In the Gospel record, we read of three presentations of Jesus at the Temple. Today, the first of the presentations, marks forty days following Jesus’ birth. Two things were required of Mary and Joseph according to the Law of Moses: Jesus’ parents were required to present Jesus in the temple, dedicating him to God as their firstborn son.[i] Also, there was Mary’s need for “purification.” We read in the Book of Leviticus that a new mother was to be ceremonially purified by a priest forty days after childbirth.[ii] A second presentation was when Jesus was age 12, when he greatly impressed the temple authorities with his precocious knowledge.[iii] And a third, when, as an adult, he was presented with the goings on of Temple – what was going on, outside and inside the temple.
On all three occasions Jesus was first presented not with the glory of the Lord, but with the exploitation of the money changers. There was a roaring trade in sacrificial animals in the great courtyard of the Temple.[iv] “The demand for pure, sacrificial animals was huge, and so Jesus’ first presentation at the Temple was to a cacophony of animals braying, birds screeching, the stench of living and dying animals, the carnage from the sacrifices, gutters of blood, and the high sound of animal traders and money changers hawking their wares. There is evidence that these traders took advantage of the demand for clean animals for devotional sacrifices by raising the prices, sometimes to exorbitant heights. The money-changers made good profit. Joseph and every male Jew was supposed to spend a certain proportion of his income in Jerusalem and most pilgrim Jews would have arrived with foreign currency.[v] Jesus was presented with this at the Temple. Jesus, as an adult, was obviously impressed by this, but not positively.
We read that Jesus, as an adult, was also impressed, not positively, by the grandeur of the buildings and colonnades at the Temple mount; he was impressed, but not positively, by the elaborate purity ritual and Temple ceremony. [vi] Here were traders and money-changers blatantly serving their own interests, possibly in collusion with the chief priests and Temple personnel, holding onto the power – power, which openly discriminated against people, according to their race, their citizenship and their sex. (Women were second-class citizens; in many cases, non-Jews had no more rights than animals.) “Jesus was determined to do something about it. His compassion for the poor and the oppressed overflowed into indignation and anger.”[vii] According to Mark’s gospel, an adult Jesus was presented with a scene such as this late one afternoon, too late in the day to do anything about it[viii], and so he slept on it. What dawned on Jesus the next day was how strongly he felt about this perversion and injustice, and so he came back, presumably with a crowd to help him. The child of Bethlehem, once meek and mild, had grown into a rage, enough so – according to John’s gospel[ix] – that Jesus presented himself with a whip in his hand, and forced the traders and money-changers, together with their merchandise and money, out of the courtyard. Amidst this carnage of animals and exploitation of what he called “the least of his brothers and sisters,” what caught his attention – what impressed him, and very positively, and with compassion and admiration – was a poor and powerless widow, whom he witnessed giving her last penny as a free offering to the Lord.[x]
Here, of course, I’m speaking of Jesus, no longer an infant, nor as a 12 year old boy, but Jesus as a mature adult when he presented himself to cleanse the Temple. But many, many years earlier he had first been presented with this typical scene at the Temple when he had accompanied his parents, as an infant, for Mary’s purification, the feast that we remember today. His mother, a woman, needed to be made pure. “There was nothing about being a woman that automatically made one impure. But generally speaking, men in their natural state were thought to be more pure than women. The natural bodily processes of childbirth was considered a source of impurity, and this led to a more generalized sense of the impurity of women.”[xi] Jesus’ parents, Joseph and Mary, were obviously people of neither stature nor wealth. They came from the wrong part of the country; they didn’t have enough money for their required animal sacrifice to buy a spotless, year-old lamb. We hear in today’s Gospel lesson that, rather, Joseph gave the offering of the poor: a pair of turtledoves. Maybe Joseph had had to barter for the turtledoves in the Temple courtyard? And then they meet up with this holy old woman, the widow Anna, who greets him and his family and blesses him. Maybe it all started with Anna: Jesus’ growing up to notice and love old widows.
Virginia Axline, the eminent child psychologist, says that there is nothing to which the smallest child is more sensitive than injustice, than the experience of injustice; and there are few things over which a young child has less power than to make just what is unjust. We hear in today’s Gospel that from this day, the infant Jesus grew and became strong, filled with wisdom.[xii] Who knows what were the impressions made deep within his soul when he was earlier presented with the Temple scene… but I can’t help but imagine this earlier exposure to injustice, condoned and perpetuated in the name of God, grew with him. And he came to give his life’s energies to set free people imprisoned by prejudice because of age or gender or race or economic status or education. Breaking down the “dividing walls of hostility”[xiii] between who was in and who was out, breaking every rule in the book about where he ate, and whom he touched, and under whose roof he slept, and who he called his friends. How much the world, and the world of religion, even the Christian world, can look the same as when Jesus was first presented with its injustices. And Jesus’ message, then as now, is to “follow my example.” “Follow me.”
[i] Exodus 13:2, 12-16.
[ii] See Leviticus 12:1-8. This feast day in the calendar of the church was been remembered at one point in the western church as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
[iv].See Joachim Jeremias’ comments in Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1975); pp. 48-49.
[v].Drawn from the comments of Robert Nolan, Jesus Before Christianity (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994); pp. 125-127.
[x].Nolan, p. 126.
[xi].Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (San Francisco: Harper, 1994); p. 52.
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