About a decade ago, a young newspaper reporter in Beaufort County, South Carolina — the county known mostly for the resort town of Hilton Head Island — set her alarm for 4 a.m., got into her car, and drove a half-hour to a mobile home park in the north-most reaches of the county.
It felt like the middle of the night, but when she pulled into the driveway of her destination, the small trailer was teeming with life.
The lights were on throughout the home, and she could see figures through the windows moving about.
She was greeted by a set of parents who were doing normal morning routines — making breakfast and lunches for the kids, and stuffing backpacks with books, snacks and other essentials for the school day ahead.
Two children sat half-asleep in front of their cereal bowls, and within about five minutes, the horn from the big, yellow school bus hurried them out the door.
The reporter — her name is Crystal — agreed to the assignment for this day set about by her editor:
Spend a full day in the life of the school children who are forced to ride the bus for nearly three hours every morning and evening to get to the very same school that more advantaged children arrive at with just a 15-minute jaunt on the same bus.
The reason for the disparity? Economics:
Beaufort County was home to both the most affluent households in the state as well as some of the most impoverished.
Those who could not afford to live in the better neighborhoods where the schools were located had to endure incredibly long school bus rides.
Crystal reported that the kids simply fell asleep on the bus, occasionally woken at each stop over the next two-and-a-half hours.
She reported, too, that the kids were hungry by the time they showed up for school having eaten breakfast some three hours earlier.
They also were sleepy throughout classes, didn’t perform very well and were often disengaged.
In fact, their grades were among the lowest in school.
And despite their desires to play sports or join an after-school activities, they couldn’t do so — if they wanted a bus ride home.
The system, Crystal reported in the newspaper, was broken.
Referendum after referendum to build a north-county school failed each year.
And no one with any sort of power or sway was willing to spend the time and money to rebuild it.
So today, I’d like to talk about what it looks like to take on corrupt power structures in our world by looking at Jesus’s example of cleansing the temple, which we heard in John’s gospel just a few moments ago.
Coming to the temple
It was near the time of Passover — the major Jewish festival that commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery — and throngs of people traveled from far and wide to come to the temple in Jerusalem, where they celebrated and presented sacrificial offerings to God.
Coming from all different regions meant carrying all different kinds of currency.
It also meant not being able to carry the animals — cattle, sheep and even doves, John tells us — to be sacrificed at the temple.
Therefore, travelers had to exchange their money and purchase their offerings — all, of course, for a fee.
When Jesus arrives on the scene, he is angered to find the money changers and sellers of animals within the temple, and he proceeds to drive them out — by force.
The temple — the place of worship and a house of prayer — has become a house of commerce and corruption.
Rather than the temple being a symbol of God, it has become a symbol of Herod, who ordered the temple’s expansion that the Jews speak of in Verse 20.
That it has taken forty-six years to rebuild.
Replacing the temple’s purity for commerce is tantamount to replacing God with Herod.
God for human.
The divine for the idol — the things of this world.
And charging fees to be able to come in and worship is a sacrilege.
The temple is open to all people, but the Jewish leaders — those who hold the power and are entrusted with the care of God’s people — are the very ones permitting this corrupt system to exist and feeding upon the underprivileged.
No, Jesus says adamantly.
He fashions a scourge — a whip of cords — and drives out with force the animals and the money changers.
And with the same force, he overturns their tables and pours out their coins.
He restores justice to the temple for the people who come to give glory to God on this Passover.
The Jewish leaders see this, but Jesus is “armed and dangerous,” as one commentator writes.
They know he’s right, but that doesn’t stop them from challenging Jesus.
Verse 18 shows us that challenge.
They ask: “By what authority are you doing these things? What miraculous sign will you show us?”
They’re looking for proof of Jesus’s authority.
They want to see something miraculous.
Jesus doesn’t necessarily give them a sign, though, does he?
It’s not at all like some of the other signs we see in John’s gospel — the feeding of 5,000, the wedding miracle in Cana, the healing at the pool…
Instead, Jesus points only to his death and resurrection.
When destroyed, the temple, he tells them, will be rebuilt in three days.
The Jewish leaders are aghast at even the thought of anything bad happening to their precious temple.
But John tells us that Jesus wasn’t talking about the physical temple, but, Verse 21, “the temple he was talking about was his body.”
No one is going to see that sign until after it happens.
Which, John tells us in the final verse of this story is exactly what happens.
