“Who’s Religion For Anyways?” Matthew 21:1-17
Rev. Sean Weston
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
April 14, 2019
We are used to hearing stories told as if the narrator was one of Jesus’ friends, following him around and recording what he did. The writer of the story writes from a particular point of view, one that assumes Jesus is right and anyone he is in conflict with is wrong. And given that I am a minister in a religion founded by followers of this Jesus, I also tend to assume that Jesus is right.
But there is a lot of conflict in today’s story, and there is more than one perspective. And, without letting go of the belief that Jesus is right, there is much to be learned about this story if we explore another perspective. It helps us see the whole picture. So here is today’s story, as I imagine it told from one of the religious leaders Jesus is in conflict with: a priest in the temple, responsible for taking care of that sacred space. Matthew 21:1-17, told by a Hebrew priest:
I was exhausted. We were just six days from Passover, the biggest religious festival of the year. Don’t get me wrong, I love Passover. In some ways I live for it. When else do all the faithful come from near and far to the temple? When else are we united in our faith, celebrating God freeing our ancestors from slavery? And it sure is nice to see a full temple.
But I get nervous too. The Romans don’t like Passover at all. And they’ll use any little excuse to put it down. So I have to make sure everything goes just right, that there’s no funny business. Some people, some radicals always want to lead the crowd against Rome, but that would never end well. So I do my best to keep everything decent and in order, to protect my people and our sacred space.
The crowds were starting to arrive, and so far things were going okay. But then I started to hear about a commotion and my heart jumped to my throat. Were people stirring up the crowds? Another priest came over and told me what was happening: that Jesus guy I’d heard about was riding a donkey into town, and people were shouting and celebrating! And you’ll never guess what he was doing – he was riding on a donkey! Just how the prophet Zechariah said the king would be riding in. How arrogant and disrespectful can you be? This Jesus was no king. He was just some carpenter from the middle of nowhere. Some people called him a prophet, but people will believe anything these days.
I went back to work, preparing for Passover. I figured it would all calm down. This stuff always did before. The crowds were showing up to offer sacrifices and everything was going well. I had arranged to make sure we had as many people available as possible to help people exchange currency and buy their sacrifices. We’ve always done it that way and nobody has seen a problem before. How else can people properly prepare to worship God? But then this Jesus guy showed up and got violent! He was turning tables over, distorting all sorts of scripture yelling about how we had turned a house of prayer into “den of robbers” and “hideout for crooks” and this and that. We had no clue what to do! You don’t exactly expect this sort of thing to happen.
Then he started curing people. At least, that’s what he made it look like. We’ve had quacks in before with a whole routine, so I didn’t really believe it. And then the kids started yelling about Jesus! And that was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. The kids had never made so much noise in the temple before; surely when I was growing up in the temple I never would have dreamt of making such noise. Everything was chaos. It was only a matter of time before Romans troops would storm in if we couldn’t get control. So I and the other priests and scribes finally pushed through the crowds and pulled Jesus aside, and as calmly as we could we asked him “do you hear what the kids are up to?” Surely he knew this was too much. But then he threw scripture around again, quoting from the Psalms about children praising God as if that made all this noise and disruption okay. God was most certainly not praised by all this mess. If they wanted to praise God, they would have respected God’s house and worshiped the way our ancestors did.
Then out of nowhere, he just left. He even left the city, going a couple miles away to Bethany, at least that’s what I heard. Good.
As you heard this story, you might have wondered if I have some sympathy for the priests and the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. And the truth is, I really do. After all I am a religious leader, tied to a congregation that is based in a building we call the house of God. As I look to Holy Week and Easter and all the work I’ve done to offer meaningful experiences of prayer and worship, I too would be angry if some guy hanging out on the streets, without “Reverend” in front of his name, without the appropriate training and education, no background check, no proper credentials showed up and starting turning our tables over yelling all kinds of things from the Bible, performing sham healings (and let’s be honest, many would be skeptical about all these healings), messing everything up?
That’s not how we do things around here. Chances are we’d to tell this intruder to shape up and ship out.
