple taxes came to the equivalent of £100,000.
The money changers were necessary, the exorbitant rates were not. Everyone was out to make a fast buck from those who could least afford it. Does that ring any bells for us today?
And that is what made Jesus so angry with the money lenders. They were cheats. They had a monopoly, there were no checks and balances and the Temple officials seemed to be sanctioning it At least they hadn’t done anything to stop it.
So that’s the money changers. What about all the animals? What was that about? Sheep, cattle and pigeons, what were they doing in the Temple precincts? Well that was another racket! Wherever there are people and money to be made and a captive audience then there are folks who will ramp up the charges. We see that in our modem world where a bag of sweets in the cinema costs four times the cost of a bag of sweets outside the cinema. In one cinema in Edinburgh they were even, for a time, searching children’s bags to make sure they weren’t bringing in sweets and goodies from outside. That must be an infringement of human rights surely! Doesn’t happen with the Screen Machine I’m glad to say!
So each pilgrim was required to make a sacrifice and animals were used for that. They were allowed to bring an animal in but there were special agents of the Temple who checked to see if the animal was perfect in every way and suitable for the sacrifice. They clearly were not above a bit of corruption because most animals that were presented from outside the Temple were rejected by these guys as not meeting their standards. And so the pilgrim had no choice but to buy his sacrificial animal from the traders working in the Temple precincts. Well did that matter? A pair of doves inside the Temple could cost as much as 15 times the usual price. Not only that there was a cost to have your animal checked for sacrifice. The pilgrim couldn’t win, could he? They were stitched up! It happens to us all the time. On Friday on a visit to my daughter we had to listen to my son-in-law laying off about the cost of holidays for a family with a disabled child. Extra this, extra that and another hike in charges because it was the school holidays. And if your Dad is a teacher as mine was, and as my son-in-law is, then regardless of the age of your children, the school holidays are the time you must go. Well that’s bad enough isn’t it BUT all of the profiteering that Jesus came across was done in the name of religion. Poor people, faithful people, trying to put themselves right with their God in the way that they had been told they must, being ripped off with the sanction of the very people who should have been on their side, the Temple officials.
So this story is not to stop us having a bookstall in the Church or raising money for a good cause or selling souvenirs to help our funds. It’s about injustice in general and in particular when it is perpetrated by those who should be there to help us or in the name of religion. You can make your own list later on! Jesus was angry because he simply couldn’t stand by and watch others being cheated in the name of God. And of course it is after this that Jesus himself became the most costly and scandalous sacrificial animal of all time. The final priceless injustice but one that paid that price for each one of us for all time. But more of that in the next few weeks as we approach Easter.