John 2:13-22

For today’s reading go to:

This is the third Sunday in Lent, and today I want to extend what I have been saying the last two Sundays on the subject of judgment.  But first let me review the main points of what has been said so far.  The whole key to understanding judgment lies in these words of Jesus.  “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”  Paul says the same thing, though in different words.  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  What are they saying?

Have you ever tried using superglue?  If so, you know how easily and quickly you can glue one finger to another.  You feel that your skin will rip before the glue will give.  Press your two forefingers together and imagine that they are super-glued.  Now, can you use one to strike another?  Can one finger twist against the other without hurting itself, too?  Hold on to this image as representing the spiritual reality in which we live.  Beneath all of our superficial differences and animosities, we are not just glued together, we are one organism – one organism held together by bonds, not of glue, which confines, but of love which frees.  The whole point of our religion and our spiritual practice amounts simply to realizing this.

Paul says there is no condemnation for those who are “in Christ Jesus.”  By “in Christ Jesus” he means those who have realized their oneness – who sense the superglue, so to speak.  Jesus says do not judge.  It amounts to saying, do not pull yourself apart from the whole of humanity.  As soon as you do you will lay yourself open to sin.  As soon as you experience yourself as separate from someone else, from a group, from the human race, you will begin to judge.  It then becomes all right to shun another person; to lie to them, to belittle them; to use the other for my own advantage – all the way up to murder and genocide.  Judgement includes all of that, and it stems from separating myself off from the whole of humanity.

This is bad news, indeed; for all of us are aware of how incessantly we do judge others, and how often the things we do mime that song of our hearts, “It’s all about me!”  A person of faith – that is, a person who believes that under the surface all are one – differs fundamentally from a person of no faith.  One practices; the other does not.  We know how a musician or an athlete has to practice their skill.  We practice an invisible skill, the skill of not judging.  God does not ask us how often we succeed, but how often and wholeheartedly we practice.  The practice can simply be a word or phrase, spoken silently in our hearts, even something like “Ooops!”  Ooops! I am scandal mongering.  Ooops! I am cheating on my income taxes.  We may not be able to stop ourselves all at once, but God reads the truth of our intentions; and in time the practice will bear fruit, so that more and more we do feel part of the whole, loved and accepted, accepting and loving.

In what I have said about judgment it would be easy to think that we are not to use our critical judgment.  How can accepting and loving go together with condemning and rejecting?  Today’s Gospel shows us how.  The scene is the only instance in the Gospels where Jesus is openly enraged.  But what is he angry about?  “Stop making my Father’s house a market place,” is what he says.  And yet it was no ordinary market.  The temple in Jerusalem was the center of religious life for the Jews.  They came daily by the thousands to do two things: to offer sacrifices and to pray.  In Jesus’ day the sacrifices were still actual animals, as prescribed in the Torah.  Picture the temple as a series of courtyards, one within the other, and each higher than the one surrounding it.  The Court of the Priests, where the sacrifices were offered, was about the size of a football field.  The altar on which the animals were slaughtered was an enormous square block of unhewn stone 13 feet high and 47 feet on a side.  The animals were driven up ramps, and a whole system of gutters carried the blood away.  Hundreds of animals were dispatched in a day by teams of priests.  If you entered that court as Jesus did, the sound of animals screeching and bawling in terror would have filled your ears, while the smell of burning flesh mixed with incense would have filled your nose.  This was only part of what he objected to.

In order to keep the sacrificial slaughter house going, animals had to be provided.  Those who lived near Jerusalem could bring their own.  Most Jews came from afar, and had to buy their animal on the spot.  In those days uniform currency did not exist, so money changers had to exchange whatever coinage the pilgrim brought for the coin of the temple.   Thus selling animals and changing money became a necessary adjunct to the sacrifices of the temple; it was, or should have been, a holy business.  But where money changes hands greed is never far off.  Profit taking eclipsed holy business.  Money changers took advantage of the pilgrims, skimming off unconscionable profits for themselves, as did the men who sold animals.  They lost all sight of the sacred nature of their work and the sacred precincts in which they worked.

Jesus raged at what he found.  To put yourself in his place, imagine yourself walking a city street.  You come upon two groups of kids.  One is a gang – older, tough, well-armed and ready for a fight.  The other is just a group of friends who got caught.  You see that a fight will break out any minute, and one of the gang members is starting to open a can of mustard gas.  Wouldn’t you rage?  You rage at the situation, at the stupidity, and at the impending damage.  You rage at the insult to air, itself – the spirit!  At the same time, you can only feel compassion for the kids; because they do not know what they are doing.  All will suffer, attackers no less than victims.  All, in reality, are victims.

I am fishing for some analogy to recreate within ourselves a felt sense of how Jesus judged.  He did judge the situation; and he judged the system of corruption that held the money changers in its grip.  He saw its evil clearly, and he raged against it.  In our own day, I think of how banks lured the unwary, especially young people, into credit card debt.  Not only that, but they changed the bankruptcy law, potentially making debtors into wage slaves for life.  Meanwhile, their own profits soared to obscene heights.  Jesus raged against the system, and the specific situation; not against the people involved.  We do just the opposite.  We rage against the people involved, and all but ignore the systems of corruption and oppression.  Do you see how the outcomes differ?  Jesus judged the system and acted, to good effect.  We judge the people – bankers, for instance – and go along with the system, to no effect.

How would society look if we did not judge each other?  Perhaps that is a question to ponder as a lenten exercise.  How for instance, would a society that does not judge people treat a thief on the scale of Bernie Madoff?  Let us remember as we ponder: Jesus felt only compassion – not only for those who were being cheated, but especially for those who were doing the cheating.  How could he not?  In their ignorance they thought they were getting rich; in reality they were befouling their very souls, and poisoning the air for everyone.  Such delusion would wring anyone’s heart.  We may say a hesitant ‘yes’ to that, but nothing about the Christian faith challenges us more than this teaching about judgment.  We want retribution.  We want to make the perpetrators suffer as they made others suffer.  We want to punish.  Yet isn’t that the easy way out, much easier than fighting what we – quite properly – judge to be a corrupt system?

Let me close with this.  We say that Jesus came to save us.  What is he saving us from?  From a false understanding of who we are.  Every one of us, to a greater or lesser degree, feels unworthy.  Deep down, below the level of day-to-day consciousness, we cannot quite accept being loved, not wholly; we cannot believe we truly belong.  So ingrained is this false self-understanding that we can scarcely detect it; yet it clouds every moment of our lives.  If only we could come out into the sunshine, we would know the bliss that Jesus himself knows.  That is what lies behind the thousand ways that Jesus tried to drive home his teaching about judgment.  When he says: judge not and you shall not be judged, he means that joy beyond what we can ask or imagine lies right at our feet.


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