[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday in Lent, March 7, 2021, based on Micah 6:6-13 and John 2:13-22. It may also be viewed on the Perinton facebook page.]
Scott Willoughby, felt pretty lucky two weeks ago in his suburban Dallas home. With Texas in an energy crisis, his home didn’t lose power. Willoughby kept his lights on, perhaps so he’d know if his power failed. Then he got his bill. In a period for which his energy bill was usually $70, he was charged over $16,000. It was taken directly from his bank and cleaned out his savings. While those rocketing prices have financially devastated some, others profited from the massive price surge. The president of a shale drilling company was heard in a conference call saying, “This week is like hitting the jackpot with some of these incredible prices.” The billionaire owner of the Dallas Cowboys, Jerry Jones, is now under fire for being a majority shareholder in that energy company.
Jesus approaches the Temple mount. It is Passover week. Jewish pilgrims have come from all corners of Israel, some traveling 100 miles on foot. The merchants and money-changers are out in force. To fulfill religious ritual, they need to get animals for Temple offerings and sacrifices. That’s why the merchants are there—to sell the right animals to people coming to worship. It is accepted; a needed exchange of goods. The free market is at work. It is good for the Temple and the merchants and money-changers. Except, there were areas designated for these transactions and these merchants had moved their wares closer to the Temple, where they could raise their prices and make big profits. The closer to the Temple, the higher the prices. Jesus cannot overlook this. He sees an unjust system taking advantage of these vulnerable pilgrims. He is angered and he does something about it.
Last year, the great civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis died. When our former Congresswoman Louise Slaughter died two years ago, I went to her public memorial service at the Kodak Hall downtown for one reason: John Lewis would be there to speak. A preacher in his youth, he became a national hero. For the cause of civil rights, he was arrested about 50 times, beaten several times, once near to death. Lewis customarily said that he often got in trouble, good trouble for good causes. He urged people to get into good trouble. Today is the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, AL, where Lewis was beaten for marching for voting rights. He got in good trouble that day
Jesus is about to get in some good trouble. What he sees angers him. He sees a practice of injustice happening, vulnerable people being taken advantage of, and he does something about it. “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.” I will not water it down. He does something dramatic. Some might call it an act of civil disobedience: the religious leaders take note. I don’t see him hurting people, but I see him hurting business that day. This is basic Christianity: seeing injustice and doing something about it. Jesus is showing us God’s heart for justice.
The Lord speaks through the prophet Micah: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Then Micah names injustice in the marketplace. The Lord says, “Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights?” Merchants were cheating people by having rigged scales, so what was measured out was weighed as if it were more. Dishonest weights were used to favor the seller and scam the buyer. Containers had false bottoms, so consumers thought they were getting more than they were. This passage came to life when I was in seminary on the north shore of Boston. Many of us poor seminarians would drive into Boston on Saturday mornings and do our week’s food shopping at outdoor Haymarket Square, where merchants had most everything for cheaper prices than the food markets. Then one of the Boston TV stations did an investigative report on Haymarket Square. A number of the merchants had rigged scales, so instead of a pound of produce, we were getting 3/4s of a pound while paying for a pound. At that time I was taking a class in the Old Testament prophets. Our professor jumped on this one and showed us that what some merchants in Boston were doing was exactly what Micah was naming 2,700 years earlier. And the Lord was not pleased. “Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths. Therefore I have begun to strike you down, making you desolate because of your sins.”
Jesus comes to our world as peacemaker, but there is no peace where there is no justice. Almost always, injustice favors the wealthy and the powerful; the poor and underserved get the short end. Even in the distribution of the Covid vaccines, the poor and people of color are underserved again. Justice and peace are intertwined. Injustice is the enemy of peace.
God desires justice. Jesus is angered by injustice and calls it out forcefully. Injustice has existed in all cultures since sin entered the world. We see it today in hosts of ways, at both the individual level and the systemic level. One area is in how people in power, usually men, cross boundaries in relationships. I am going to name three: a Christian leader, a Republican leader, and a Democrat leader. The first is Ravi Zacharias, a noted preacher and evangelist who died last year. I have heard him speak in person several times and was always impressed with his breadth of knowledge. Some allegations were made while he was alive, but they were denied. Now the organization that bears his name has admitted that an independent investigation found that Zacharias was guilty of mistreatment of many women over many years. He told some of them to keep his actions quiet because he was doing God’s work. The second is a former president, who is on record as boasting about what he could do to women, and then was credibly charged with authorizing hush money payments to two women with whom he had brief affairs. The third is a current governor, who has been credibly charged by three women with inappropriate language and touch. The “Me Too” movement is not over as long as women are used and abused by men. It gives me no joy to say such things in our worship. But I am convinced from the Bible that God is greatly concerned about injustice, whenever and wherever it occurs, whether at the individual or the systemic level. Jesus doesn’t look the other way.
God desires justice; Jesus doesn’t look the other way. Just over a year ago, a young Black man was jogging in a predominantly white neighborhood in Georgia. He was immediately seen as suspicious. Within minutes, two white men, a father and son, confronted him and shot him three times, leaving him to die on the pavement. The Black jogger was unarmed and creating no trouble. I am a jogger. I don’t fear for my life when I jog through neighborhoods where I am not known. Because of my skin color, I am not seen as suspicious. His name was Ahmaud Arbery. On the day of his death, the Glynn County Police Department said, “make no arrests.” A day later, they still said “make no arrests.” The case went to four jurisdictions resulting in no arrests. The suspects, Gregory and Travis McMichael were named, but not arrested. Then a lawyer went to work on this for Arbery’s family. He found that a third neighbor saw something happening and took a video of it. The lawyer released the video on May 5. It went viral. Then, 74 days after Arbery’s homicide, two arrests were made. Murder charges were filed. The autopsy of Arbery showed that he had no alcohol or drugs in his system. Why did it take 74 days and a video for arrests to be made? Could it be because he was a young Black man and, therefore, suspicious? Just a few days ago, Amanda Gorman, the 22-year old poet who thrilled us with her poem at the recent presidential inauguration, was followed by a security guard as she walked to her apartment. He got close and asked what she was doing there. She showed him her entry key. He made no apology. She looked suspicious for one reason: she is Black. Systemic racism and injustice are still strong in our land.
God desires justice; Jesus doesn’t look the other way. Injustice in any area of life is offensive to our Lord. Jesus does not look the other way, but confronts the injustice he sees in the Temple courts. But he does more than that. He upends a system of worship dependent on one place or one building. He introduces a new temple, his own body. The kingdom of God—the realm and reign of God—is wherever Jesus is working. The temple of God is wherever Jesus is worshiped in spirit and truth. Our Lenten journey is not about our self-discipline; it is about following and worshiping this Jesus, all the way to Jerusalem, all the way to the cross.
A Presbyterian pastor in Scotland in the 20th century, George MacLeod, caught this in a powerful way in this quote:
“I simply argue that the cross be raised again, at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on a town garbage heap; at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek … and at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble.
Because that is where He died, and that is what He died about. And that is where Christ’s own ought to be, and that is what church people ought to be about.”
God desires justice; Jesus doesn’t look the other way. When we see injustice, will we care too or look the other way?