Monday, April 04, 2011

Zeal for Your House: A Lenten Meditation

“There’s going to be trouble,” Benjamin yelled over to Jonas whose booth sat next to his in the Temple courtyard. That was his first thought when he saw the itinerant rabbi from Nazareth lead his disciples in through the Temple gates. The courtyard was full to overflowing, yet here came the back country preacher, the crowd parting before him like the Red Sea before Moses. He could tell from the look in his eyes that he was upset.

“It certainly looks like it,” Jonas called back to his friend and fellow merchant. “I’ve heard that if he gets upset, then heaven help the man who faces his wrathful tongue.”

Benjamin and Jonas had been busy setting up their tables and cleaning their booths. The sun would be at its zenith soon and they wanted to get the awnings over their changing tables just right so they could sit in shady comfort. Soon it would be so hot from all the people crowded there that no breeze would be found. If there was, it would more likely blow with the scent of overripe bodies than that of freshening coolness.

It was Passover time – a good time of year for them. Moneychangers like them always had business, of course. So long as Jews came from around the world to worship at the Temple, they’d make a good living. Drachmas, assarions, leptons and staters from Greece, danarius from Rome, Persian daracs, silver and gold coins from Egypt, Sardis, Tire, Sidon and even Palestine itself were valid currency for commerce, but not for the Temple tax. And every Jewish man over nineteen who came to the Temple had to pay that half-shekel tax, the levy that kept the Temple rituals and sacrifices going daily. Two days wages for the good of the faith. Not too bad, but not payable in foreign coinage. It was unclean. They could be used to pay any of one’s debts except the debt to God. For that they had to be changed to shekels.

Shekels – the money of God. Or at least his Temple administrators and priests.

That was the needed service Benjamin, Jonas and their fellow moneychangers provided. They took dirty money and cleaned it – denarii for shekels, the good for the bad. Of course, even though it was a service, it was how they made their living, too. The moneychangers set up a pricing schedule that they thought was fair, something they could all live with. That way no one would undercut the others. There were plenty of pilgrims and so no one had to get too greedy. The exchange rate they came up with was sort of a two for one deal – a tax payer could exchange his money into shekels for a fee that roughly amounted to one day’s wages. They didn’t think that was too bad. Two days for God, one for me. And God got His in good shekels while they got theirs in various foreign currencies, all of which went up and down with the markets and depending on how foreign wars were going. The moneychangers had to do something to cover their risks. Besides, the Talmud allowed moneychanger to make a profit. As it said, “he is obliged to allow the moneychanger some gain.” So making a profit on this service wasn’t so bad. Besides, it was not a mere service they were providing, but an opportunity to worship with a clean heart and clean coins.

And now it was Passover time. All the Temple merchants were in a good mood. This was their big season. While business had been steady throughout the year, now it would get downright brisk. Over two and a quarter million of their fellow Jews would be gathering in Jerusalem for Passover. They’d be coming to the Temple. Most would need to change their money from secular to sacred. These would be both High Holy and high profit days for Benjamin, Jonas, and their fellow tradesmen.

“He’s getting closer,” Benjamin hollered to his friend, nodding toward Jesus.

“Yes, and he looks furious,” answered Jonas.

Jesus’ robes swirled about him, his sandals kicked up both dust and the stench of hot bodies and animal waste all crowded into an area barely big enough to get up a good game of soccer. Jesus bent low to the ground, picked up some loose rope. The crowd closed around him.

“What’s he doing now,” asked Jonas, unable to see.

“It looks like he’s picked up some rope or something and is braiding it together,” said Benjamin, stretching on his tip toes, trying to make out what the rabble rouser was doing in the middle of the crowd. “It looks like he’s making a whip of some sort.”

“That’s trouble, trouble indeed,” called Jonas. “I hope the Temple guards keep a close eye on him. What’s got him so upset.”

“Maybe them,” said Benjamin, pointing to the sellers of sacrificial animals.

Jonas turned to look, calling, “With radicals like him, you can never tell.” They looked beyond the stalls of their fellow moneychangers. Their gazes came to rest on the stalls full of oxen and sheep, cages with their doves.

“Maybe that’s it,” Benjamin nodded, his head pointing toward the animals. “All these animals have turned the place into a sort of zoo.”

