Selling the Gospel Short

Prof. Jonathan L. Walton

Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

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13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 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. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 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.

John 2:13-22

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Several major companies did the unthinkable this week. They stood up to the National Rifle Association. Their actions appear to be in response to the morally courageous and ethically indomitable high schoolers from Lakeland, Florida. These kids refuse to pray and mourn quietly. These young victims of violence did not get the memo that they should attribute the mass shooting at their high school solely to a lone wolf deranged teenager. But instead, they added their voices to those victims of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Newtown, Orlando, Sutherland Springs, and scores of other communities who have endured mass shootings in recent decades.

These fearless young people have cut through the talking points pitting gun regulation against personal freedom. They have undermined the ideological agenda of those who tie the Second Amendment to killing machines such as military grade assault weapons used in Lakeland. And these teenagers have emboldened the majority of this nation’s citizens who desire sensible gun control legislation.

For instance, Walmart, the most prominent gun seller, announced that it would raise the minimum age for gun purchase to 21. Nor will it sell anything resembling assault-style rifles. Similarly, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced that it would immediately cease selling all assault-style rifles and high capacity magazines. It doesn’t take Elmer Fudd to realize that sportsmen do not need an AR-15 to hunt deer. Speaking of this weapon, Afghanistan war veteran and Florida Republican Congressman Brian Mast in last week’s New York Times: “I have fired tens of thousands of rounds through that rifle, many in combat. We used it because it was the most lethal — the best for killing our enemies. And I know that my community, our schools, and public gathering places are not made safer by any person having access to the best killing tool the Army could put in my hands.”

Even for those of us who deem these decisions as somewhat circumspect and modest, we still must acknowledge their moral stance. With these actions, these companies and this Congressman made a declaration. There are some things in life that we must value more than profit reports. Some decisions in life must trump the personal desire for a higher moral good.

Here I imagine a new spin on that famous credit card commercial.

AR-15 Rifle: $749
10 Rounds of Ammunition: $490
Curbing accessibility to assault weapons and thus preserving life: Priceless

I understand that this is a radical thought experiment in today’s context. We live in a world that seems to put a price on everything. We live in an era that philosophers have referred to as market triumphalism.[1]Market forces and values have come to warp our worldview insofar as life has become an episode of “The Price is Right.”

No domain seems to be free of crass commodification. Access to education and healthcare. Scientific and Philosophical Inquiry. The courts and criminal justice system. Participatory democracy and electoral politics. Market forces have so shaped each of these areas that the institutions that ought to protect us from corruption seem to be co-conspirators of injustice. Unfortunately, even religion is readily bought and sold on the auction blocks of immorality. Some of us confer piety to the highest bidder. We concede sanctity to the well-connected.

This is what’s going on in today’s gospel lection. We see the unjust collusion of faith and the marketplace. Jesus is heading to the temple in Jerusalem. Like other Jews throughout the diaspora, Jesus is preparing for the feast of the Passover. Many traveled from far and wide to get to Jerusalem. And when Jesus arrived, he was disturbed by the sight. People were selling cattle, sheep, and doves on the Temple grounds. There were also money changers—men who had booths open to exchange currency from far away lands.

Ambitious entrepreneurs were taking advantage of Temple dictates. For one, the Temple required burnt offerings in the form of cattle, sheep, and doves. Local vendors knew that people would not travel such long distances with their animals. So they turned the Temple grounds into an open-air flea market. “Get your fatted calf here.” “Doves for sale. Buy two and get one free.” “We’ve got sheep—one sheep for one denarius!” Secondly, temple authorities levied a tax on all worshippers. Yet the Temple did not accept foreign coins.  Like an international terminal in today’s airport, money changers would set up shop and collect handsome fees for currency exchange.

It is safe to assume that such practices were not new. It is safe to assume that Jesus had witnessed such behavior before. Something was different this time. Jesus reacted in a way that was distinct and defiant. The Bible says that he began immediately driving out the vendors, turning over tables, and pouring out their coins while declaring, “You have turned my father’s house into a marketplace.”

I cannot help but question why this may have been the case. Maybe Jesus was tired of being an indifferent bystander. Maybe Jesus decided that he could no longer walk by the temple and act as if he didn’t see the exploitation and abuse. Or maybe Jesus just reached his point where he, too, was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

New Testament scholar and Dean of Wake Forest Divinity School Gail O’Day asserts that what is instructive about this story is not merely Jesus’s anger. She emphasizes Jesus’s courage. In decrying against those who have turned his father’s house into a marketplace, there is a greater issue at stake than vendors. The vendors and money changers are just symptoms of a more significant illness. Jesus is calling out the power structure of the Temple — those who have elevated their thirst for power; those who have elevated their lust for control; and those who have lifted their greed over God.

Thus at the busiest, most important and most profitable feasts of the year, Jesus shuts down their self-serving operation. His courage awakes people from their indifference and apathy. His conviction calls out the powerful for their promotion of injustice. And his actions shine a light on the real sin of the vendors and temple authorities—their idolatry!

Idolatry—the worship of another god. Idolatry—the object of our heart’s desire. Idolatry—in the words of Martin Luther, “that which our hearts cling to and confide in.”

This is why the lectionary links this narrative of Jesus at the Temple with the Ten Commandments. For before Moses instructs the people to keep the Sabbath day, honor one’s parents, never murder, steal, bear false witness, or covet that which belongs to another, Moses provides a clear and concise prohibition—you shall have no other gods! You will not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, the earth beneath, or in water under the earth. You shall not bow down to worship anyone or anything else.

It seems that God realizes that if you and I get the first prohibition right, it’s a lot easier to adhere to the other prohibitions. But whenever we allow something to become the object of our faith, whenever we allow our hearts to cling and confide in something of our own creation, then we will surely kill, steal, and destroy in its name.  Maybe this is why Jill Lepore has referred to our country as “One Nation Under a Gun.” Maybe this is why we see evidence that a market-driven morality will ultimately murder democracy. And maybe this is why when we put a price on everything, we cannot discern the true value of anything. Our better angels are monetized, our principles are commercialized, and our core values are bastardized.

Our faith in God, the good news—what we call the gospel as Christians—is devalued and depreciated. For there are just some areas in life that market forces do not belong. And as those teenagers from Lakeland have helped us to see, there are some aspects of life that are too special to devalue with a price or financial influence.

Today’s gospel story always reminds me of a common yet uncomfortable parable about market-driven morality. It is the parable. It is the tale of when a Mexican fisherman meets a business executive. The executive was impressed at how in this small coastal village, one Mexican fisherman caught a boatload of yellow fish tuna. The executive asked him how long it took him to catch the fish, and why he doesn’t stay out longer. And the fisherman replied, “I stay out long enough. I get to sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.”

The executive then said, “I can help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats. Eventually, you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The fisherman asked, “How long will this take?”

The executive said, “10-15 years.”

The fisherman said, “Then what will I do?”

The executive said, “That’s the best part. Then you will be able to come back to Mexico, sleep late, fish a little, play with your children, take siestas with your wife, sip wine, and play guitar with your amigos.”

The moral of the story is that you and I must constantly interrogate what drives us. We must repeatedly question what animates our behaviors. Sure, markets are necessary. Profits are fine. But some things in life—relationships, love, care, and compassion—are priceless.

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[1]See Raj Patel, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, Picador, 2010. Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2013.

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