Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tit for Tat

John 2:13-22

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!" His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me." The Jews then said to him, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

I’ll do almost anything to get a good deal. I cut coupons, I shop around, I buy generic, and you’ll see me in the back of the store, rifling through the clearance rack, but only if it’s an extra 50% off. I’ve also joined that “Groupon” website - you know the one where you get special deals for restaurants and museums and movies. Some people call me “cheap,” or “stingy,” others “smart,” and still others just understand that, yes, I’m a poor seminary student. I don’t let go of the few dollars in my pocket easily. I want to receive a lot in exchange for what I give.

And unfortunately, I find myself doing this in other ways, too, in ways that aren’t directly connected to my finances. I want to know what I’ll “get” from that long drive to visit my family, or what will come out of my time spent having coffee with a friend.

If I work hard in my classes, it’s not good enough that I’ve learned the material or grown spiritually; I want the A. If I spend “quality” time with my son, he’d better be learning a new skill, like learning to count, or learn to recognize the difference between green and yellow, or know the ABC’s by the time I’m done. Heck, I often find myself coming to church and thinking, “Gee, I wonder what I’m going to get out of the service today.”

In our world, everything seems to have to have some “point,” some purpose. I have to “get” something out of it, or it’s a waste. A waste of time, or of resources, or of money, or energy or whatever.

And I don’t think I’m alone here. I think that we all live our lives in a frenzied consumerist economy. We all have this expectation that If I give you something, I should expect something from you in return. We give our time to our workplaces, and receive a paycheck in return. We give money to charities, and we expect them to use it wisely, sure, but we also expect a sense of self-satisfaction to come over us after we send that check in the mail.

If I tell my husband, “I love you,” I have this expectation that he will respond in kind by saying, “I love you, too.” We live in a “tit for tat” world, one where there is “no such thing as a free lunch” and where everything comes with a price of some kind.

It seems like our brains are just wired for this. We live in a world that seems to define for us what we should want, and then tells us what we have to give up in order to get it. Do you want a slimmer body? Just take these pills, or follow this exercise regimen, or eat our specially made menu of food items, and for $195 a month you can look just like Angelina Jolie, or Brad Pitt, or any one of the other celebrities that the media has told us we need to look like. Do you want to be respected and admired? Just put down $3000 and with a $500 lease you, too, can drive the fancy car with the shiny rims, and finally get the respect you deserve.

Or maybe you can go to school for years, spend your time studying and take out mountains of loans and tack your walls full of diplomas. Or you can just spend that extra hour a night at work so your boss will finally recognize all your hard work.

Now please don’t misunderstand me, in and of themselves, there really is nothing wrong with going on a diet, driving a nicer car, or going to school. But it is when we live our lives with a kind of economic expectation, when we expect an exchange of goods or feelings or whatever in every encounter, I think we’re missing out on something, something big.

We’re spending all our time acquiring stuff and accolades and friends and culture and lawn tools and power machines and purse collections and fancy shoes that we’re missing life altogether.

This is what our passage is about today.

Maybe that’s why we feel so uncomfortable with this passage. This is Jesus acting the opposite of what we expect. This isn’t the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” that we’re comfortable with. Jesus is angry here, really angry. Something absolutely wrong is going on, and John wants to emphasize it, which is why he places this event at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. So what is it that has Jesus so riled up?

It’s not about Jesus’ rejection of the “old” way of worshipping God and replacing it with some “new” way. It’s not about Jesus rejecting Judaism or the Temple, or even sacrifices themselves. Jesus is challenging the same element in his own culture as is in ours. It’s about our economic brains or culture or logic or whatever you want to call it. It’s about our insistence that we have to “get” something out of everything we give. It’s about how we feel like we don’t deserve something if we haven’t “paid” for it in some way.

John places this at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. John wants us to know that Jesus’ actions here are foundational to everything he is going to do afterwards.

Let’s take a closer look at what is going on in this passage:

This passage reveals a series of exchanges. The time for celebrating the Passover is near, and so Jews from far and wide are coming to this central place, to the Temple, to offer their sacrifices to God. The Passover was and is the holiest time in the Jewish calendar, a time for remembering the Exodus from Egypt - a time when the Hebrews, enslaved by the Egyptians, were granted freedom.

This celebration is about God’s liberation, God’s absolute Grace toward the Hebrews, the amazing Gift of freedom for God’s people.

But when they prepare to enter Jerusalem and go to the temple, their economic brains are put into high gear. They are locked into a system that will enslave them, and will enslave us, if we’re not careful.

First, they must exchange their coins. For a small fee, their local coins would have been exchanged for a “purer” Tyrian shekel. This wasn’t because their coins would have had images on them and the Tyrian shekel wouldn’t. Both had pagan images on them. But the high priests of the Temple only accepted the Tyrian shekel for the Temple tax because it was considered to be made of the purest silver. The moneychangers would charge a small fee for this service. This is their first economic exchange: their own local currency in exchange, for a small fee, for the “purer” Tyrian shekel.

This Temple Tax was expected of all good Jews, with exceptions for the poor. Many Jews did this because they believed it was just the right thing to do. And tithing, I think, is the right thing to do. But so often we do it with expectations in mind. We give, but we still want something in return, even if its just the good feelings that come when we write that check. We can imagine that these people felt this way too: “I’m a good Jew because I have paid the tax.” This is similar to how many of us may feel when we tithe to our church or donate money to the local public radio station or buy girl scout cookies.

