He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables,
John 2 (NABRE)
Simony, in the church, is the buying and selling of church offices or sacraments. It is expressly forbidden. The money changers, though, were not guilty of simony. The Temple had certain rules about the quality of animal that could be sacrificed. So, it was easy for an entrepreneur to grow only a certain type of lamb, breeding out the ones that would be good only for the butcher, selling the best at a premium. Where to sell these? In the Temple, of course. But the use of pagan coinage, with their false deities and their association in memory with the recent Antiochian unpleasantness, made their use problematic. So a new class of entrepreneurs arose, exchanging Temple coins for these pagan idols. Naturally enough, the Temple, itself, took a cut of every transaction, so the entrepreneurs raise their prices to cover this. All of this was legal. All of it was within the tradition of supply and demand. Yet, after a while, the poor were unable to shop in this place and it cut them off from Temple worship. At that point something untoward had happened.
To follow any law – the law of God, or even the law of Supply and Demand – is a free choice. When you take away someone’s free choice to follow God, you’ve robbed them of the most important thing. Jesus is saying nothing about business, per se, but he is saying, clearly, that God’s worship was intended to be open to all. The culture of the day – urban, entrepreneurial, rich – had so devalued the poor that they could no longer worship there, that they had thus, de jure and de facto, devalued the Temple itself.
This first cleansing of the Temple (he will do it again before his Passion) is a sign proclaiming the coming Kingdom that will be open to all, free for all to enter (although not without price).
As I write, it is early Tuesday morning. In the USA people are voting today and, sadly, it is an election that is worrying people around the world. It’s not something I want to talk about as such which is why I make it clear that I’m writing well before the election results are known (even before the silliness of “exit polls” has started). This post will auto publish at 3AM California time, 6AM New York time, 11 AM London time. (I think it hits twitter at about 10AM ET.) Y’all know who won. Some will be happy, some will be sad.
I will be sad: I don’t know who won, but I will be sad. This election has been very painful for my country, for my friends and family, for my church. One can’t sit very long in a church community, hearing one side of a political race praised and another side denigrated. Rather, one can sit for a while if one participates. One can’t sit at all if one wishes to avoid desecration of the image of God present in all persons – even politicians. So one gets uncomfortable among the ad hominem attacks and one, I confess, silently judges the folks making them. Then one decides to leave and not come back.
Earlier this week a person who had been ordained in the Roman Church, desecrated an altar on video, broadcasting on the internet, to call folks to vote for one candidate. At the point where you are desecrating the altar to make a political point, you’ve gone far, far beyond the Merchants in the Temple, far, even, beyond the simoniacs selling the priesthood for filthy lucre. You’ve become the Antichrist – where “Anti” means not “against” as in popular imagination, but “instead of” as the Greek implies. You’ve created something that you want to come first – instead of the God of Love. Yes, there is still a God of Love, but, sometimes, we have to lay aside his teachings in order to get something done.
Much of our politics of late have become this laying aside – just for now, you see, just for a moment – of the teachings of Jesus in order to make a point. We’re snarky – just for now (we can forgive and love later). We are bullies – but just for now (we can turn the other cheek later). We make fun of the poor, we devalule the less fortunate, but just for now (we can give to the foodbank later). We are happy with the “great unwashed” in abstract. But please keep them out of the voting booth.
Once upon a time, back in the days of Ancient Rome, the Urbus, the City, was the eternal center of the world. Country Bumpkins lived out in the “districts”, in Latin, the “Pagus”. In time the Urban folks, mostly rich, certainly all were legally Roman – became Christian. But the Bumpkins stayed way behind the times and they worshipped their deities as they had always done. Since they lived on the Pagus, they were called “pagans”. Today, it seems, the position is reversed: the folks that live in the hinterlands, the Pagans, are still behind the times: they are Christian despite the fact that all the cool, hip, and rich urbanites are all freethinkers and libertines. The Churches, however, in both places, have also become either Pagans or Urbans. And they both make fun of each other like the other people.
Yes, that side said and did some deplorable things. And that side said and did some nasty things as well. However people calling themselves faithful Christians not only supported each side, but deprecated the other side in painful ways. One desecrated an altar in the name of politics, as cited, but others endorsed and embraces abortion too. And one side obsessed about it in ways that make no sense, to the denial of all the other parts of the Gospel. Both sides overlooked some moral failings whilst accentuating others. Both sides engaged in judging not the politicians (although that’s bad enough) but our Christian brothers and sisters who made different secular choices. We can set aside these teachings just for a moment, to get what we want.
I do wish Jesus would do to all of us what he did to the moneychangers in the temple. We are most all of us money changers. We need to all have our comfortable (largely white, largely American, largely well off) butts whipped off with ropes flailed helter skelter by God’s own hand. We’ve bought fully into our political culture without realizing we’re cutting off each other, destroying the body for which Christ died. It is far more important for me to love my brother in Christ than it is for us to agree politically (by which I mean secular politics).
In another post, we can talk about our love for the poor, the stranger, the orphan and the unborn and how that should, ahem, trump our secular politics. But for now, let’s go to confession and acknowledge how we let our secular politics become Anti-Christ.
Today’s Feast celebrating the dedication of the Basilica of Christ the Savior in Rome is a reminder that we all are members of one body, one Church. It is called, in the traditional texts, “the Mother Church of all Rome and of All the World”. Mother Church is a title reserved for the Cathedral Church in a diocese. Since the Bishop of Rome is seen by Rome as the Bishop of Everywhere, his cathedral (which is this Basilica of Christ the Savior) is the Cathedral or Mother Church for everyone. It is thus surprising to me that this feast is on the WR Orthodox calendar. The status of the Cathedral of the Bishop of Rome seems an odd choice for an Orthodox calendar? But there it is.
Despite all their bickering, Rome and Constantinople and Moscow have agreed on one thing: they are all the Church. Now, I know what some pious folks will say (from either of those three camps). But the reality is that although Rome and Constantinople both take to themselves the right to appoint bishops in (eg) Jerusalem – including the Patriarchs there – no one has taken to himself the right to replace the other. There is no Byzantine Patriarch of Rome. There is no Latin Patriarch of Istanbul. Moscow yields as well. Tacitly, they all acknowledge each other. If the Bishop of Rome really isn’t the Bishop of Rome the “real” Church should replace him, no? But the see is not empty. The Bishop of Rome is Francis and the Orthodox may disagree with him, but they have not appointed another – he’s the real deal.
So, at least in our political structures, we see each other as “real” and “equal”. And today we commemorate “their” Basilica as “ours” too.