I’ve got a riddle for you. What industry is worth $9 billion and has more locations than Starbucks and McDonald’s?
If you guessed payday loans, you are correct!
A payday loan is a loan to cover an unexpected expense, like a car repair or a medical emergency. The loan balance is generally due on your next payday—hence, “payday loan.” It sounds great when Montel Williams tells you about it on commercials for MoneyMutual, but these loans are very high-risk and tend to drain resources from low-income communities.
Although interest rates are advertised as being reasonable, many of these companies pretty much count on borrowers being unable to pay back the loan on time. When that happens, the loan doubles up on itself, so that some payday loans companies boast average annual rates of more than 500%. Three-quarters of the industry’s volume is generated by borrowers who have to re-borrow before their next payday. One company’s employee training manual even illustrates this cycle as simply part of their business plan.
This is modern-day usury. Usury involves lending money at unreasonably high rates, and the Bible has a lot to say about it. In the Old Testament, usury is forbidden:
- Exodus 22:25—“If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.”
- Leviticus 25:37—“If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them… Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you.”
- Psalm 15:1, 5—“O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right… who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved.”
So, go to your bank and tell them it’s against your religion to pay interest on your mortgage.
Don’t do that. That won’t work.
Many scholars have speculated that usury is what was going on in the temple that made Jesus so mad. The moneychangers’ job was to exchange Roman coin for money that did not have graven images, which were forbidden—perhaps they were adjusting the exchange rate for a profit. Those selling and buying, they were selling and buying sacrificial animals—so maybe the sellers were overcharging the poor buyers, the widows and lepers who could only afford doves to sacrifice, much like Jesus’ own parents had at his presentation in the temple as a child. Maybe these people have turned Jerusalem, the city of peace, into sin city.
If this is the case, then Jesus’ outrage makes sense. Reading the Old Testament will make you question the ethics of having a credit card or paying interest on purchases, but it definitely makes it clear that payday loans and car titles loans, high interest rates and usury ancient or modern, are not what God desires for his people. This kind of predatory lending was condemned in society at large and especially within the community of faith, and it certainly was not allowed in God’s own house.
But let’s be Biblical literalists for a minute. Does this passage say there was abuse happening in the temple? Does it say there was usury and interest being charged? Does it say that predatory lending was going on in the temple?
It doesn’t. It says people were buying and selling, exchanging money and selling doves. Although this might sound odd to us today, this was business as usual for the temple. These weren’t necessarily profiteering activities, they were just pieces of the puzzle of temple practice. People often traveled long distances to the temple to make sacrifice, and carrying a goat or even a dove was impractical for a big journey in a time before planes, trains, and automobiles. When worshippers arrived at the temple, they needed the services of the moneychangers and sellers so that they could meet the requirements of religious law.
What if Jesus isn’t challenging an obviously immoral behavior? What if Jesus is challenging business as usual? What if the tables Jesus turns over are not the tables of corruption but the tables of normal religious practice?
Clarence Jordan wrote a unique translation of the Bible often referred to as the Cotton Patch Gospel. It sets the story of the Gospel in rural Georgia in the early 20th century, giving the stories a unique Southern flavor and a poignant racial dimension. In his Cotton Patch Gospel of Matthew, this is how Jordan translates part of our Scripture for tonight:
“Then Jesus went into First Church, pitched out the whole finance committee, tore up the investment and endowment records, and scrapped the long-range expansion planning. ‘My house shall be known for its commitment to God,’ he shouted, ‘but you have turned it into a religious racket!’”
Ouch. Jordan doesn’t have Jesus casting out the pastor who’s sleeping with the choir director or the stewardship chair who’s embezzling money from the church. He has him casting out the finance committee, the investment and endowment records, and the long-range expansion planning.
Anyone employed by a church today might immediately say, “Wait just a minute! We need those things! The Book of Discipline requires us to have a finance committee! Investments and endowments are what enable us to do ministry! And if we don’t plan for the future of our church and this building, we won’t be able to fulfill our mission! We’re trying to be good stewards here, Jesus—how can that be a bad thing?”
All fair questions. But Jesus is telling us more than meets the eye in this passage, because he is alluding to several Old Testament scriptures that we might miss. These references give us insight into what Jesus is trying to say.
