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Breaking the Law
March 28, 1976

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

MATTHEW 21:12-17

In this series of sermons during Lent, we’re likening life to a journey, a journey prompted by Jesus’ words,”Wide is the way, easy is the way that leads to destruction. Narrow is the way. The way is hard that leads to life.” One of those hard ways, difficult ways, we will look at this morning. Looking at the example of Jesus as he pursued his journey that led him to the cross, and then ultimately to the resurrection, we read in the New Testament lesson about one of those occasions when Jesus became very angry, openly, outwardly aggressive, even to the point of breaking the law. 

Sometimes you and I on our journey to life, sometimes the challenge, the demand, the cause comes to you and to me that elicits from us either the response to follow on that journey, or to shirk, dodge and escape the challenge. The challenge is to care enough to take the risks—the risk of losing personal safety, the risk of losing personal success. The challenge comes to us to even break the law, and to suffer the consequences of breaking the law, as did Jesus. 

The temple at that time was the center of Jewish life, the holy place, the place to which they traveled on pilgrimages from all over the Roman Empire. The temple, an amazing, beautiful edifice that attracted people from all over the known world, was a tourist attraction. At the center of the temple was a holy place that only the chief priest could enter. And then out from the center were various courtyards reserved for different groups of people—a courtyard where only priests could enter, a courtyard where the temple worship was held, a courtyard where Israelites could enter, and the outer courtyard was the Gentile courtyard where non-Jews and pilgrims entered. This outer courtyard was a scene of much activity, there was a lot of hustle and bustle. 

Two activities primarily were conducted here. One was money changing. Jews who came from all over the Empire to worship, to make the pilgrimage to the temple, were charged a tax. Whatever the currency was that they brought with them had to be changed into the currency that was acceptable to the temple authorities who, of course, had the business all planned. They had the currency into which foreign currency had to be changed. They controlled the money changes and there was graft, corruption and cheating. 

A second activity in the temple was the selling of animals and doves that were fit for sacrifice, the act of worship. Some of the animals were also for sale outside the temple. People could buy animals and doves to bring to the temple to sacrifice, but that animal or bird had to be without blemish. And of course, those who inspected to see if they were without blemish were in the employ of the temple authorities who in turn, sold the unblemished animals and birds at an exorbitant profit. It was a very lucrative operation to be envied by any self-respecting businessman or not self-respecting businessman. It was this kind of activity that Jesus entered that day. 

Can you imagine this country boy from Galilee on his first trip to Jerusalem, his first trip to the temple—the temple that was nostalgic, holy, revered, the place to which all Jews longed to see just once in their lifetime. Jesus came from the countryside and entered Jerusalem that Palm Sunday where he was greeted. He made his way to the temple. How surprised he must have been to see the activity. How stunned, startled, how shocked! He made a whip out of cords to drive out the animals. He overturned the tables, spreading the money on the ground. The animals, the traders, the sellers, were so surprised that they too dispersed. Jesus in a moment of anger cleansed the temple. Of course, it was only momentary; certainly the business resumed. But he made a witness and he disobeyed the law. What an imposing figure he must have been! Could just anybody, could you walk into a place, overturn a few tables and force them all out?. Wouldn't they laugh at us? Wouldn't they gang up on us? How imposing Jesus must have been! He must have had such an air of authority about him that demanded, commanded respect and their attention. All the stuff you and I were taught about Jesus being gentle, meek and mild doesn't fit with this picture of a Jesus who cleansed the temple. 

Why was he irked that day? Why was he angry? What caused him to react in such a way, to take such a risk to anger the temple authorities, anger the leaders, the religious people of that day. It certainly helped bring him to his death. At a great risk of personal safety and success, he cleansed the temple. Why? The Gospels give us a picture of Jesus as he taught, walked and lived among the people, that what upset him the most was when people were exploited, when people were hurt, especially poor people. The poor people of that day of which there were huge numbers, saved throughout their lives to be able to go to the temple and perform their sacrifice, and then to be exploited, to be mistreated. This angered Jesus to see the temple desecrated, the holy temple of God desecrated in such a manner. Could not people even one time in their lives go to pray, one time in their lives be allowed to have an experience without injustice, oppression, cheating and stealing? It angered him. The injustice and exploitation of that experience caused him to take a great personal risk and to react. 