“Yes, it’s despicable,” agreed Jonas. “Especially at this holiest time of the year. Besides, those men are extortionists.”

“I agree,” said Benjamin. “Many of these good people who are coming want to have a thankoffering sacrifice besides merely paying their Temple tax. Or they have some sins to atone for. Either requires as suitable offering. Those fellows have quite a racket in sacrificial lambs.”

“Well, the worshippers could buy their sacrifices outside or bring them with them. That’d save some money,” Jonas said.

“Sure, sure,” laughed Benjamin. “They could buy one outside the Temple walls and bring it in. But to be certified acceptable – pure and without blemish – they’d have to get it past the mumcheh.”

“Yes,” Jonas shook his head sadly, “and those Temple appointed inspectors charged a fee as well, almost a half day’s wages.”

“That’s just for the service,” Benjamin clucked. “Then the inspector often finds the animal impure or imperfect. Then the pilgrim had to find another animal.”

“It is practically blackmail,” added Jonas, “the way these poor pilgrims are victimized into buying their sacrifices from the Temple booths if they want to sacrifice at all. Maybe that’s what has Jesus so upset.”

The crowd parted again and Jesus was heading toward them. His stride became ever more purposeful. He had surged to the front of the crowd like a breaking wave. The crowd fanned out in his wake, watching in wonder. They’d seen him assault people verbally before, but this time he looked like he might actually do some physical violence. Gentle Jesus wasn’t so meek and mild all of a sudden. He began swinging the homemade whip over his head and stormed toward the animal sellers. Benjamin and Jonas breathed a sigh of relief as he went by them and headed for the stalls, waving the whip with one hand and turning over tables with the other.

“Get these out of here,” he shouted, opening the dove’s cages and shooing the birds away. “How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!”

“His father’s house?” laughed Benjamin, enjoying the site of those animals sellers scurrying around, alternately trying to round up their merchandise and avoid Jesus’ whip. “His father was a carpenter from that hick town Nazareth.”

“It is written,” Jesus was yelling, “’My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’”

“Now he thinks it’s his house,” chuckled Jonas, his laughter dying in his throat as Jesus turned toward him and the other moneychangers and started tearing up their booths, throwing the tables over and scattering coins about the courtyard. The crowd followed him, mingling money with manure as they ground both underfoot.

“Quick,” called Benjamin, “grab what you can and let’s get out of here.” The two money merchants snatched all the sacks of coins they could as Jesus’ and the mob approached. Then they scooted toward the Temple gates, hoping for safety. Benjamin glanced back over his shoulder and saw his booth torn apart by the indigent itinerant. The Temple guards pushed their way through the crowd at the gate, making their purposeful way to put down the unruly crowd. Benjamin hoped they’d be able to handle it. Otherwise the Roman soldiers would be called into to restore order and though Gentiles were allowed inside the Temple courtyard,

Benjamin didn’t want any pagan soldiers there.

As they made their way toward the gate, they noticed one of Jesus band was leaning against the Temple wall. “Judas, that’s what they call that one,” Benjamin said to Jonas, shrugging his shoulder to the man, his hands and arms too full of money bags to point. This Judas seemed to be talking to himself. As they drew neared to him, pulled by the current of the crowd flowing out through the gate, they heard what he was saying.

“Zeal for your house consumes me,” Judas was saying, “and the insults of those who insult you fall on me.” He repeated this over and over.

“You there, Judas,” Benjamin called, irritated. “What nonsense are you carrying on about. You’re one of his men, aren’t you.”

“Yes, I am,” Judas answered slowly, a slight smile on his face. “Zeal for your house consumes me and the insults of those who insult you fall on me.’ That’s what I was saying. It’s from the Psalms. It’s about the Messiah.”

“The Messiah,” snuffled Jonas, “that man leading the rabble, turning over tables, destroying the Temple’s lifeblood. You think he’s the Messiah?”

Benjamin and Jonas were then swept through the gate by the crowd.

“Messiah?” called Judas to their retreating backs. “He just might be, he just might be.” He saw something shining on the ground. He stooped down to retrieve it. It was a silver coin. I wish I had about thirty more like you, he thought, then went back to repeating to the people passing by

“Zeal for your house consumes me.”

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