Scripture: John 2:13-25
I was a teenager in the 1990’s. I am not sure if you remember or are very attuned to church happenings during that time, but in the 1990’s I think every single youth group or teens Sunday School class was dominated by the same four letters: WWJD. “What Would Jesus Do?” was all of the rage in the 1990s. The little bracelets with WWJD on them were everywhere. I seriously think asking “what would Jesus do” was the basis for at least half of the youth group meetings I attended in high school. The common approach was to set up a scene and then ask “what would Jesus do?” in that given scene. Now given that I half paid attention to a lot of these lessons in my teenage years, I know that in these WWJD lessons the answer is that Jesus would always do the calm, peaceful, and friendly thing. Honestly, these WWJD lessons always made Jesus come off a bit like a holy version of Mr. Rogers. In any given situation asking someone to consider “what would Jesus do” was essentially asking them to consider what is the calmest, most loving, and peaceful way they can handle the situation. The problem with that mindset is it totally forgets this morning’s scripture exist, because flipping the tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibility for what Jesus would do.
The whole idea behind WWJD in the 90’s was to get people to consider how their faith was lived out intentionally in their everyday life. However, the unintended consequence was that it put Jesus in a very tame box. Scriptures like this morning remind us that Jesus was actually a bit of a rebel. One of the ironies is that the originator of the phrase “What would Jesus do” understood this because he was a bit of a rebel as well. What would Jesus do finds its origins all the way back in 1886. A Kansas preacher named Charles Sheldon was an accomplished storyteller. He would end his services with a story he wove and ask his congregation, what would Jesus do? This would be a cliff hanger, and he would not answer his own question until the next week. Eventually, Sheldon collected these stories in a book entitled In his Steps: What Would Jesus Do? During his lifetime, the book made the list of the top 50 bestselling books of all time. Over the decades the book faded into obscurity until a youth minister in 1989 read it, and she placed a custom order of bracelets for their youth group that had the letters WWJD on them as a reminder. Sheldon first popularized asking “what would Jesus do?” and he understood Jesus’ more rebellious tendencies, because Sheldon himself was a bit of a radical. In an era when racism was even more mainstream, Sheldon fully integrated his Kansas church and welcomed people of all skin color. He was not afraid to denounce the KKK and actively oppose them. Even more controversial for the era, he actively encouraged the women of his congregation to be involved in politics, campaigned for women’s suffrage, and advocated for fair and equal treatment of women in the workplace. He was also not afraid to criticize the evils of capitalism and how the economic system, when left unchecked, was cruel to the poor. Charles Sheldon sought to live what he preached, and he preached “what would Jesus do.” Seeking to answer this question led Sheldon to be a radical and rebel against the culture of his day. Disciples of Jesus seeking to follow their Lord, can still find themselves rebels today. Throughout Lent we have considered the aspects of Jesus that can be found in the scriptures. Today, we focus on Jesus as rebel.
The incident with Jesus driving out the money changers appears in all four gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke it is recorded as part of the Holy Week events leading up to the crucifixion. However, this morning’s scripture from the gospel of John places it at the beginning of Jesus ministry. This has led to some debate as if Jesus cleared the temple twice of it John put the story out of chronological order for stylistic and theological reasons. Regardless, it is mind boggling that Jesus did not get arrested then and there. It was not like these moneychangers and merchants had just set up shop. They had been there for years. In fact, when Herod the Great expanded the temple he created a colonnaded area for the very purpose of commerce. Jesus was not putting some disrespectful upstarts in their place. He was disrupting an established business. Jesus was not peacefully protesting. He was violently resisting a great wrong, and taking an action that was technically illegal. There is no way around this: In this scripture Jesus is a rebel. He takes a stand and actively resist what is wrong. The question is what motivated Jesus to rebel and should we be motivated to action for the same reasons?
