Today I want to talk about two different sorts of ‘disruption’ that this Sunday’s gospel reading (Jesus turning over tables in the Temple in John chapter 2) speaks to me of. The first is the disruption that this story can bring in relation to our understanding of the Bible. The second is in a way related to that, and is the disruption that Jesus brought and brings to religious people and systems! Yes, I want to talk about ‘Jesus the Disruptor’ today – exciting eh? Let’s have some Holy Disruption!
So, we will follow Jesus’ example and get straight to the point by ‘turning over some tables’ (as it were) relating to our understanding of the Bible. How about this for a provocative and disruptive statement: The placing of the story in John’s Gospel of Jesus ‘cleansing the Temple’ is probably incorrect, chronologically speaking.
What?! You might respond… ‘What are saying – that John’s Gospel is wrong? You can’t say that! You can’t say the Bible is not correct – who do you think you are?!’.
Well, maybe you would respond a little like that, and maybe you wouldn’t. If you were tempted to respond like that to the statement I made above, it might be because you have been taught that all of the Bible is ‘literal truth’ or the ‘inerrant Word of God’ or something like that. That sort of understanding of the Bible is still surprisingly common, and still taught to people in some churches today.
But if that is the case for you, and you think of the Bible as being ‘all literal truth’ or ‘inerrant’ then, well, I might gently suggest it’s time to allow Jesus to ‘turn over some tables’ in your understanding of the Scriptures! You see, it’s not me saying that John (or whoever wrote the Gospel – the text itself is anonymous) places this event in the wrong point in Jesus’ story – it is actually three people saying it, and they are Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Yes, this is one of those points in the Bible where the different traditions we have about the life of Jesus are in clear disagreement with each other. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke the story of Jesus turning over the tables in the Temple Courts happens immediately after the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, on Palm Sunday, and is clearly the event which precipitates Jesus’ arrest and eventual Crucifixion. John’s Gospel, however, places this story right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, just after the Wedding in Cana where Jesus turns water into wine.
There is no way of getting round this contradiction – they simply can’t both be correct. But of course, they really don’t need to be. Bible scholars have known for centuries that the Gospel writers edited their stories, selecting and redacting and shaping the elements to bring out certain emphases or flavours. The author of John’s Gospel, it is often suggested, places this story after the water-into-wine because it suits his purpose to do so. We will consider what that purpose was in a moment. But before we do – let me ask you this: Which is more shocking, that the four separate stories of Jesus’ life included in the Bible have some disagreement on the sequence of events, or that Jesus himself marched into the temple, made himself a whip, and started a one-man-riot?
If the first point shocks more than the second, then perhaps we have fallen into the trap of domesticating Jesus, and perhaps we need to pay attention to John’s Gospel more than ever.
You see, by placing the ‘Cleansing of the Temple’ at this point in the story, immediately after the Wedding at Cana, the author links the two events. He shows that Jesus’ abundant provision, power, grace and the new life that he offers stands in direct opposition to and challenges the power and place of the Temple in religious life (the Temple was the heart of the Jewish faith). This is why the author emphasises that the water that was turned into wine was for ‘the Jewish rites of purification’. With Jesus, the author seems to be saying, you can be made clean in a new and permanent way – clean on the inside – and you no longer need to sacrifice at the Temple to be made right with God.
What John’s Gospel is saying at this point would have been heard loud and clear by the people who were its first and intended audience; something like this: ‘Jesus disrupts the old way of doing things. He even disrupts the Temple – we don’t even need the Temple anymore!!
This was shocking then and might still be shocking now.
It was shocking then because the Temple had been* the centre of Jewish religious life, and Jesus was being represented as superior to and greater than the temple (and therefore by implication the Law of Moses).
It might be shocking now simply because we can forget that Jesus was disruptive – he came and caused disruption, even at the heart of religious faith.
