NOT FOR SALE
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
March 8, 2015, 3rd Sunday in Lent, Year B
Exodus 20:1-17; John 2:13-22

“In the temple [Jesus] 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…”
John 2:14-15a

You’re lucky you’ve come here today, because I’m going to share with you the secret of happiness. (One of them, anyway.)

The secret’s found in a most unlikely place: the Ten Commandments. Does that surprise you?

It surprises a whole lot of people who aren’t used to looking at the Commandments as anything other than a stern moral code. You know, a grim list of “dos” and “don’ts.” (Mostly “don’ts.”)

In the eyes of many, the God of the Ten Commandments is a demanding — even crotchety — parent-figure. Someone who’s big on finger-wagging. Someone you’d rather not spend a lot of time around, because it could get dangerous. Get too close to this moralistic taskmaster, and you could get smitten.

By “smitten,” I don’t mean falling in love. I’m talking old-school smiting. Getting turned into toast by a heavenly thunderbolt.

So, while a great many of us profess our love and respect for the Ten Commandments, we’re just a little skittish about paying them much attention.

*****

 Hands down, the most neglected of the Ten Commandments is Number Ten. Which is a shame, because it’s here that you find the secret of happiness.

Here’s how it goes: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” [Exodus 20:17]

Of course there’s a lot of cultural baggage, here. To begin with, the Tenth Commandment seems to be directed to only half the population: the men. It also references types of property none of our families have kept for generations. Slavery? Really? It’s been 150 years since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. I’d also be pretty surprised if any of us sitting here today ever felt a longing to own an ox or a donkey. We’re just not agricultural people any more.

That very word “covet” is a strange and archaic one, to most of us. It’s almost completely gone out of fashion. When was the last time you heard anyone use the word in everyday conversation — unless it was a speech from the Academy Awards show, when somebody talked about an Oscar as “this coveted award”?

What do you think it says about a commandment if its principal word is one nobody uses anymore? Do you think it might indicate that this Commandment is just a trifle neglected?

Sure it does. There’s a whole lotta coveting going on, and nobody seems to care!

Which makes this whole idea of coveting something of a moral challenge. The type of property we lust after may have changed, but the flaw in the human heart is the same. You can’t open a magazine, or turn on the TV, or go web-surfing, or even take a ride on public transit, without seeing a whole lot of images of things you’re supposed to covet. That’s what advertising is: an invitation to covet.

The worst of them all, by the way, is the perfume ads. I’ve learned that, if I’m watching a commercial that makes absolutely no sense — that gives no hint, until the very end, of what it’s selling — then, chances are, the product is perfume. That’s because perfume — which is an aroma, a pure sensual experience — is terribly difficult to sell with words or images. How do you, as an advertiser, create a demand for something you can’t even communicate, to people who aren’t especially looking for it? Perfume ads are covetousness personified.

One of my favorite movies of all time is an out-of-the-way South African comedy from 1980 called The Gods Must Be Crazy. It’s become a cult classic. What happens in the filmis that an airplane is flying over Africa’s Kalahari desert, and the pilot has just finished drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola — you know, one of those old-fashioned, curvy green bottles you don’t see anymore. In an act of high-tech littering, he opens the window of the cockpit and just drops the empty bottle out. It plummets a few thousand feet, falling end over end, and lands with a plop in a patch of soft sand, very near where a bushman — one of the local indigenous people — happens to be standing.

This stone-age hunter knows little of civilization. He’s lived his whole life in the bush. As far as he’s concerned, this mysterious object dropped from the sky has come from the gods. The man has no idea what this strange glass object is. In point of fact, he doesn’t even know what glass is! He can make no sense of its elegant curves, nor of the raised letters spelling out “Coca-Cola.” For anybody else, that bottle and that logo are meant to set off a covetous craving for a cool, sugary drink. The aboriginal hunter is one of the few people on this planet who’s never seen advertising.