There is a specific injustice here that has Jesus riled up, and there is a reason he overturned the table of the money changers. Jews came from all over the world to make sacrifices to God as their act of worship. People who traveled, especially from a long distance, could not bring the sacrificial animal with them. Because the temple was considered holy, only clean things were permitted past the outer courts. This included money, so the money changers would take the foreign currency and exchange it for the temple currency. However, the exchange rate was not equal. Any parent who has ever been to Chuck E. Cheese knows how this racket work. I give them US dollars for their token currency, which my kids then turn into a ticket currency that they can spend at the Chuck E. Cheese store. Chuck E. Cheese is brutally honest, 1 ticket equal one penny. Last time we went there, my kids did extremely well and managed to turn $20 into $8 worth of tickets. Now pay to play arcade games make sense. I might complain about the bad investment but I knew what I was getting into when I walked in there with my kids over spring break. However, pay to play religion is something else entirely, and Jesus treated it like the evil it was. For the Jews to worship God, as the law stated they had to make sacrifices, and the merchants and moneychangers were profiting off of the piety of others. People were earnestly trying to come to God, and the system was adding obstacles and roadblocks that hampered people from getting to God. This was wrong and evil, but this was not what really got Jesus upset. What drove Jesus to the point of chasing people out with a whip is who the merchants and moneychangers were taking advantage of the most.
When Jesus is clearing the temple courts, the gospel of John records him shouting “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” It is worth noting who Jesus direct this statement towards. According to verse 16 Jesus said this to “those who sold doves.” It is not an accident that Jesus directed his ire to this group. During the Passover the standard offering was a lamb. However, the realities every family could not afford an unblemished lamb every year for a sacrifice. It was acceptable for the very poor to make a dove sacrifice. What really angered Jesus was that the merchants and moneychangers were profiting off of the poorest and most vulnerable. For the wealthy buying a lamb, even at inflated prices with a bad exchange rate would not have been a major sacrifice. However, for the poorest of the poor, just buying a dove to sacrifice would have potentially meant sacrificing money that would have been needed for basic provisions. The fact that people were selfishly profiting for this sacrifice, filled Jesus with righteous anger and compelled him to take action.
As vile as the practice of fleecing the poor and making faithful devotion something to be purely profited from was, we have to confess that Jesus’ actions were a form of violent protest. As justified as Jesus was in taking his action, we have to acknowledge that Jesus was being a rebel. He was stepping out of line, he was challenging the system, and he was not take no for an answer. The Jewish leaders challenged Jesus on his authority to do this, and Jesus did not back down. Jesus challenged the cultural and religious institution of his day. The popular thought of this day is that was just how business is done. It was a systemic evil that had been accepted as the status quo, but Jesus rebelled. If we are going to seriously ask ourselves and consider “what would Jesus do?” then we have to be ready. Because sometimes the answer is “Jesus would rebel.”
In this morning’s scripture Jesus took his anger and directed it to take action against a systemic evil. We tend to be good at getting angry, but we often direct it at the wrong things. For instance, people saying happy holidays instead of merry Christmas is not the best area to direct our righteous fury. If we are going to rebel against the status quo of our day, then let us smartly consider what would Jesus rebel against? What are the institutions and systemic evils that if confronted by them, Jesus would challenge and not back down?
In part that is a hypothetical question, but it can be a guide for us to start thinking about how we can better follow Jesus. What evil in the world really upsets you? Does it anger you that worldwide up to 4 million people, the majority being women and children, are caught in human trafficking? Does it anger you that 795 million people in the world are chronically malnourished and are at risk of starvation? We have enough food in the world to feed everyone, yet because it is not profitable we do not. Does it anger you that one out of ten people in the world do not have access to clean water? Does it anger you that while all of these people are suffering greed has fueled income inequality to almost unprecedented levels? There is a lot wrong with the world, much of these wrongs are accepted as the status quo. Sadly, many of these wrongs have been codified into law as a way to package something evil as right. We cannot fix all of the wrong in the world, but we can certainly care enough to work on some of them. What evil in the world upsets you the most? Figure that and then do something about it. Be an advocate, give a voice to those without a voice, and get involved. Be willing to be bold and fearless in standing for the truth, because that is the only way to do it. To do this requires going against the status quo, it requires being a rebel, and it requires acting like Jesus.
One of the reasons why Jesus did what he did in this morning’s scripture is recorded in verse 17. It states, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” I love the use of the world zeal. May God give us zeal in our compassion for others. In whatever way you feel most led, may you act on that compassion. May a holy discontent rise up within you so that you can no longer accept a status quo that allows greed, selfishness, and evil to flourish. When we are confronted by things in this world that we know are wrong, then may we truly be willing to ask what would Jesus do; but may we be willing to accept that the answer could be Jesus might make a scene opposing this. May we be comfortable with that, and may we follow the example of our Lord and Savior. When necessary, may we be a rebel like Jesus for the greater glory of God.