We want to give without expecting anything in return, but so often, we do expect a tit for our tat. This is yet another exchange: Paying the Temple Tax is an exchange for the feeling that you are doing your duty, you’ve met expectations, you’re in “good standing” with your faith tradition.

Then we have another set of exchanges: the purchase of the animals needed for their offerings to God. So they’d exchange their Roman denarii or local currency for cattle and sheep if they were wealthy, or for a pair of doves if they were considered poor.

Ideally, these animals were considered gifts to God, an offering of love and an expression of worship. But I can picture myself in this situation. I’d want to think of these animals as being offered as sacrifices to God because I’ve done something wrong. I’d want to look upon my doves or my lamb and think of them as replacements for what I deserve. After all, I’ve worked hard for the money to buy this, and I want something tangible to come out of all my hard work.

I’d like to think that if I just offer this one thing to God - maybe my Sundays, or 10% of my income, or if I give up chocolate for Lent, I will have done what I need to do to be right with God, or to be a good Christian. It’s a very human attitude: I will have met the requirements. I will have made a proper exchange. Again, John gives us another picture of our economic brains. Yet another exchange.

Then those who have come to celebrate Passover would take their offering to the priest who would offer it up to God in their stead. The Jews didn’t think just anyone was worthy of offering his or her sacrifice to God. A purer, holier person had to do it. How often do we think that our gifts, our talents, our little pittance offerings aren’t good enough for God? How often do we think that we need something more, something worthier, than what we have? How many of us think that our offering isn’t enough. This is yet another side of our economic brains.

And the reality is that none of us have enough. If we try to keep playing this game, this “tit for tat,” this “this for that” economics, we’re all going to run out of resources, and quick.

And it is this that gets Jesus all riled up. He’s ANGRY. We are not comfortable with this Jesus. We want the Jesus who is meek and mild and accepting. But, it’s clear that the one thing that makes Jesus the most angry, the thing that causes Jesus to react the most dramatically out of all of the testimonies in our Gospels, is that the house of God has turned into a house of trade. A marketplace. A place where you have to come with something in order to get something. A place where you have to have in order to get more. This isn’t what the Temple was about. It was supposed to be a place to meet God. It was supposed to be a place to express your love for God, and that could be where you gave an offering of sheep or cattle or doves. But here, it seems to have become a requirement.

It has become a place where the economic brain and the exchange of “this for that” attitude has been reinforced, instead of a place where God’s grace has flourished and grown and exploded beyond the Temple walls. The offerings were supposed to be responses to God’s grace, but instead, they have become tools of exchange for consumers, a philosophy of supply and demand.

This passage is about Grace. And boy, if we’re totally honest, are we uncomfortable with Grace. We hate the unfairness of Grace. We hate that the prodigal son gets a party when we’ve been good and faithful and working all along. We hate that the workers who started at 5 in the afternoon get paid the same amount as those of us who started at 8 in the morning. And, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we are extremely uncomfortable with the fact that we, too are the ones who don’t deserve all that we have, and so we join in on the rat race to try to prove to everyone else, and even to God, that we deserve what we’ve got.

We try to “pay” for our grace, for our encounters with God. We try to prove to ourselves and to others that we’ve earned it. Don’t we feel so much better about ourselves when we’ve paid that final car payment, or gotten the raise after we’ve devoted our hard work and time to that important project? Aren’t we terrified to come before God with empty hands? I know I am.

This is what Nicodemus asks right after Jesus’ encounter in the Temple. He wants what Jesus has to offer, and wants to know how he can get it, what he can do to achieve it. And Jesus basically tells him that there is nothing he can do. He says, “You must be born from above.” Nicodemus responds by basically saying, “How the heck do you do that? And I think that’s exactly the point. Jesus says that it’s not about what Nicodemus can or should do, but about what He is going to do. It’s about receiving, not about exchanging.

Jesus is so serious about this that when asked for a sign, or for justification for the havoc he is raising, he says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Those around him are in a state of disbelief: this is an impossibility. They say, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” They immediately go straight to their own human powers and abilities. They go to their default setting, which is thinking in economic terms.

But Jesus doesn’t think in those terms. John tells us that Jesus isn’t thinking about a place, but his body. This is a temple that has nothing to do with the quid pro quo of economic exchange. This is a temple that has to do with relationship.

And Jesus’ ministry begins in the Gospel of John with this usurping of expectations, with this emphasis on the relationship, and continues his ministry in this same vein. The disciples are expecting great wealth and power and prestige from the coming of the Messiah, but what they get is a broken man hanging on a cross like a common thief. They certainly do not get what they expected. But they are given more than what they expected.

They are given the freedom to live their lives in the arms of the one who loves beyond any economic expectation, any consumer perspective, any system of exchange of goods or attitudes or accolades or anything that can be earned. God’s Grace is that big.

When we give up our “exchanges,” our “tit for tat,” our false assurance that we’ve done our duty and we can check “good Christian” off of our list and then claim to just move on with our lives, when we can do that, then we can live in the freedom that God wants us to live in. We can experience the true joy of grace and peace and love, and then we can respond with our tithes, our talents, our time, our gifts. But the Grace, always, always, always, comes first.

Thanks be to God.