Given the way you and I were taught this story it’s easy to imagine the “money changers” were greedy people taking advantage of people who just needed to sacrifice. But they were actually there to help people worship according to their faith. After all if you’re going to sacrifice you need to have something to sacrifice. And you would need the correct currency. The money changers, those selling doves, those selling were doing a service to people who had come from near and far to offer their sacrifices in God’s temple. As far as we know nobody really questioned the practice, any more than we question passing an offering plate or ordering Easter Lilies or Harvest Dinner tickers or selling fair trade items at Christmas or asking for pledges when drafting a budget. It’s just how things are done – and for many good reasons.
Michael Kirby, a Presbyterian pastor in Evanston, who I happen to sing with in the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus, notes that these long-standing practices in Jesus’ day were needed by the people: “[T]he people who have traveled from all over for Passover,” he says, “cannot use their Roman currency to pay their alms at the temple. They need the dove sellers in order to fulfill their sacred obligations and to worship decently and in order. They need the … ATM of the money changers to give all these visitors a chance to help the temple stewardship committee offset the costs of hosting the festival (and presumably to ensure that there are enough turkeys and cans of green beans to fill the food baskets for the needy)….”
Kirby suggests that Jesus’ problem doesn’t seem to be with sacrifices themselves, but with the selling and the buying inside the temple. After all, something happens when there is a bunch of selling and buying in God’s house. A gap begins to form between the haves and the have nots: “Some can buy, some cannot. Some can afford more, some cannot. Does any of this,” he wonders, “have anything to do with their righteousness, the true value of the people involved?”
“What are we buying and selling in the church today?” he asks. “What is it that, try as we might, cannot help but make some people ‘less than’ if it is on public display? Do we offer systems that stratify or exclude, that mimic and exploitive consumerist culture or that do not make the stranger ‘joyful in my house of prayer’? It is messy and it is uncomfortable,” he admits, to imagine that anything we would do with the best of intentions would make Jesus angry.
That of course may be the whole point. That no matter how well-intentioned, we religious people can do things in a way that drives gaps between people instead of drawing them closer together. As I turned this story over in my head and heart, a question kept coming up for me: “Who’s Religion for Anyways?”
Is it for religious leaders like me, who get paid to “do religion”?
Is if for you, the people who go to church?
Is it for people with lots of money, or is for people with no money?
Is it for the people on the streets, or the people inside the church or temple or mosque?
Is it for the certain, or is it for doubters?
Is it for the filled or for the hungry?
Is it for able bodied people, or people with disabilities?
Is it for the healthy or the sick?
Is it for people who come every Sunday or people who show up every now
Is it for people with cars or people who rely on public transit?
Is it for white people or people of color? Is it for gay or straight people?
Is it for those with happy families, or those struggling to hold it together?
Is it for children or for adults?
Is it for saints or sinners?
Is it for people who know what all the insider words mean, or those who’ve
never heard the word narthex before?
The answer, of course, is yes. God’s house is to be a house of prayer for all people. And if God’s house is to be a house of prayer for all people, then all people must feel welcomed and able to participate fully. Too often religion offers a house of prayer for some people. And this is where religion gets dangerous: when it becomes the property of some. Then it must be protected. And people will go to almost any length to protect their religion, even if it means working with Roman political leaders to send a rabble-rouser named Jesus to his death.
Too often religion offers a house of prayer for all people…. who don’t question the way things are done around here, who are willing to do things the way we do them and God forbid you offer an idea we tried once or sit in my pew or your child is too noisy. But religion is nobody’s property but God’s. And sometimes Jesus Christ himself shows up to shake things up a bit.
So as we look to Holy Week it is a time to wonder how we have tended to our religious heritage. Have we treated religion like a property to be protected lest we lose it all? Or have we treated it like Jesus did, like a gift of immeasurable grace for all people, a gift that can only be given by hanging out on the streets where the people are, offering love and healing and grace, inviting even poor and disabled people into God’s house which is for all people. You’ll note, Jesus didn’t have any trouble drawing a crowd. He offered them what they needed more than anything else. Love. Safety. Hope. Purpose. True embrace.
After all, religion is for all people. Not to own but to share. Not to hoard but to give away. Not to protect but to open up to God and all of God’s children, whoever they are, wherever they may be found, whatever may happen next.
May it be so. Amen.
 Michael Kirby, “Matthew 21:12-13 Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on The Gospels – Matthew, Volume 2: A Feasting on the Word Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), 2013.