10 March 2012

Never to be bought, sold, or traded. . .

3rd Sunday of Lent (2012)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

How many here have been to a flea market? I went to one for the first time in the early 80's with my paternal grandmother. We drove to Belzoni, MS to the annual Catfish Festival. We had a carload of her crafts to sell—ceramics, painting, knitting. Every item had a small white price sticker. But I learned that that sticker was just a suggestion, the opening bid for the item. Through the day, I watched my grandmother dicker over the prices. Sometimes she came out on top and sometimes she didn't. When the catfish frying started, I wandered around the stalls to see what I could see. It didn't take me long to find the comic book booths. All those wadded up dollar bills in my pocket—all ten of them—started burning and itching to be spent. I returned to my grandmother's booth with a handful of comics and nothing left in my pocket. That day I learned two rules about bargaining for what you want: 1). always assume that the price is too high; 2). be prepared to walk away. Since then, I've learned another rule of the marketplace: some things are too valuable to negotiate over. Jesus clearly demonstrates that there is no place for the marketplace in the business of faith. Our faith is priceless and God never bargains. 

Jesus is angry, very angry. He's angry enough to take a whip to the moneychangers doing business in the temple courtyard. It might not be obvious why he's so angry, so let's look at that for a moment. The moneychangers have a job to do. They are the first century equivalent of our modern currency exchanges. They take a wide variety of currency and change it—for a fee—into currency acceptable to the temple. The faithful visiting the temple then use their new currency to buy sacrificial animals or donate their tithe to the temple coffers. Seems innocent enough, so why does this practical business upset Jesus? He shouts at the moneychangers, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father's house a marketplace.” He's angry b/c these businessmen have turned his Father's house into a marketplace. OK. But why would that make him angry? The moneychangers are helping the faithful fulfill their legal and ritual obligations. . .for a modest profit, of course. Without the moneychangers, most probably wouldn't be able to offer the required sacrifices or make their tithe donations. They are providing an invaluable service. If CCN or the NYT had been around in those days, the headlines would've read: RELIGIOUS TERRORIST OBSTRUCTS FAITHFULS' WORSHIP! Or something equally inflammatory. Is Jesus just being unreasonable here? Is he pushing an extremist agenda? No. Jesus knows that what his Father truly wants, truly values is the sacrifice of a contrite heart. The moneychangers have turned a deeply religious duty into a flea market negotiation.

Taken on its own, there's nothing inherently wrong with the marketplace. We buy what we want and need; sell what we can no longer use; and trade one thing for another based on mutual agreement. Nothing could be more democratic or fair. No one is forced to buy, sell, or trade and prices are set only after both parties are satisfied. But there are some things so valuable that they cannot be priced, cannot be bought, sold, or traded. There are some things that have worth beyond our ability to negotiate them away. One of those things is our faith, the infused habit of trusting in the loving-care of our Father. How much is the freely given gift of faith worth? What would you trade it for? What amount of money could you spend to buy a gift given only by God? Jesus is angry at the moneychangers because they have turned the faithfuls' love for God, their worship, their adoration into a mercantile exchange, a mechanical transaction from which they benefit by charging a fee. Where is the faithfuls' contrite heart? Where is the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving? Where is repentance, mercy, and the longing for holiness? Do they believe that the their worship of the Most High is accomplished by jingling a few coins? That their duty to revere the Creator is discharged by slipping a quarter or two into a temple vending machine? Apparently, they do and that's why Jesus grabs a whip, flips over their booths, and drives them out of his Father's house.

Now, what does this raucous gospel episode have to do with us? While Jesus rested in Jerusalem, many came to believe in his name. However, John reports, “Jesus would not trust himself to them because he knew them all, and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well.” Jesus understands the human heart, its strengths, weaknesses, temptations, and failures. He understands that we are often all too ready, willing, and able to overthrow his Father as Lord of our lives and negotiate away the gift of faith. He understands that we are often tempted to allow the demons of fear and worry to set up shop among the better spirits of joy and trust. That we love a good deal and often fail to see beyond the next bargain, beyond the next chance to get something we want. Jesus hesitates to reveal himself to those who have come to believe on his name b/c he knows that it is our nature to take the easiest path, to lift the lightest burden, and to make the most popular choice. He will not give his revelation to a heart prepared to swap it for money, power, celebrity, or approval. He's waiting to reveal himself to those who will sacrifice a heart made contrite in repentance, a heart made pure by honestly discharging its duty to love. The freely given gift of faith cannot be bought, sold, or traded; it cannot be negotiated away or bargained for. It can only be nurtured and lived, or left to wither and die. 

In the next few months and years, the heart of the faithful in the U.S. will be tested by a variety of moneychangers seeking to buy the faith outright or to at least bargain over its price. We'll be tempted with promises of political influence, protection, increased funding, and all sorts of apparently approving cultural goodies. At the same time, from the other side of the bargaining table, we'll be threatened with political exile, cultural disapproval, de-funding, and even dire legal consequences up to and including jail time. These negotiations are already well underway in the U.K., Canada, and several states in our own country. Why? The well-lived life of faith is an irritating obstacle to those who imagine themselves freed from the slavery of sin. That anyone anywhere would cling to the idea that God's truth is knowable; His goodness obtainable; and His beauty enjoyable is. . .well, it's just ridiculous; or worse, it's oppressive, mean-spirited, hateful. That's what our faith is to some: an oppressive, mean-spirited, and hateful indictment of their rightful choices; thus, they must either negotiate the faith away or destroy it outright. But they cannot do that if we follow Jesus' example and keep the moneychangers out of his Father's house, keep our faith out of the flea market, away from the bargaining table and where it belongs: thriving in a contrite heart ready for loving sacrifice. Some things cannot be bought, sold, or traded. One of those things—the single most important thing—is the free given gift of our faith. Nothing this world's moneychangers have to offer is worth the price of abandoning our God.
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