First, the phrase “a den of robbers” comes from Jeremiah 7. In this passage, the prophet Jeremiah warns the people of Judah not to assume that just because something is happening in the Lord’s house, it is the Lord’s will.
Jeremiah says, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place… Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?”
“Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’” You can have a place of business and call it a temple. You can have a political party and call it a community of faith. You can have a country club and call it a church. But does the Lord dwell there?
We often refer to our Scripture for tonight as the story of “Jesus cleansing the temple.” But the word “cleansing” is never actually used in the text, and that modern title allows us to stop listening after Jesus turns over the tables. But Jesus does not one but two things in this passage. Jesus drives out, yes—but Jesus also welcomes in.
“The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.” Or, as Clarence Jordan put it, “And the blind people and the broken people gathered around him in the church, and he made them well.”
This is a big deal for several reasons. Here’s where we get to our other Old Testament references. 2 Samuel 5:8 expressly forbid the blind and the lame from entering God’s house, so Jesus is making a point by welcoming the blind and the lame into the temple. When he speaks of a “house of prayer,” he is alluding to Isaiah 56, which welcomes foreigners and eunuchs into the house of the Lord. This would be unheard of in the everyday practice of the temple cult. “Foreigners” includes non-Jews, and eunuchs were sexual minorities who were not allowed in God’s assembly. But the “house of prayer” Jesus refers to is not a Jewish house of prayer, definitely not a Christian house of prayer; instead, as Isaiah 56:7 says, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
Jesus throws out the finance committee, the investment and endowment records, and the long-range expansion planning, not because they have become corrupted, but to remind us why we are here. We are here to be a house of prayer for all peoples. We are here to welcome the blind and the lame, the foreigners and the eunuchs and the broken people, to offer them sight and strength, welcome and acceptance and healing, so that we might all be made well.
Here at Centenary, we have been working for a long time toward a capital campaign to renovate the children’s building so that our children’s and youth ministries can have space to develop and grow. If you’ve ever been here on a Wednesday night when all of our children’s choirs, confirmation classes, and other programming is in full swing, you know everyone is stepping on everyone’s toes to get to where they’re going. And unless you’re behind the scenes, you don’t know half of the hand-wringing that goes into trying to find space for all of this to happen. The idea is to open up the children’s building to make room for ministry that is already happening and ministry we could grow into. The plans are pretty impressive, and I for one am excited to see what comes of them.
But ministry here at Centenary does not begin or end with a capital campaign. When Tammy, our youth director, talks about the potential for new space for the youth, she is excited and energized by the potential for expanding not just programming for our young people but also the ways in which our whole church does outreach and mission.
But Tammy also says, again and again, that the youth are already engaged in mission, and they will keep being engaged in mission, with or without a capital campaign. Each month, our young people welcome in our downtown neighbors who are homeless or live in public housing like Crystal Towers on Sixth Street. They call it Love Thy Neighbor, and through the meal and fellowship and medical clinic and bingo games, they welcome the blind and the lame and the broken people into God’s house.
A capital campaign might change the way ministry looks here and might expand opportunities to reach out to our neighbors, but our young people committed long ago to leading us in mission, and they’re going to do it regardless. Our youth will continue to show us how to love our neighbors, with or without investments and endowments and long-range expansion planning.
Jesus throws out temple practices, not because they were corrupt or because he was in conflict with Judaism, but because we don’t need them anymore. By the time even the earliest Gospel was written, the temple had long been destroyed. But another temple had been prepared. In John’s version of tonight’s scripture, Jesus turning over tables is followed by this exchange:
“The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body.”
We can trust those words, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord,” only when we discern the temple of his body. Throughout Lent, we sat with Matthew 25 and were reminded that whatever we do to the least of these, we do to Christ. We discern the temple of his body when we encounter God in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner.
We can trust those words, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord,” when we drive out whatever makes us a religious racket and welcome the foreigners, accepts the eunuchs, and heal the broken people. We discern the temple of his body when we find our own sight and strength, blind and lame though we may be.
Sarah S. Howell
Our second focus song was Modest Mouse's "Bankrupt on Selling." It's a great song, but the album version has a curse word I didn't feel comfortable using in church. We edited it out in our version, so if you decide to go looking for it to listen to it, you have been warned.