The principle is: life is experienced in the willingness of you and me to forget our own problems, forget our own burdens, quit being self concerned and filled with self pity, and reach out, concerned about people who are hurting around us. We then experience life. “He who loses his life for my sake will find it.” We experience life in its glory, and life as God designed it when we are willing to take personal risks for the sake of other people, for the sake of people who are hurting, who are oppressed, and we want to set things right, to fight against exploitation. When that involves breaking a law, breaking a bad law, then we must be willing to suffer the consequences in humility and in joy. It says, “In joy he endured the cross.” He broke the law and he took the consequences. 

I think of Martin Luther in history who broke the law, stood up against the Roman Church and the Roman Empire. He stood up because people were being exploited, people were being oppressed by the church, charged for their sins to be forgiven. Martin Luther stood up for conscience and individual liberty. He stood before the Pope and said, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.” 

I think of people in American history who broke the law, who broke unjust laws, who dumped tea into the harbor at Boston, people who took matters into their own hands for the sake of fighting injustice, people who took great risks. I think of the people who just a few years ago broke the bad laws of segregation. They broke the law by sitting in the front seats of the bus, sitting at the white counters in restaurants, going into white restrooms, and gladly, humbly, willingly went to jail. I think of people in communities like ours who take on a cause when people are being hurt, or when the government or when community life is not what it should be and not as good as it should be. They will as one person or two or three, suffer, take risks, stand up for the cause, fight for the cause, take the risk of losing their reputation or having people slander them or losing business. They will take a stand for the right and be a soldier of the cross. 

When have you cared in such a way? When have you cared enough to take a risk, a risk for someone else? Do you care enough about the hungry of the world this morning to make the sacrifice for world hunger in the offering or for the raising of animals which each church in the conference will take in October to a huge Roundup to send around the world? Do you care enough for the hungry of the world to begin to fight and tackle the systems that are wrong, that produce hunger—the systems of distribution? Do you care enough when people around you are hurting? Or about some community problem, do you care enough to risk your personal reputation? 

In the fourth century, the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the religion of the Roman Empire. Christianity became the state religion and overnight all Romans became Christians in name. No longer was it possible to feed Christians to lions for the entertainment of the populace so they designed gladiator fights to entertain the people. Prisoners of war were taken into the arena and were forced to fight each other on a one-to-one basis until one was dead just to entertain 80,000 people who filled that arena. The chariot races would begin the day, and the tension would mount until the crowd— 80,000 people— would rise and shriek for blood until the gladiators came out into the arena. “Hail Caesar,” they cried. The gladiators drew their swords, drew their knives and fought until one was dead. At one of the gladiator fights a monk, a humble simple common ordinary man from the east was visiting Rome. Telemachus was his name. Telemachus went to the gladiator fights that afternoon and stood there shocked. As Jesus was shocked when he stood in the temple, Telemachus was shocked as he stood there in that arena and saw what they were doing. Now he could have said, “Well, what can one person do? What can I one person do?” Or he could have said, “Well, they're all having a good time. They're enjoying themselves.” He could have said, “Well, it's the law, it's the custom, it’s the tradition. Who am I to fight it?” Or he could have said, “What right do I have to impose my moral values on all these people? What right do I have to impose my morality on other people?” But he didn't. 

He was one man and he was shocked. He knew it was wrong to force soldiers to kill one another to entertain 80,000 people. Telemachus jumped over the fence and went out in the midst of the gladiator fight. He walked in their midst and separated them. They were so startled, they were so surprised they stopped. The crowd rose up in anger to see the fight stop and to see this idiot out there. They cried out in anger and shouted, “Let the games go on! Let the games go on!” The tension increased. The gladiators were surprised, startled and stunned; the crowd was rising in anger; the commander of the games said, “Kill him!” A gladiator pulled out his sword, the sword flashed in the sun, and Telemachus collapsed dead in his humble monk's robes. All of a sudden there was a hush over the arena. Silence fell. As the 80,000 people looked at a man of God, a holy man lying in his blood, one by one they got up and left the stadium; one by one they dispersed.That was the end of the gladiator fights. There was never another one held in Rome. This one man was willing to take the risk, even his life because people were being exploited, mistreated and hurt. 

I believe life came to him in that process, in God's glory, as he brought life to multitudes of people by stopping those fights. Life will come to you and to me personally, life as God designed it will come to this earth when you and I and people like us care, care about the quality of life that people must live on this earth. Life will come to this earth when you and I and people like us care enough to risk all that we have to stand up for Jesus

© 1976 Douglas I. Norris