Zeal for Your House will Consume Me
His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’
David McCullough in his book Mornings on Horseback tells this story about young Teddy Roosevelt: (26th U.S. President)
"Mittie (his mother) had found he was so afraid of the Madison Square Church that he refused to set foot inside if alone. He was terrified, she discovered, of something called the 'zeal.' It was crouched in the dark corners of the church ready to jump at him, he said. When she asked what a zeal might be, he said he was not sure, but thought it was probably a large animal like an alligator or a dragon. He had heard the minister read about it from the Bible. Using a concordance, she read him those passages containing the word 'zeal' until suddenly, very excited, he told her to stop. The passage he told her to stop on was from the Book of John, (John 2)17 and in the King James Version it reads: "And his disciples remembered that it was written, 'The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.' "
The New Revised Standard version is not quite as scary for young minds. It reads, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” So just to be clear, zeal is not a monster hiding in the dark recesses of the church; zeal is eagerness and ardent interest in pursuit of something. My wife says that it is a very different experience driving with me on our way to see a Maple Leaf hockey game than it is when driving to the shopping mall. Clearly I am more zealous for one than for the other.
1. Many of us know the experience of how a two dollar hotdog outside the stadium costs three times as much inside the stadium. Or of how on game night the parking lot prices around the stadium increase. We chalk it up to supply and demand. We know we are being fleeced but we acquiesce because it’s the price for the entertainment we want to enjoy.
The temple in Jerusalem was an amazing place. For the faithful, it was the place where God promised to “set his name” meaning that God promised to be present there; the faithful knew that God was not limited to any location but that here at the temple God promised she could meet God for sure. It was a grand place; its structure inspired awe. And it was here that the great religious festivals of Israel were held—thousands of pilgrims thronging the city to take part in the annual wonder of Passover; Passover when they remembered that God had rescued his people from slavery in Egypt.
According to Biblical law every Jewish male twenty-years of age and older was to pay a half-shekel temple (sanctuary) tax (Exodus 30:13). This had to be paid in the currency of the temple; people with foreign currency like those with Roman coins had to get them exchanged. Coins bearing the image of the Roman Emperor were considered sacrilegious as currency to be given for the service of God. So money had to be exchanged and you can imagine that exchange rates made for lucrative gains since there were few places where the exchange was available and the temple was the only place where temple tax could be paid.
There is evidence as well that the requirement that only flawless animals could be sacrificed (Leviticus 3:6; 4:23) was also being used to take advantage of worshippers. Sources indicate that the officials who inspected the animals had an agreement not to pass animals bought from anyone except certain “approved” vendors—whose animals cost five or six times the price of animals bought elsewhere.
The temple leadership had their hand in this “revenue stream” as did the Romans through their tax levy on the trade. Just to give you a sense of the size of the revenues, we know that when the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD and stripped the place of its treasures so much gold flooded into the Roman economy that the price of gold dropped across the empire.
This isn’t to say that the businesses of currency exchange and selling animals are inherently evil—taking advantage of worshippers through pricing schemes clearly violated the love of neighbour enjoined in God’s law. Furthermore, the market place had taken over what was known in the temple as the court of the Gentiles; this was the place that was designated for Gentiles to come and pray and by faith experience the presence of God. You can imagine that there wasn’t much opportunity for prayer.
It is one thing to pay inflated prices for a food item at an entertainment event venue because we are free not to go nor required to purchase the food item. But to take advantage of what was required of worshippers is cynical and cruel to say the least. (Maybe like the taxing the fuel we need to heat our homes?)
With this picture of worshippers thronging into the temple for the Passover and the noise and clamour of market place in the court of the Gentiles and the predatory pricing of the market in your mind listen again to John’s gospel. Picture that you happen to be there that day and captured it with the camera of your smartphone. “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’”
Think of the strength of Jesus’ character and the fire in his eyes and the determination of his actions. It must have been an amazing thing to watch one man clear this entire market out of the temple’s Gentile court. John tells us that this was a sign; a sign that indicates the identity of this man from Nazareth. It was one thing to be with him at the wedding in Cana of Galilee when he changed the water into wine—the sign that precedes this one in John’s gospel. But here in temple—what do we make of Jesus now?