Jesus disrupted then, and still disrupts now. This is why I was making the point about the different understandings of the Bible earlier. In my experience, it is possible for churches and teachers to want to domesticate Jesus and domesticate the Bible. What I mean is, that teachers and church leaders can sometimes want to make everything ‘neat and tidy’ for people, and to turn the disruptive and provocative words and message of Jesus into a sort of code of behaviour where as long as you go to church on a Sunday and do the right sort of things and say the right sort of things you will be accepted. The diversity and complexity of the ancient collection of stories and narratives and legal texts and histories and poetry etc that make up the Bible can sometimes be brushed over and ignored too, leaving our ability to read the Scriptures well greatly diminished.
But the Gospels, four different versions of essentially the same story, refuse to be harmonised into one account. The all have their own focus and style, and all emphasise different details, even whilst agreeing on the main elements of Jesus’ life (even if they don’t agree on the order!).
What we are left with can’t simply be tidied up into something straightforward, and we should be wary of those who say it can, and those who try to control and simplify the Bible!
And this brings me to my second point about ‘disruption’. You see, if the Bible as a whole or the Gospels can’t be tidied up and simplified, neither can the actions or the words of Jesus be tidied up into ‘nice’ moral teaching, that brings comfort but no challenge! Jesus’ teaching was inherently disruptive! And If that makes you feel unsettled, well, I am sorry about that, I really am – but also, in a way, not sorry!
After all, Jesus said things like ‘Love your enemies’ and ‘Love you neighbour as yourself’, and if we don’t find these shocking, difficult and disruptive, then we have simply not thought about them enough! Jesus also taught that desire was as much of a betrayal as adultery, and that being angry with your brother was as much of a barrier between you and God as murder (see Matthew 5.21-27)! Jesus’ teaching and commands often seem to be impossible!
But of course, by commanding us to do the impossible Jesus both shows us the great vision of what God desires for the world, and at the same time puts all people in an equal position. If we all fall short of God’s incredible standard, no-one gets to say that they are getting it all right, no-one gets to claim that they are the ‘finished article’ and so no-one gets to say that they are therefore ok with God and someone else isn’t. You see, the impossibility of Jesus’ moral teaching is ultimately good news for us, because when perfection is required, we all need grace.
When Jesus turned over the tables in the Temple, he was disrupting those who made profit and personal gain from the process of being put right with God; he was disrupting those who profited from and controlled the process of receiving God’s grace. Perhaps we might say that he was disrupting those that thought they had the grace of God under control, and he was opening wide the door of God’s grace to all, in fact to all who ‘believed in his name’ (as John chapter 1 verse puts it).
If that is the case, then that should give us all pause. For who are the people these days who think that they are ‘right-with-God’ and that other people are wrong? Where would you find people these days who think that they have God figured out and that other people need to learn? Well, most likely it would be inside a church, and quite possibly right at the front! (and yes, I’m thinking of people like me, people who might be Church leaders!).
You see, it is the season of Lent, and it is traditional in the season of Lent to think about Jesus turning over the tables in the Temple. It is therefore traditional in the season of Lent to allow ourselves to be confronted by this disruptive, messy, hard-to-understand moment in the Gospels when Jesus confronted those who thought they had God all-worked-out and opened wide the door of grace. I would say that Jesus still disrupts those who think they have God all-worked-out, and still opens wide the door of grace. Wider, I expect, than we would sometimes like (after all ‘all who believe in his name’ is hardly restrictive!).
The Temple, of course, was the very heart of both the faith and the nation. Jesus went to it and ‘cleansed it’ – he cleaned it out. I think that sums up very nicely the season of Lent. In Lent we let Jesus come to the Temple of our hearts, and turn over tables, and disrupt us from our cosy and comfortable places.
In Lent we let Jesus come and challenge us with the impossible perfection of the Kingdom of God.
In Lent we let Jesus remind us that we stand in need of grace.
In Lent we let Jesus disrupt our hearts from thinking that we are getting it right.
In Lent we let Jesus disrupt our tendencies to think we are better than others.
In Lent we welcome the disruptive presence of Jesus into our hearts, and let him cleanse them.
But also in Lent, we remember that Jesus opens wide the door of grace, for us, and for others.
* When the Gospel was written (we think between 90-110 CE), the Temple itself had been destroyed for years – by the Romans in 70CE.