The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” John 2:13-17
Have you ever noticed how, at times, you can be reading the Bible, siting in a sermon listening to the message on a very familiar passage or even just musing on things to do about God and suddenly, something strikes you. Oftentimes its in a passage that you thought you knew, and have probably read dozens and dozens of times and then suddenly a word or a single aspect of it jumps out at you? Often it can seem to be a quite insignificant detail, but as one preacher once said many, many years ago, every word is in The Bible for a reason. When you think about this, this is a major miracle in itself as the Bible has been translated into many many languages over the course of the past several hundred years or so. But back to the passage above.
We were in our Sunday morning service and Pastor Mike was preaching on the last part of the above passage. Launching a new series of messages on our passion for The Word, The Churc,h Christ, Our Faith, time will tell…………. But this morning it struck me that as Mike made reference to the fact that Jesus took time to form a whip from cords the passage above mentions another matter of detail. One that had been lost on me before.
After Jesus drove out the traders along with the animals, after he overturned the tables of the money lenders and poured out their coins the passage tells us that he told those who sold pigeons “Take these things away; do not make my Fathers house a house of trade.”
Now I remember this story from my Sunday School days and from the scene in Jesus of Nazareth, the mid 1970′ TV series that depicted the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in some meticulous if in places somewhat slightly inaccurate details, and I do not recall the specific mention that it was those who sold pigeons that Jesus told not to turn the Temple into a place of trade or as Matthew puts it much more dramatically a den of robbers. Ironically, (maybe), it is only Luke that does not make reference to the sellers of pigeons. Three of the four Gospel writers, consider this point important enough to include this detail in their narrative.
Neither, can I recall, in my entire Christian life have I heard a sermon on this point. So here goes…….
So what of it? (I imagine I hear you asking yourself). Well if it is in there, it has some significance. If it is in there more than once, it has some important significance and if you ask me, that both two of the synoptic Gospels and John make the point means its has some significance. (John in a sense is much more likely to concentrate on the spiritual rather then practical things and so to my mind is likely to omit this point more so than the Synoptics, but I would bow to greater authorities than myself on this point).
So who were these merchants in the Temple? Well for those of you who are unaware I will give. A very brief explanation.
The Levitical Law of sacrifice was still been practiced in Jesus day. This required, inter alia, every year a sacrifice be offered for the forgiveness of sins and the place that this sacrifice was to be made was the Temple in Jerusalem.
Quite simply, nowhere else would do.
So if you lived some distance away and had to journey to Jerusalem to make your sacrifice, it would be a bit of a pain to have to drag your sacrificial animal all the way over the Judean countryside to Jerusalem and so this system whereby you did the “pilgrimage” and when you arrived at Jerusalem, you purchased a suitable animal to offer as your sacrifice evolved or was set-up by some enterprising first century Del-Boy type character.
Very practical, but this practice in itself has all sorts of connotations and lessons for us to learn from regarding what true sacrifice is, laziness, legalism, responsibility and I suspect if I took the time to think about it lots of other things as well. But for now take it as read that this was an acceptable practice to the Jews of the day.
The only problem was, these traders tended to rip off the people selling them overpriced animals and/or sub-standard animals. The Levitical Law is very particular about the quality of the animal that was to be offered for a sacrifice and in particular that it was to be on the whole of a certain age and that it was to be without blemish. This last point is important for the Christian because Jesus who is our Passover Lamb was/is perfect and this requirement for the animal to be unblemished was, amongst other things, a forerunner to the perfect sacrifice that Jesus would make for all of us on the Cross.
But the Levitical Law, whilst particular was also practical in that Yahweh knew that within the Jewish society established through the ministry of Moses, that there would be some people less well off than others. Therefore the Levitical Law allowed for a sacrifice to be made that was less expensive than the ideal which was usually an ‘expensive’ animal such as a sheep or bull depending on the reason for the sacrifice. And in particular in relation to the sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin the law allowed birds to be used, which from a reading of the Levitical Law shows, would appear to cost less than a sheep or bull. The birds used were inevitably turtle doves or pigeons.
