Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent, 7th March 2021

John 2:13-22

‘My house is the house of prayer – but you have made it a den of thieves.’ The story about Jesus turning out the moneychangers and people selling animals and birds for sacrifice in the temple is one that we are all very familiar with, probably particularly the ‘den of thieves’. But you’ll realise that the version of the story which was our gospel today doesn’t actually contain those words, ‘den of thieves’. The ‘den of thieves’ version appears in all in all the other gospels, in Matthew, Mark and Luke [Matt. 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-48], but not in St John’s Gospel, which we read from today.

Here in St John’s account, Jesus ejected from the Temple all the various people selling things there, saying, ‘…you must not turn my father’s house into a market’ [NEB]. In St John’s Gospel, the people that Jesus kicked out of the temple were not thieves, but were simply people running a market, a shop – the word in Greek, το εμπορίον, is the same as our ‘emporium’ – running a shop in a place where they should not have done. Maybe that can give us an idea what Jesus thought about commerce and places of worship. So how should the church interact with the market?

I went once to a very interesting seminar on charity fundraising, and one of the speakers was the Revd Dr Sam Wells, whom I’m sure a lot of you will have heard on ‘Thought for the Day’ in the morning. He is the vicar of St Martin in the Fields in Trafalgar Square.

Sam Wells’ contribution to the seminar was all about the commercial activities of Saint Martin in the Fields. For example the church runs, and charges for, concerts, and they have a big restaurant in the crypt in the basement. Dr Wells was robustly in favour of his church’s commercial activities because, he said, it made it possible for them to do more charitable things than if they just had to rely on what people put in the collection plate. And I’m sure no-one thinks that St Martin’s is a den of thieves!

Perhaps we get a better idea what Jesus was driving at from the context of the story in the Bible. In St John’s Gospel this story of the cleaning out of the temple comes at the beginning of the gospel, immediately after the story of the turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana in Galilee. In the other gospels the story comes right at the end just before Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.

Whereas, in the other three gospels, the ‘cleansing’ of the temple was taken as a provocation by the Jewish authorities, leading on to Jesus’ trial, in John’s account the emphasis is much more on the bit about rebuilding of the temple in three days, looking forward to Jesus’ resurrection after three days, with a sort of pun on the word ‘temple’, so that it’s not only the building, but also the physical body of Jesus, and his resurrection – the quintessential sign of his divine nature – that they are talking about.

The way that the first three gospels look at it, they emphasise the den of thieves, the corruption, the cheating; but in St John’s Gospel Jesus simply says you mustn’t be running a shop, any shop, in the temple. There is no suggestion in John’s account that the shopkeepers were ripping people off. It was just that commercial activity wasn’t appropriate in the temple.

If Jesus’ saying about pulling down and rebuilding the temple in three days was a metaphor, a metaphor for his own death and resurrection, was the chucking out of all the paraphernalia of animal sacrifice perhaps not also a metaphor, a metaphorical way of showing that God no longer needed to be appeased, bought off, by being given the carcasses of poor innocent dead animals and birds?

If we see God in that light, instead of a God to be feared, who has to be bought off by sacrifices, Jesus’ message is that after him, divine retaliation and retribution will not be the way forward, but that forgiveness and hope are the ways of the kingdom.

I don’t think we should picture the Temple with any old shops in it – surely these were special shops, just selling what you needed for the worship in the temple. It wasn’t a question of opening a branch of Marks & Spencer in a side chapel of the temple.

But even so, Jesus was passionately opposed to having those shops in the Temple. For him I think it was the whole question of values, and possibly false values, implicit in the idea of markets. Are markets really the only way which we have to reach a fair assessment of the value of something? Do you value things only because they have a certain value in the marketplace?

Take footballers, for instance. Footballers are exceptional in all sorts of ways, but one of them is that leading footballers have a very visible price tag. They are bought and sold almost like a commodity. We are not quite back in the world of the slave trade but, you know, people refer to each of the stars by reference to the cost of their last transfer. We say that a player ‘cost £20 million’. One of you, I’m sure, will be able to tell me immediately what David Beckham’s last transfer cost or what some of the current stars have cost their clubs. The other side of this, of course, is that when a footballer gets near the end of his career, he will get a free transfer. But – does that mean he’s not worth anything at all any more?

Is it right to value something or somebody highly only because they have a big price tag? Surely we’re not really talking about those kind of deals. Granted there are silly prices for exceptional things like football transfers, but still, surely it is all right to buy and sell ordinary things honestly for fair value. Or all right, provided you don’t have your shop in a place of worship.

Jesus doesn’t appear to have anything against people earning money, after all. There’s the story about the labourers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-17), getting the daily rate for the job irrespective of whether they have worked all day or just in the last hour. The argument was about how much they should be paid, not whether being paid at all was the right thing.

Because Jesus said that, if the one who works just for the last hour gets paid the same as the one who worked all the day, it shows that in his Kingdom the first shall be last and the last first – and so market values don’t work in heaven.

So what about the here and now? How should we value someone? Do I hear 1 per cent, for a nurse or a doctor? Or 40 per cent, for Dominic Cummings? What would our Lord say? What price would he put on those NHS angels?

But even though we might well say that doctors and nurses are worth more than any footballer, we need to remember the eternal truths about this. In this week’s Church Times, Dr Cally Hammond, the chaplain of Gonville and Caius, says, ‘Our relationship with God is not a financial transaction.’

She is surely right. You can’t buy your way to heaven in the Temple gift shop. Perhaps heaven is, like Kronenbourg – you know, ‘reassuringly expensive’. Or maybe not.

Hugh Bryant