In John’s gospel what Jesus told those selling doves gets highlighted. “Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!” Keep in mind that the doves were the provision God’s law made for the poor who couldn’t afford an animal. Jesus views the trade in the temple as desecration. You can hear the heart of the gospel in what Jesus says; the heart that throbs with a self-forgetful, self-giving; the love of God is not an item that God puts up for purchase to those who can afford it. You can hear what Jesus is passionate about—what he is zealous to promote.
What are we zealous for? What does my spending pattern, for example, witness about the things I am passionate about? What is the line I will draw where I finally say no—none of that? Our world is zealous that faithful people not be too zealous about God.
2. As this gospel writer tells this story we have the account of the event—Jesus overturning tables and diving out animal vendors and the account of what the disciples remembered later in understanding this event. The disciples later connect a familiar older testament text to this story—Psalm 69:9—“Zeal for my house will consume me.” What is the consuming passion in Jesus as he takes this bold action this day? I think it is captured when he says the words “my Father”. “Stop making my Father’s house a market-place.” Not “my Father’s house” but “my Father’s house.” Remember that he would one day predict the destruction of the temple.
As we read this story of Jesus driving out these merchants it is important that it be understood in context of the rest of his life. Our understanding of this one incident needs to be informed by the rest of what we know of Jesus.
Jesus is a man utterly committed to the walking in obedient company with the one he calls the Father. Jesus loves the law. Jesus is committed to the truth of this line from Psalm 19; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart. Jesus knows that the command “you shall have no other gods before me” rejoices the heart because there is no God who loves you like the Father. Jesus was once asked what the greatest command was—it was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” Jesus knows this command revives the soul because there is no love that brightens the world like God’s love. This is the context out of which the Lord Jesus lives and you hear it all in how he says “my Father”—the respect and love and commitment is profound. And you can see it in what he does—what he sees before him in this temple court is a market-place that is an utter contradiction to the character and love of the one he calls my Father.
“Zeal for your house will consume me.” The writer of Psalm 69 was talking about how when he was zealous about the house of God, his neighbors made fun of him, insulted him, told him he was a backward-thinking idiot for finding so much meaning in something as silly as a temple. Psalm 69 is about suffering for your faith. It speaks of how the world sneers at us for claiming that a worship service is more valuable than anything that could ever happen in the citadels of worldly power. It takes faith to believe that what we do in worship on a Sunday morning matters in an eternal sense. It takes faith to believe that what a preacher conveys in a biblically true sermon is vastly more vital than anything that could ever emerge from the U.N. or from the office of any prime minister, president, or king.
This is the verse the disciples later remember as context for this story. It points us to the clarity of Jesus’ spiritual vision. It asks us if we know what matters in life and what doesn’t, and are we willing to put up with the world’s scorn rather than give up on our faith? Does God matter and do we live out of that conviction with the zeal Jesus shows us?
3. So, to probe this story for a moment or two in another direction, consider a question. The whip Jesus used to drive out the merchants and money changers is in your hand—who are you driving out? I am afraid that if it were in my hand I would do more harm than good. I can think of some within the church who appear to me to compromise and contradict the gospel that I’d like to overturn the tables on. In our society, for example, I don’t see the social good that will come from government distribution and taxing of cannabis—yet our governments seem to think there will be great spoils to divvy up. And even though I believe the gospel leads me to oppose certain things I prefer to leave the whip in Jesus’ hands and endeavour to stand firm in the gospel.
You see, the zeal for his Father’s house did consume Jesus. Once Jesus had cleared the temple of merchants and moneychangers and the mayhem and caterwauling of those driven out had died down some leaders confront Jesus. “What sign can you show us for doing this?” They want a sign to legitimate his outrageous actions. Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus was talking of his own death and resurrection; of where his zeal to obey Father would lead. It was on the cross that the zeal Jesus has will consume him. In other words, the one with the whip in his hand is the one who will pour himself our without remainder for our sakes. The one who would purge our lives of that which prevents us from experiencing the love of God will pour himself our so that our relationship with God can be set right. The disciples remembered that he said this after he was raised from the dead. It was then they were able to connect “Zeal for your house will consume me” and our Lord’s saying “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
By the time the gospel we know as John’s gospel was written the temple in Jerusalem where all this took place had been destroyed by the Romans and was a pile of rubble. The “temple” that remained standing was the risen Jesus. Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
The question the gospel writer puts to us is, will we too believe the scripture and the word that Jesus has spoken? These are the words of life Himself.