Religion — True and False
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” John 2:13-16
There are several ways to read the gospel narratives. I find one of the most helpful is to think of Jesus as a role model. How would my life different if I were to act in the way Jesus is acting in the gospel story? I realize that we live in a very different culture. But in most ways, things really haven’t changed that much. This morning I would like for us to consider Jesus’ relationship to the religion of his day. As we do this, we should ask ourselves how we should react to the religion of our day.
In the Gospel of Luke, we learn that Jesus was circumcised when he was eight days old. Historians tell us that in first century Judaism it was customary for the father to circumcise his son. As part of this ritual, the father would also give the child a name. The gospel of Matthew tells us that Joseph named his son Jesus.
Luke quotes the Book of Exodus as he explains that when Jesus was seven weeks old his parents brought him to the Temple in Jerusalem to dedicate him to the Lord. In observance of the Jewish Law, the parents were to offer two doves to be sacrificed on the alter. Actually, the Law required that a lamb be sacrificed. However, an exception was allowed if the family was poor and unable to afford a lamb. Under these circumstances, the Law stated that a pair of pigeons or doves could be offered.
Getting from Bethlehem to the Temple in Jerusalem would have been fairly easy. The distance is just a little over five miles. But, where would this young couple have gotten the two doves for their sacrifice? No problem! As they entered the outer courtyard of the temple they would have encountered men selling doves. However, there was a catch. In order to purchase these doves, they would need the special temple coinage. Right there in the courtyard or what was known as the “Court of the Gentiles,” there was a table where you could exchange Roman coins for temple coins. How convenient! The exchange rate was not too good, but what could you do?
The gospels make it clear that Jesus grew up in an observant, orthodox family. After they settled in Nazareth, it was his family’s practice to go up to Jerusalem every year to celebrate the festival of Passover. They would have camped in tents just outside the city walls. Luke recalls for us the Passover when Jesus was twelve years old. That year he ventured into the Temple alone. His family was half way home before they realized that the boy wasn’t with them. When they finally found him, they were not happy. “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety!” (Luke 2:48) He explained that he had been with the rabbis in the Temple courtyard, asking them questions.
As he grew up, Jesus began to notice things about his religion that bothered him. Like most teenagers, he began to look at the world around him more critically. He couldn’t help but notice the Pharisees as they went strutting through the streets of Nazareth — looking down their noses at common people like his parents. Once, when he was in Jerusalem with his family, perhaps during Passover, Jesus ventured into the outer courtyard of the Temple, the Court of the Gentiles. As he stood there looking around, he noticed, for the first time, that the men selling the lambs and the doves for sacrifice, were charging amazing prices. Perhaps he saw a family enter the courtyard, their son carrying a lamb. As a priest inspects the lamb he points out that the animal has crossed eyes! “You cannot offer such an animal as a sacrifice to the Holy One of Israel!” Then the priest points out that on the other side of the courtyard they could purchase a “certified, unblemished lamb,” guaranteed to pass inspection. Jesus left the Temple that morning very troubled. He felt sorry for that family. It just wasn’t right.
In Jesus’ day there were many Jews who were disenchanted with what was going on in Jerusalem. The Essenes, a Jewish sect living out in desert, wouldn’t go within ten miles of the city. They considered the Temple, that was under construction at that time, to be a desecration and a sacrilege. It was being built by Herod, who was not a Jew. And, it was funded by imperial money. They believed that the real Temple would be built by the Lord’s Messiah when he appeared.
Jesus did not join the Essenes, although there are some scholars who believe that he might have spent time in the community of that sect. But he did come to share their view that the Judaism of his day was fundamentally flawed. And what disturbed him most, was that from his perspective, many of the religious leaders of his day were actually making it more difficult for people to know and to worship God. As he put it, they were piling burdens on people’s backs! Both Jesus and his cousin John referred to the religious leaders of their day as a “brood of vipers!”
When Jesus launched his ministry — when he became “Rabbi Jesus” — he was spending time with John in the dessert. John’s community, like that of the Essenes, was located some distance from the city of Jerusalem. In his gospel, Luke gives us a few sound bites from John’s preaching. Seeing the observant, very religious people who came down from Jerusalem to hear him preach, he disparaged their boasting that they were the real “descendants of Abraham” — God’s special people! “Don’t you know that God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones here on the ground?” He was telling them that God was not impressed with their religiosity. “What then should we do,” they asked him. He replied, “let him who has two coats share with him who has none.”
Jesus was often very blunt when he spoke to his disciples about the religious leaders of his day — the Pharisees. “Practice and observe what they tell you,” he said. But, not what they do! They do everything to be seen by people. They make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” Phylacteries, by the way, were small boxes containing verses from the Torah. They were worn on the arm or forehead during prayer services. The “fringes” were tassels worn by rabbis on their shawls or outer garments.
The gospels make it abundantly clear that Jesus, Rabbi Jesus, was an orthodox, observant Jew. So, like the Pharisees, he too would have worn four tassels hanging from the corners of his shawl. Recall the story of the seriously ill woman who pushed her way through the crowd to get close to Jesus. Jesus stopped and asked, “who touched me?” His disciples reminded him that in a crowd like that they were getting jostled and pushed about. They were surrounded with people. Jesus turned and looked at a woman near him. She explained that she was sure that if she could manage to just touch one of his tassels she would be healed. You probably remember the traditional translation of this passage which reads, “if I could but touch the hem of your garment.” But the Greek word used here is best translated “tassel.” Jesus criticism of the Pharisees was that they insisted on having very long, fancy tassels.
One day he was speaking to his disciples about prayer. “Don’t be like the hypocrites,” he said, referring to the Pharisees. “They like to stand and pray on the street corners, that they may be seen by men.” Jesus had little use for such phony religion.
This brings us to our gospel reading for today. Jesus was standing in the outer courtyard of the temple. It hadn’t changed since that day when his proud parents had brought him there to dedicated to the Lord. There were the men, still selling the “officially approved” lambs and doves. The money changers with their special temple coinage were still in business. Perhaps he saw a young family enter the courtyard bringing their lamb. They were there to worship the Lord and to offer a sacrifice. But, then he overheard one of the official inspectors telling them their lamb was unacceptable. Perhaps it had a slight limp. The Torah specifies that any animal sacrificed to the Lord must be “without blemish.” They walked away, unable to afford the price of one of these “approved animals.” It was too much! Suddenly Jesus was running from one part of the courtyard to another swinging a rope. Doves were flying away as he broke open the cages. Lambs were running through the courtyard and out the gate. The sound of coins bouncing on the stone floor could be heard. People were down on the hands and knees trying to pick up as many of these coins as possible. And now Rabbi Jesus, standing in the midst of all this confusion stopped and spoke. “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have made it a den of robbers!” (Mark 11:17)
In the Epistle of James, a clear distinction is made between true and false religion. “If any think they are religious,” James wrote, “and do not bridle their tongue, they deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless! Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)
Those of us who are more or less religious would do well to reflect on our religious practices. Which of these practices are false or, should I say phony? And, which are true? This is not an idle question. It is a matter of life and death. In true religion we will find life — abundant life in Christ. Jesus said that he had come that we might have “Abundant Life.” And, in false religion our soul will surely shrivel up and die. Let us examine thoughtfully and prayerfully our religious practices. Are they true or are they false?