Driving out the money changers (John 2 13-22)

Once upon a time, in Africa, there lived a family of lions. Lions are just big cats. Like cats they spend most of their time lying around. When they have to they hunt for food and they enjoy eating it but lying around in the shade is what life is for.

In this pride of lions there was a little lion cub. He was quite keen on hunting although he wasn’t very good at it: one or two butterflies was all he had managed to catch so far. He certainly liked eating but the one thing he didn’t like was lying around sleeping. Like all young boys he thought afternoon sleeps were a waste of good play time. So while the adult lions lay around sleeping off their lunch, he used to go exploring. One day, after a particularly good lunch of fresh impala, he explored with more energy than usual. In fact, he explored his way out of the valley in which they were hunting and found himself coming down into a very different sort of valley. This was small and very green. It had a river running through it and there was a flock of sheep.

Our little lion cub had never seen sheep before. When he got closer he saw that they had four legs and were much the same shape as he was so he assumed they were lions too. He was not a very bright little lion cub. Anyway, he went to join them. They fled but he went after them and eventually they realised he meant no harm and let him stay. As the days went by he became more and more like them. He learned to eat grass, though he didn’t think much of it and he learned to go ‘baa’ a bit like they did. In fact, he quite quickly seemed to settle down to become a good little sheep. However, one evening as the sun was setting he looked up into the hills from which he had come and saw there silhouetted against the sun was a great lion. The lion looked at him and suddenly he knew he was not a sheep but a lion and had to go back to being one again.

Today’s Gospel is rather like that for us. Most of us Christians in the world today find it very easy to settle into a comfortable kind of Christianity, a Christianity without too many challenges, a Christianity where Jesus is nice and good and friendly and where God is nice and in him there is no nastiness at all. Left to ourselves we will usually try to read those parts of the Bible which seem to confirm that picture: Psalm 23, or the Sermon on the Mount, or our favourite parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. There are lots and lots of such passages in the Bible because, of course, Jesus is kind, friendly and compassionate; he is good to be with and he loves us and so does God. Nevertheless there is another side to Jesus and today we see it. He gets angry. He doesn’t just get angry and call people names as he did once to the Pharisees, calling them ‘brood of vipers’ and ‘whited sepulchres’. He actually gets violent. He overturns tables, sends the money flying, drives off the cattle with a whip, shouts and screams at the people who are selling animals there. It’s really very embarrassing. Anger is not a nice thing for English people to do. Violent anger is even worse. Yet this is what Jesus does and it is reported in every one of the Gospels so it must be true. It really happened. This is the Jesus whom we follow, the Jesus we want to be like. Does this mean that we too must get angry; we too must get violent? Is this Jesus quite safe to be with?

One of my favourite bits of dialogue in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories is when the children first hear about Aslan and that he is a lion. “A lion” says Susan. “Is he safe?” “Safe?” said Mrs Beaver. “Course he’s not safe…. but he’s good”. The Jesus we follow is not always safe. He is often uncomfortable to be with. He asks us to see things we don’t want to see and to do things we don’t want to do. He asked a rich man to give away all his money and follow him. He told some servants to present water to the steward of a wedding feast and tell him it was wine. He told Matthew to leave his tax desk and all his money and come and be poor, on the road with a bunch of fishermen. He knocked Paul off his horse and blinded him for a while. Many of his early followers found themselves beaten up, tortured, even crucified. We of course are more fortunate. Or maybe we’re not. Maybe we would find Christianity much more exciting, more stimulating, more life giving if it wasn’t so easy to treat it as a comfortable walk in the park.

Well, maybe I am being unfair. You are all here, after all. That suggests you have already made a step out of the ordinary, a step in following Christ beyond where you were. The trouble with those steps is that they need to go on and on. There is never a comfortable resting place. Peter and James and John and the other disciples set off to follow Jesus, not knowing where they were going. They simply followed him.

Does this mean that as we seek to follow Jesus we need to get angry too? Anger, like love, is a dangerous emotion. It can be selfish, self centred, self righteous. It can be manipulative and express a desire for power. It can be very destructive. But anger, like love, gives us a great energy. Rightly directed it can be a source of great good. There is no doubt there is much to be angry about in this world of ours. Angry at the way immigrants are treated in this country; angry at the way politicians and the media play on people’s fears and selfishness for their own ends; anger at the denial of social help, food and support to the most needy people in our society; anger at the indifference with which the world looked on horrors like the Rwandan genocide, or the violence in West Africa, or the trafficking of women, children and men throughout the world. We wring our hands and say this shouldn’t happen. We may even make passing reference to it in our prayers. Do we do something, or even give money to help other people do something? How does Jesus feel about these unjust and wicked situations? I think today’s gospel tells us the answer to that.

We get so used to the Gospel stories. We hear Jesus say, “Sell all you have and give” but we don’t let it apply to us. We hear him say, “Take no thought for the morrow” but actually we are paralysed by our thought for our financial security on the morrow. We hear him say “Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you” but we say that is impossible. That’s a pity because it means we can never become like Jesus. We can never really let him live in us. We will always back off at the critical point. We won’t protest at evil when we see it in society. We won’t make a fuss, or stand out from the crowd. Or maybe we do. Then we find that life changes. It may not be comfortable but it suddenly takes on new meaning. Our horizons grow larger and our heart beats faster. If we take risks for the sake of Jesus we find him in a new, more exciting way.

When our little lion cub looked up into the hills and saw a real lion do you think he thought “Oh dear. I shall have to stop eating grass and leave my sheep friends and go and live the hard life of a lion in the African bush?”. I think not. He was after all a lion. I like to think his heart thrilled at the thought of who he was and what he could do and he set off straight away.

 

            Nicolas Stebbing CR