The Pressures of the Marketplace

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
March 3, 2024, Third Sunday in Lent

Scripture: John 2:13–22

In the summer of 2009, the world began to emerge out of what was being called the Great Recession, which was caused, in part, by the bursting of the housing bubble, record levels of household debt, and lack of financial regulations over investment banks. I was in the audience when the then-presiding prelate of the worldwide Anglican Communion, Archbishop Rowan Williams, addressed the triennium General Conference of the Episcopal Church. The Archbishop declared that the global economic meltdown revealed a “crisis of truthfulness.” He described it this way, “We have suddenly discovered we have been lying to ourselves. We have lied to ourselves about the possibility of profit without risk. We lied to ourselves about the possibility of limitless material growth in a limited world.” It was a powerful critique of the greed and idolatry of our current economic life. But even more striking about those comments was his conclusion that the church was just as guilty, and everybody, nations, leaders, corporations, bankers, citizens, and the church are called to repent. Pope Benedict, then the head of the Catholic Church, also weighed in on the economic crisis, warning that, unlike the church, markets are incapable of fostering human development, relationships, and community and that the church is at risk of being disfigured by the pressures of the marketplace. It was a relief to see heads of religious communions refusing to echo the justifications and apologies for unfettered capitalism.

But, unlike Jesus’ forceful challenge to the Temple, I don’t think our religious leaders can be said to have cleansed the Temple. That crisis of truthfulness the bishop spoke about continues, and the church may be the institution uniquely positioned to confront it. We cannot avoid being a church shaped, influenced, and surrounded by a global capitalist economy. We are inextricably engaged in and connected to it through banks, services, and commodities. And suppose we allow ourselves for one moment to observe who and what we are in this economy. In that case, we will see that our own identities have been distorted by greed, inequality, and exploitation. Our humanity is often of little or no consequence to the invisible hand of the market other than as consumers and laborers. As the theologian Walter Brueggemann lamented, “The singular passionate pursuit of profit is destructive of serious honest human interaction and serves to reduce other human beings to tradable, dispensable commodities.” The church is not immune to the pressures of the marketplace. It is hard to resist its logic and values.

Jesus reminds us that faithfulness to God’s purpose calls us to resist the logic and values of the marketplace. The Temple, the center of religious and economic life for the people of Israel, was also mired in a crisis of truthfulness and unable to resist the pressures of the marketplace as arranged and maintained by Rome. When Jesus arrived at the Temple for the Passover, he also recognized that the Temple itself was immersed in the political and economic structures of the empire, inextricably shaped and influenced by the economic arrangements that financed the Temple and brought profits to Rome. The Temple appeared to have lost its peculiar character as the dwelling place of a God of covenant and lovingkindness who expected the faithful to care for the vulnerable. The Temple had domesticated the radicality of God’s grace by giving into the normalcy of civilization.

And Jesus reacted dramatically, forcefully, and disruptively. He did not simply take a moment to teach with words alone. Instead, Jesus made a whip of cords and drove out the people selling sheep and cattle. He poured out the coins and turned over the tables of the money changers, telling them, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace?” By his actions and his command to the merchants to get out, Jesus raised the question for them and us: Is this a house of God or a house of market? What motivated Jesus to react this way? Selling animals for the required sacrifices and exchanging currency to purchase those animals was the traditional arrangement that facilitated worship for those who made the pilgrimage from all over. Temple authorities also anticipated economic hardship for some of those making the pilgrimage, so they would have ensured that even those without much money would have what they needed to participate in the temple sacrifices. Why did Jesus react this way? In driving the animals and the money changers out of the Temple, is he calling for rejection of the Temple or reform of the Temple?

Don’t get distracted by the debate over whether Jesus calls for rejection or reform of the Temple. Jesus interrupts business as usual in the Temple. And it is always appropriate to interrupt business as usual to discern if we are faithful to our call. Because “business as usual” has a way of taking over, making it hard for us to see when we’ve gone off track. Jesus is a Torah teacher, calling for worship of the One true God. Jesus knows the prophets and the writings of the Tanakh, which urges the people of God to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, to care for the poor and the needy among them. Is that the kind of care that the Temple offers as it conducts business as usual? Before he arrived at the Temple, Jesus performed his first sign of turning vast stores of water into an abundance of wine, demonstrating that God is a God of abundance, grace upon grace, to all. Does the Temple reflect that God? What are the indications of God’s presence in the Temple? What do worship and community look like? Does it look like merchants and consumers buying and selling goods and services? What is the purpose of this place of worship? Is it to finance the religious establishment and its imperial benefactors? Given what Jesus sees, he is compelled to interrupt business as usual. As the scholar Amy-Jill Levine has concluded, Jesus is calling everyone back to the teachings of the Torah, with its “insistence on care for society’s vulnerable, the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien.”

Jesus appears to be motivated by an ethic of care that will not allow God’s house, a place of God’s dwelling place of radical love, hospitality, and generosity, to become an extension of the politico-economic status quo. Jesus’ ethic of care would not allow him to minimize the needs and concerns of the vulnerable to protect the Temple business. Characterize it as rejection or call reform, but keep the main thing the main thing: being God’s covenant partner in the practice of love, mercy, generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, justice, and compassion.

Perhaps this is the power and problem of the prophetic mantle, having the foresight to see that what may have started with good intentions from well-meaning people can drift away from its original intent and purpose. Perhaps we need the prophets to remind us that the presence of God requires something different from us than the facilitation of the prevailing economic and political arrangements that neglect the poor and benefit the few. The house of God calls priests, deacons, disciples, seekers, and worshippers rather than merchants of the marketplace who serve the altar of capital.

We live in an age when the very character of God’s house has become contested and compromised. The idols of wealth, prosperity, and influence have become more attractive and lucrative than the practice of beloved community for many churches today. Ideology and partisanship have become more expedient in securing the church’s access to the halls of power than assuming the prophetic mantle to inspire service to all. We need only look at our current political and economic arrangements to know its shadow side: dehumanization, exploitation, inequality, and commodification that leaves far too many mired in poverty and violence.

What is the church for? Is God merely an enabler and cosigner of the prevailing economic and political arrangements? Can we imagine and become the institutional alternative to the current economic and political status quo? Can we maintain the church’s peculiar character of care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger even amid the pressures of the marketplace? Return to the first principle and primary purpose: the dwelling place for God. We don’t have to shop for God or pay for the love, grace, and blessings. We don’t have to earn our way into God’s presence or pay for the privilege of praying, singing, and worshiping in God’s reign. God dwells within and with us so we can withstand the pressures of the marketplace and become what God calls us to be above all else: God’s covenant partner in the practice of love, mercy, generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, justice, and compassion.

9 a.m. service

11 a.m. service