Well, a lot more happens in the movie after that — the whole plot’s built around the hunter’s determination to take the Coke bottle to the edge of the world and throw it off, so the gods can recover their property — but let’s just leave it there. Let’s just accept that there are very few people on this earth who truly know they have everything they need, and aren’t much inclined to covet something new.

*****

Covetousness, you know, is the very basis of our economy. Got a car? (Don’t you want a bigger one?) Got a house? (Don’t you want a better one?) Got some money in the bank? (Don’t you want a whole lot more?) You can go on and on, because covetousness is a bottomless pit. It doesn’t matter how many things you’re coveting that end up in your hands, there’s always something more to desire. There’s always something more.

Somebody once asked the then-richest man in America, John D. Rockefeller — a Baptist Sunday-school teacher, by the way — “Mr. Rockefeller, how much money is enough?” He smiled and replied, “Just a little bit more.”

Covetousness is the principal enemy of happiness. (This is where the secret to happiness, the one I promised you, comes into the discussion.) All you or I need, in order to be happy in this life, is to stop coveting. It’s as simple as that! Think of it. If you don’t covet a blessed thing, it means you’re blessed. It means you’re utterly and completely content. Everything you’ve already got is just fine — who’d want anything more?

*****

Now, round about now, you may be starting to feel just a wee bit guilty about this coveting business. “Gosh, it’s true,” you’re thinking to yourself. “I really have been neglecting Commandment Number Ten. Stealing, murder — no problem. But, this coveting: I don’t know. It’s pretty hard to avoid. Well-nigh impossible, if you ask me!”

And so it begins. The old familiar guilt starts creeping in, like a cold draft blowing through the cracks around the door this time of year.

I don’t think God intends for the Ten Commandments to induce guilt. That’s not their purpose. I think God’s purpose in giving us the Ten Commandments is to make us happy.

Yes, happy. It says so right in Psalm 1, that first psalm every young Jewish student of the law is meant to learn by heart:

Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on God’s law they meditate day and night.
(It’s what the happy people think about.)
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper. [Psalm 1:1-3]

Happy are those who delight in God’s law. Happy are they!

If that’s true of all the commandments, then it’s especially true of #10. This is the commandment that really proves the point that God’s whole purpose in giving us the law is to make us happy — because if you or I can just kick the covetousness habit, we’re going to be happy, by definition. In fact, you could go so far as to say that covetousness is a synonym for unhappiness.

What a beautiful thing it is that God rounds off the whole list of commandments by giving us this final one. God says to us in this commandment, “Oh, and by the way: be happy. Just be happy with what you’ve got!”

*****

Not for SaleWalk into any antique store — even the one across the street from here — and you may come across a display cabinet with a handwritten sign taped to it. The sign says, “Not For Sale.” The sign’s necessary because everything in that display cabinet is for sale. Some customer may want to buy it, but the dealer stands firm: “Sorry. No can do. I need that cabinet.”

As a customer, as soon as you see that sign, your relationship with the display cabinet changes. It becomes different from your relationship with everything else in the store. You walk up and down, looking the various items over. With each item — at least the ones you like — you do a little mental calculation: “What’s the price? Can I afford it? If I haggle, can I get it cheaper?” But the display cabinet’s not part of that calculus. The dealer has removed that piece of furniture from the running. The item is, literally, priceless. To the dealer, who needs it to sell everything else, its value is infinite.

There are those who claim that everything in this world has its price. But, don’t you know, when you slap a price tag on something, it actually loses some of its intrinsic value. The price tag cheapens it.

There’s an old Calvin and Hobbes comic where Hobbes, the stuffed tiger, says to young Calvin: “I don’t know what’s worse, the fact that everyone’s got a price, or the fact that their price is so low.”
The “You shall not covet” commandment is meant to fix that. It poses the question, “Do you really want to live in a world where everything — and everybody — is for sale? For most of us, if we think about it, the answer is “No.”

