As John tells it, the cleansing of the Temple is a story about how people tend to create rules for how to do something, and then allow the rules to become more important than the something they were intended to do.
John omits the phrase “den of thieves” from his version of the story, and John never does anything by accident. Every word counts. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (NRSV) This marketplace was a house of commerce in which the transactions necessary to worship according to the rules of the Temple were accomplished.
The rules were there, in scripture. Following the rules was equivalent to being faithful. The system very well may have been corrupted, as Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to indicate with their “den of thieves” quip. But John isn’t focused there. He is focused on the rules themselves, rules which have taken priority over the very thing they were intended to facilitate, namely an encounter with the Divine.
We miss the point when we think this story is about selling stuff in church. It’s way more than that. This story is about how the church tends to allow the rules (or norms, or customs, or standards, or …) to become a higher priority than encountering God.
Every church has rules. They are rarely explicit.
In some churches…
- Young people must act like older people.
- Hair must not be a peculiar color or shape.
- Only ears may be pierced, only on women, and only one time each.
- Gay couples must not hold hands.
- Clothing must not reveal too much skin.
- The skin that is revealed must not be inked.
- Scruffy looking clothing will not be tolerated.
And in some churches …
- Old people are just awful.
- “Traditional” sucks.
- Suits and ties are stuffy, and people who wear them are automatically hypocrites.
- Un-inked, un-pierced, un-dyed = loser.
- All gay people are liberals.
- It has to be loud to be worship.
- Scruffy looking clothing is cool, but only the expensive scruffy looking clothing that is designed that way and supposed to look scruffy in order to make a statement.
I hope that you read the above lists with a sense of tongue-in-cheek, and don’t take offense at either one. And please, I know that the temptation will be to do the whole “not in MY church” thing. Right, okay - go ahead and get that out of your system.
My point is simply to say that there are “rules” in every church (as well as in every neighborhood, in every office, in every town, etc.). And those rules are there in order to serve a greater purpose. And people will gradually but inevitably forget the greater purpose and just follow the rules.
Which is exactly what was happening in the Temple, and what John wanted to illuminate in the way he told the cleansing story.
So, the cleansing of the Temple wasn’t just to get rid of the “bad” stuff, it was to get rid of everything that had be prioritized ahead of God, good AND bad.
There is more going on spiritually in the world today than just the stuff contained in the specific, superficial lists of rules I poked at earlier. There are deeper and more profound shifts happening when it comes to the way people encounter God these days. Authors like Diana Butler Bass, Brian McClaren, and Phyllis Tickle (among others) have taken note and written about it.
Old rules are being challenged, though these rules are broader, and more difficult to extract.
Here’s a pretty simple example:
- A person has to become a member of a congregation in order to follow Jesus.
The category of “member” is in such a state of flux right now that it is nearly unrecognizable by the older standards. Being a member of Sam’s Club often has more meaning for people than being a member of a congregation.
- People have to attend worship every week in order to feel connected to a congregation.
It does not seem to diminish one’s feeling of connectedness in the slightest to be only infrequently face-to-face with others in the congregation, and with God for that matter. Online social networks and new digital communication tools have altered forever the ways we connect.
And how about this one:
- Never borrow anything, beliefs or practices or anything, from non-Christian religious traditions.
Post-modernity has flattened the earth and made us aware of our global community in unprecedented ways. We (meaning people all around the world) routinely adopt that which seems helpful from other cultures and traditions into our own. Yoga, anyone?
Remember, Jesus wasn’t overturning the tables because the tables were inherently bad. He was overturning them because they had become more important than God. So the spiritual shifts taking place in our world today, call it a “Great Emergence” or another “Great Awakening” or “A New Kind of Christianity” or something else, are not taking place because the old way is bad.
They are taking place because Jesus is overturning tables again.
Therefore, nobody needs feel threatened by these shifts. Nobody needs to panic. And definitely nobody needs to figure out ways to make the old rules fit into the new reality. They don’t. They won’t. Ever again.
There will be congregations that will cease to be. There will be denominations that will simply dissolve. 80 years from now “church” will be unrecognizable by today’s standards. And I for one see that as a wonderful, miraculous, God-inspired and Spirit-led possibility.