The giving of the Ten Commandments is read every Lenten season. In some churches the Commandments are read as a preparation for the Confession of Sin during penitential seasons. Recently they have been in the news, as legal battles have been fought over whether they can be displayed in public courthouses without violating the Constitutional separation of Church and State.
The Commandments need to be seen in a larger context, as part of God's covenant with God's people. The passage in Exodus that we read today is the conclusion of God inviting Moses up to the mountain and then agreeing to address the people of the Exodus directly, albeit cloaked in thunder, fire, and smoke.
Even amidst the noise and fear of God's speaking, the reader is struck by how passionately God cares for the people and how much God's desire to have a relationship with them shapes the giving of the Commandments. These aren't just the house rules of a stern parent, they are the terms of relationship for God's people who are loved and cared for by their creator. It's almost as though God is saying, "Look, I know what will make you miserable, and here are ten things to avoid that will keep you from misery."
By the time of Jesus' ministry, a whole system had been put in place to uphold the Law and help people who break it find a way back to a right relationship with God. The faithful loved God's law, recited it and its application night and day. In addition, a sacrificial system had been developed so people can offer the proper sacrifice at the Temple and have their relationship with God restored.
Part of that sacrifice involved purchasing ritually clean animals. Since Roman currency was considered idolatrous because it was stamped with the image of Caesar, one had to exchange Roman currency for Temple money to purchase the sacrificial offerings. Anybody who has traveled and changed currency knows the moneychangers always get a fee, and that was exacted on the Temple steps.
Jesus saw this practice for what it was: an unnecessary barrier between God and the children of God. He saw the poor having to borrow money in order to purchase the animals of sacrifice. He heard the arguing and fretting over whether the moneychangers were charging a fair exchange. And he'd had enough. He singled out a table or two, and drove out the dove sellers and the money changers. Two interesting points: One, Jesus didnât get arrested for doing this; and two, in John's account this event took place at the beginning of his public ministry, where the other Gospels place it at the end.
Regardless of placement in the Gospels, the results are the same: controversy. Commentators remark that Jesus wanted to eliminate the system that kept God and the people of God apart, while enriching the pockets of some at the expense of the poor. The new temple will be, in fact, Jesus himself, the crucified and risen Lord, who will replace the building and its sacrificial system. People will no longer need to rehearse sacrificial piety in order to be in a righteous relationship with God. Jesus, the new temple, will make that possible forever.
So, the link between the giving of the Ten Commandments and Jesus' passionate love for the people of God is a covenant relationship, one in which God desires to show us love and makes it possible for us to be in a loving relationship with our creator. The giving of the Commandments and the cleansing of the temple are both acts of love that remove barriers we create between God and ourselves.
Today as we worship in places that are deeply special to us, we might reflect on the barriers we have created that could separate people from God in worship. Is our church welcoming? Barrier free? Do we offer hospitality to guests and strangers? When we pass the offering plate, do we announce that guests are not expected to give because they are our guests today? Do we take strangers to the coffee hour and make sure they are introduced? In what ways might we better become a place where anyone seeking God might feel they are welcome, safe, and free to enter?
Finally, in our relationships with others, do we try to remove barriers that keep us and them from the love of God? Do we by our witness and speech imply that somehow we have achieved a place that might not be open to them? Where are the money changing tables in our worship, mission, and personal evangelism? And if we can't see them, let us ask Jesus to show them to us and help remove them, so that all that we do might create a place for anyone seeking to renew their relationship with God.