*****

Let’s change the scene, now, and walk over to our Gospel lesson. It’s the well-known story of Jesus cleansing the Temple. He’s gone to Jerusalem on pilgrimage. When he finally gets to his main destination, the Temple, he looks around him and sees all these people selling stuff. Now, they’re not hawking cheap trinkets or souvenirs — key rings and coffee mugs and snow globes. No, what those merchants are selling is something that’s essential to faithful worship of the one true God (or, at least, as people of that place and time imagine true worship to be).

Some of the merchants are selling sacrificial animals — sheep and goats and doves, white in color, flawless in appearance, as the law of Moses dictates. Other merchants are exchanging the most common money of that time — Roman coins — for a special kind of Judean coin that displays no idolatrous image of an emperor, but, rather, innocuous pictures of vegetation that offend no one’s religious sensibilities.

When Jesus comes roaring through the Temple courts with his whip of cords, overturning the tables of the moneychangers, he’s not saying that money itself is somehow evil and has no place in the Temple. Some people have imagined that over the years, but they couldn’t be more wrong.

Here’s why. Jesus is an observant Jew. Of course he knows part of Temple worship is bringing an offering! He’s not against that. In another place, he even commends a poor widow, who reverently places her mite — her tiny coin — in the Temple offering. It’s all she has, and he honors her for the gift. If Jesus really were opposed to money in church, he never would have said such kind things about her!

No, what makes the Lord so irritated with the animal-sellers and the moneychangers is that the whole thing is a huge monopoly, an insidious system for soaking the tourists. Few of those pilgrims who’ve come from far away have brought sacrificial animals with them — and if they have, the Temple inspectors are in league with the animal-sellers. The inspectors are bound to reject any any animal the worshipers already own, saying it’s got some mark or blemish (even if it doesn’t). The inspectors get kickbacks from the animal-sellers for doing just that. As for the moneychangers, the high commissions they charge are best described as “highway robbery.” But, they have a monopoly, so the pilgrims have nowhere else to turn.

Taking a cut off the top of all these financial enterprises are those who live at the pinnacle of the system: the Temple priests. They grow rich on account of their fortunate position at the top of the pecking-order of this pyramid scheme.

What Jesus sees, as he surveys all that frantic buying and selling, is a massive violation of the Ten Commandments — most especially, Commandment #10! In fact, these people have made God’s holy Temple into Covetousness Central. If God truly wants people to be happy with what they have, then these merchants and moneychangers are blatantly flouting God’s will in full view of the faithful pilgrims who’ve come from far and wide — some of them for a once-in-a-lifetime visit.

Jesus is a reformer. He wants to purify Judaism. He wants nothing more than to drive all that covetousness, all that striving for ill-gotten financial gain, clean out of there. That’s the reason for his anger. That’s the reason for the whip of cords. That’s the reason he creates such chaos, by turning over the tables, sending the moneychangers coins skittering across the flagstones. None of this stuff belongs in God’s Temple — the place on this earth where all God’s commandments should be honored, and where people ought to simply rest and be happy in the Lord.

Jesus is a man of the law. Here, he’s being utterly consistent with what he says in Matthew 5:17-19:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven…

With his whip of cords in hand, Jesus is paying special attention to saving God’s people from violating Commandment #10, “You shall not covet.”

*****

So, what do you think? Were Jesus to show up suddenly in the flesh — strolling through Times Square, say, or along the Mall in Washington — what about our culture would make him really mad? What violations of the Ten Commandments would he call out? Whose tables would he overturn? Where would Jesus be willing to create a little holy havoc, for the sake of calling God’s people back to the way of true happiness?

Based on what we’ve said today about covetousness — that word we’re so unfamiliar with, few of us even use it — I have a feeling that’s where he’d begin.

Let us pray.
Lord, it’s second nature to us:
this compulsion to put a price tag on everything,
then to stop at nothing
to possess the object of our desire.
Teach us to value above all else
the things that are not for sale —
that could never be for sale.
Remind us of all the wonders
that come to us as free and unmerited gift.
And make us properly grateful — always.
Amen.

Copyright © 2015 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.