This allowance is important because it shows that one does not have to be rich, famous or even important to gain the forgiveness of sins, but that the forgiveness of sin was available to every strata of person in society. (There is even a grain offering, but for the purposes of this post I am going to concentrate on the birds).
The law of the Old Testament makes it clear that without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sins, because the life of the sacrificial animal is found in the blood, and so this ‘consession’ to allow birds to be used fulfilled both that requirement and allowed the poor to seek forgiveness of their sins.
The use of birds however was no less stringent in its requirements for the bird to be without blemish than if a more expensive animal was sacrificed, and so quality not quantity is what God was looking for, again a whole study could be done on this aspect, but again, this is not the point of this post and I encourage you to go away and explore that aspect yourself.
So what do we have, we have the Levitical Law that allows those less well off to participate through the use of birds as the sacrifice, and we have Jesus clearing the temple with specific reference made in the Gospel accounts that he rebuked the sellers of pigeons about turning His Fathers house into a den of thieves.
Why then is it not recorded that he told the sellers of lambs? Sheep? Bulls? Or any of the ‘more expensive’ animals that were on offer not to do the same thing. Maybe He did, by its absence we can not conclude conclusively that this did not happen, but what we do know is that it was important that the pigeon sellers were told very specifically.
To be honest I do not know the answer to the question that I am posing, but I have an idea and I think that the reason this is highlighted is because it is God’s subtle way of including everyone in His plan of salvation. The society that Jesus lived in was influenced in varying degrees by the Roman occupation and they suffered from a very strong honour culture. The Jews especially the leaders and religious authorities were described often as a stiff necked people, that is proud and full of self-sufficiency. Jesus challenged the sellers of birds, I think, because it was possibly the lowest common denominator. In deed, Jesus ministry was in the main more inclusive of the outcast, the poor, the sick, the lame, the destitute those that on the whole would only be able to afford a pigeon or dove to sacrifice at Passover. This tiny little detail is consistent with the rest of Jesus ministry and harkens back over hundreds of years to the giving of the law, and projecting forward 2,000 years, teaching us even today that God’s plan of salvation was all inclusive from even before the foundation of the earth. That it is fair and for all, that it is obtainable by all, that it is offered to all.
In addition, for us as believers I think it speaks to us about exploitation. The traders exploited the ‘pilgrims’ by providing over-priced below par animals for the sacrificial practices. This is abhorrent at whatever level it was practiced. But Jesus has a heart for the poor. To know that the poor were being exploited, to know that the meek and mild were been ripped off would rightfully anger Him and it did, we have the record of the clearing of the temple in all four Gospel accounts. That this practice was endorsed by the religious leaders of the day would ‘rub salt in the wound’. The very people who should be protecting the vulnerable of society from such practices were at best turning a blind eye and in some cases probably profiting from it themselves. We as Christian need to take this warning on board. Do we, Do I seek to help, protect the vulnerable people that I come across? Or do I turn an Convenient ‘blind eye’ to their situation, simply because it is easier to do nothing than to do something?
We were challenged this morning about this very thing. How do we see other people, do we see problems? Do we see hassle? Do we see an opportunity to exploit them (heaven forbid)? Or do we see a world that is heading headlong towards hell because it is inconvenient for us to make a guest urge or take an action to help?
Remember from tiny acorns might oaks grow and that small actions no matter how insignificant they might seem can, and do, change peoples lives. We might not all be preachers or teachers of God’s word, we might not all be trained evangelists or think we have the skills to lead someone to Christ, but we all have a heart and mind and through the prompting and leading of the Holy Spirit I believe we can make an impact and instigate change for the better.
So as I challenge myself I challenge you too, when you walk down the road and see beggars or see someone struggling with something , when you speak to your neighbour, work colleague or non-Christian friend, seek God and how He would use you in that situation. In this way I am sure we can all fan the flames of that passion of our first love for Jesus into a roaring fire.