Religious Economies, Then & Now: Sacrifice and the Lamb of God

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March 26, 2015 by jmw

{ the following is a sermonic reflection on John 2:13-22 }

This scene of Jesus getting angry in the temple is a popular one. Even those unfamiliar with the gospels are often familiar with this scene. I think that the main reason for its popularity is that we love angry Jesus. We love revolutionary, zealous Jesus. I know I do. Don’t you? Finally, a scene that resonates with us: the dude is pissed and he’s come to throw down. Yes, this is the Hollywood action messiah we’ve been looking for.

And yet I think that the common fixation on Jesus’ anger in this scene really misses the point of what John may be doing here. We must remember to read the gospels not simply as historical accounts, but as literature as rich and nuanced as, say, Shakespeare.

On that note, I’d like to draw our attention to what John has done in this particular scene. In verse 17 he adds an extra commentary, it reads: “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for thy house will consume me.’ Have you ever thought about this little side note that John threw in there? It’s clearly something intentional on his part; I mean, it’s not like he knew exactly what the disciples had been thinking. He’s added this little recollection as a way to comment on Jesus’ identity and his action in the temple ( just like he adds another in verse 22: “When he was raised from the dead his disciples remembered that he had said this…” ).

All too often, in our fixation on Jesus’ anger, we apply this little phrase, ‘Zeal for thy house will consume me,’ on to Jesus. This must mean Jesus’ zeal for the house, the temple. Jesus was really passionate about his father’s house, which is why he got so pissed, etc.

But as I was reading this a bit more closely, I found myself wondering if this common reading is really the case. And a number of clues have lead me to believe that it is not Jesus who is zealous here, but the one’s who have turned the whole temple cult into a house of trade.

First of all, the word for “consume” here really means to consume, to devour, to destroy. We’re talking about someone getting killed. So, are we to think that Jesus’ own zeal is going to destroy him? Maybe. Maybe it was Jesus’ zeal for the temple that caused him to confront its corruption and die for this cause. But, again, I think to take this route we’re still overly fixated on Jesus as our angry revolutionary rather than, as John calls him, the Lamb of God. It is true that Jesus is the one who will be consumed, but by who’s zeal?

A second clue helps us here. This phrase, ‘Zeal for thy house will consume me,’ is taken from Psalm 69, a psalm written from the perspective of a victim who is consumed not by his own zeal, but by the zeal of the religious masses. The psalm associates ‘zeal for thy house’ with wrongful persecution that would ultimately sacrifice an innocent victim for the sake of the temple. If we read on in John’s gospel we can see that this is no coincidence: later in chapter 11, when the religious council is concerned about Roman military coming to destroy the temple, the chief priest Caiaphas says to them, “ …it is advantageous for you that one man should die for the people so that the whole nation should not perish.” (11:50) If Jesus is the one being consumed, then it is not by his own zeal for the temple but by those caught up in its sacrificial economy.

A third clue that helps us out is that, as I mentioned, this is an addition from John, an extra commentary, a kind of looking back. And whenever the disciples “remember” (i.e. have an insight) in John’s gospel, it’s a looking back through the lens of the cross. Here John has inserted this powerful phrase from Psalm 69 back into the thoughts of the disciples. In other words, upon seeing Jesus’ confrontation with the temple, the disciples remember that sometimes zeal for the house means the murder of innocent blood.

So, instead of an angry, zealous Jesus who has come to destroy, John is actually portraying a Jesus who will be destroyed by the temple. John’s Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.Remember: this scene takes place at passover. In fact, John will have Jesus celebrate Passover twice morein his gospel, the third time providing the context of his death.

This is key to John’s portrait of Jesus, (I think it’s a good thought to hang on to throughout Lent): Jesus has come to put an end to the sacrificial temple cult that sustains itself through violence; and Jesus will accomplish this by dying and rising as a ‘sign’ of the God who “so loved the world that He gave His only son” to put an end to the violence.

Only now, after loosening our grasp on that angry, revolutionary Jesus can we gain a better understanding of what Jesus’ action in the temple was all about.

Jesus enters the temple at Passover, one of the busiest times of year. There would have been tens of thousands of people making all sorts of exchanges and offering sacrifices. If you read up on this you’ll discover that the temple even had an intricate drainage system for all the blood from sacrificed animals. This was no small operation.

And Jesus singles out the money-changers and those selling animals and he says, “You shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.”  But this should not lead us to think that Jesus was somehow only criticizing the economic side of the temple, as if the problem was simply that the money-changers were charging fees or that the animal sellers were oppressing the poor.

Though that was probably the case, Jesus’ criticism is not only about economics! It could not have been because there was no separation between economics and what we might call ‘religion.’ That supposed distinction is a modern myth. The truth is that economics and religion were – and are – always bound up together. In fact, it is precisely this fundamental quality of human economics that Jesus aims to condemn.

The temple has become a marketplace. But how? The answer is by the sacred functions it provided. That’s how all economies become lucrative. Economics are always upheld by the religious. Karl Marx pointed to this in his concept of the fetish in which he explained that commodities have a magical, almost sacred, quality to them. Since Marx more and more thinkers are exposing the religious nature of our global economics. Capitalism’s devotion to virtual heaps of debt remind us of the heaps of skulls, stones, pyramids and temples of so-called “primitive religion.” Consumerism’s sacred promise to meet your heart’s desires and give your life meaning bear a strange resemblance to traditional promises of religion. Just have a look around at how much the word “love” is used in advertising and tell me that our economy is not backed by what rightly passes as “religious” desire.

In fact, if you want to dis-cover the religious side of global capitalism, all you really need to do is ask, “What are we willing to sacrifice our children to?” The sacrifice may be hidden or even delayed, but it’s there. Blindly drilling for oil, destroying entire forests, poisoning our water supplies, enslaving young men to mine rare minerals and pick coffee berries all day long, enslaving women to sew clothing 18 hours a day, marketing lingerie to little girls, selling porn to young boys.  Who is it all for? Is it really for us? Is it really all just to improve our standard of life? Or is it for something bigger? Something sacred? For what and to whom are we making these sacrifices?

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. If makes promises like a religion and demands sacrifices like a religion, I hate to break it ya, but it’s a religion.

The problem is that, as far as economies go, both the Jerusalem temple and neo-liberal capitalism are sustained by a religion of sacrifice. Each in their own complex way promise to deliver sacred goods or sacred meaning in exchange for sacrifice. And that is what Jesus’ action in the temple is all about. He has come to put an end to this economy. He will be the final Lamb who takes away sin by putting an end to this violent economy. Hence Jesus’ final words on the cross according to John: “It is finished!” (19:30)

In its place Jesus will become the new temple for the new economy: an economy that no longer requires sacrifices to maintain relationship with God, but requires only the joyful assurance that God loves us and that we, in turn, love one another. This new economy is still upheld by religion; the difference, however, it is that it is the religion of the Jesus, the Lamb of God, who says, “It is finished,” no more sacrifices for your bloodthirsty gods.

Lent is a time to get your house in order, to get your heart in order. It is a time to consider how we participate in a house (an economy) of slavery rather than an economy of freedom. It is a time to reflect upon how we support an economy that demands human sacrifice rather than an economy of love. As we gather today around the our Lord’s table may we taste and see with joyful hearts the economy of the Lamb of God. Amen.


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