The disciples remember what he had said — only after Jesus was raised from the dead.
What they don’t see at the time is that Jesus is the temple that will be both destroyed and raised.
That Jesus is the new temple.
That no more sacrifices will be needed because he will be the ultimate sacrifice.
And that this sacrifice, too, will be traded for silver coins.
And that God is not contained in a temple of bricks and mortar, but a temple of flesh and blood.
Jesus’s anger, his hostility and his passion for what has happened to God’s people is as immediate as it is immense.
We know that Jesus will be the Passover lamb.
We know the same scourge that he used to drive out sin in the temple will tear off his own skin to drive out our sins.
We know that it’s only a matter of days away.
In cleansing the temple, we, too, must look at the roadmap that Jesus provides.
Especially when it comes to taking on the power structures that oppress and keep oppressed those without power.
Jesus was protecting something sacred — not just the temple, but what the temple represents:
a place for God’s children to worship and pray freely.
Human lives are sacred as they are created by God and meant to live in loving community with one another and before God.
By profiting in changing currencies in order to purchase items that are to be sacrificed to God and, thus, allow one access to the temple, is tantamount to charging admission.
Pay to pray… Call it what you like.
This goes beyond the physical temple.
Jesus draws a clear parallel to his body.
We also know that Christ’s body is his holy church, and that the holy church isn’t a building, but a people set apart by God.
Jesus attacks the power structures,
he names the sins committed,
and he points to a time in which the power structures will be torn down and rebuilt righteously.
Jesus speaks to resurrection, and we, too, must acknowledge the power of the resurrection.
We, too, must attack, name and tear down oppressive power structures.
And we must work to rebuild in the power of the resurrection.
Injustice in our world
If we acknowledge the sacredness of the temple — the body — then we, too, must be intolerant of the corrupt power structures whose sole aim it is to destroy it.
To tear down the body — God’s children.
When we witness corrupt power structures that oppress, we must drive them out.
We must name the infractions.
And we must be able to point to the fact that we have been given this freedom because of the price paid by Jesus, as witnessed at the cross.
We witness this corrupt power structure at work when we do not strive to bring an end to pay wage disparities between men and women, where equally qualified women earn only 80 percent of what a man earns;
We see it in the workplace with other minorities too, where a Hispanic woman earns only 54 percent of what a white man is paid for the same job;
We see it on the Native American reservations, where unemployment rates are as much as 90 percent, where access to decent healthcare is severely limited, and where indigenous peoples can never own the land upon which they live and is rightfully theirs;
We see it in our judicial system, where African American and Hispanic men represent only a 32 percent of the country’s population, but compose 56 percent of the prison population;
And we see it in Beaufort County, South Carolina, where the poorest of the poor children must wake up in the middle of the night to catch a school bus at 5 a.m. that will arrive at their school three hours later.
They are hungry. They are tired. They underperform.
And they’re at a disadvantage.
And they are our children.
When we fail to name and take action against corrupt power structures such as pay wage disparity and blatantly egregious justice practices,
and when we fail to name and take action against those systems that continue to marginalize the poor, we are profiting on the backs of the underprivileged and those without power.
We are passively condoning the destruction of the temple.
Jesus says no!
He rids the temple of its physical corruption and drives them out.
He acknowledges the sin committed against God.
Then Jesus points to the future — his own death and resurrection for our salvation.
That is the Good News:
Jesus shows us how to stand strong, in solidarity with one another, and drive out the corruption in our lives, our communities, and in our world
Because the temple has been rebuilt — resurrected — we, too, are given new birth and a chance to rebuild.
To expand the Kingdom of God here on earth and right now.
Because of this young reporter’s story, a community was resurrected.
Crystal drove out the false notions that nothing could be done for those forgotten children.
Her story put a face on those children and named the sin against them.
And her words and actions spurred an effort for justice—
To build a new school that was easily accessible for children.
Where they could have a chance to learn without extraordinary obstacles and challenges against them.
It takes action.
It takes saying no, we’re not going to stand by passively and allow this to happen.
It takes naming the forces and power structures that oppress, and calling them out.
And it takes the body to hope, dream, imagine and act.
We face a whole lot of injustice in our world today.
Some happening right under our noses,
some happening without our knowledge.
But they’re there.
We are called to enter those places and to name the evils, to drive them out, and to help rebuild
All for God’s glory.