Tuesday, November 30, 2021

A House of Trade

“Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.”

Jesus had nothing against pigeons; he made them after all, as John’s first chapter well establishes. Furthermore, the poor pigeons were only present at the temple to serve as sacrifices, a practice the Lord had himself authorized.

But these pigeons were not in the process of being carried to the altar in the arms of guilty or devout Jews. They were caged, on sale, and probably marked up at a premium for the convenience of having a cheap sacrifice handy when you needed one.

The Father’s house had become a house of trade.

The House of Trade

A house of trade is an emporium, a market, a place where merchants make a killing flogging their merchandise.

Wait, wait ... hold on a second. Markets are necessary things. The most diligent farmer cannot grow everything his family needs for survival. There must be some mechanism by which he can exchange funds or goods in order to get what he needs. Provided the deal made is a fair one, both parties go home satisfied.

In first century Jerusalem, markets were as necessary as they are today. Increased urbanization had led to many Jews holding occupations and living lifestyles that made keeping livestock unfeasible. If you were devout and wanted to worship God, follow the ceremonial laws or confess your sins in public, that meant you needed to purchase animals, which in turn meant somebody had to sell them.

Moreover, going to the temple wasn’t like going to church. Israel had a single center of worship. The greater the distance one lived from Jerusalem, the less attractive a proposition it became to transport animals only in order to sacrifice them there. Ergo, the markets.

The Moral Hazards of Trade

So then, merchants are a necessary feature of every society and trade is an inevitable part of life. But with these things come day-to-day temptations to moral corruption that don’t exist for the farmer plowing his field, the shepherd feeding his sheep or the seamstress hemming a robe. Unlike these professions, the merchant neither produces anything nor maintains anything. He simply profits from his exchanges. Thus there is always the temptation to profit too much, at the wrong time and place, or at the expense of the wrong people.

When a hard-working farmer takes his goods to market and sells them, it is the natural end of a God-designed process: he stands behind his table in order to reap the rightful wages of his toil. But when an opportunistic merchant with a pocketful of coin lowballs him on the price of his goods — because if this poor farmer won’t sell to him at that price, surely his neighbor will — then marks the same goods up and flogs them for a huge profit two tables over, he is parasitizing the system.

These are the opportunities and temptations faced by merchants, and many have given in to them over the years.

The Law and Merchants

Foreseeing this, the Law of Moses was rife with provisions designed to ensure merchants didn’t capitulate greedily to the endless opportunities afforded by their occupation to abuse the public: extending the market’s hours into the Sabbath day; selling overpriced or poor-quality merchandise; taking a little interest on loans to fellow Israelites; cheating the scales just enough that the customer wouldn’t notice; taking a pledge from a widow that she couldn’t afford for an overpriced loaf of bread; or holding back a salesgirl’s wages for a few extra days to make a little interest on the side.

Hey, there were lots of ways this merchant thing could go morally sideways. Farmers had it comparatively easy. What’s the worst a farmer could do to break God’s law: muzzle his ox while it is treading out the grain?

But such is the spirit of the profiteer. Restless with dissatisfaction at what God has given, the merchant turns more into MORE-Plus®, and he always does it by taking advantage of those who can least afford to enrich him. No wonder Nehemiah threatened to lay hands on the merchants who camped overnight outside Jerusalem’s walls hoping for a Sabbath day windfall profit.

Modern Merchants

The spirit of the profiteer is alive today, and merchandizing has all kinds of new twists. Sadly, the two months leading up to Christmas always remind me of that. TV commercials and personally-targeted internet ads bombard us with “must-have-it” propaganda, making the season one of envy and acquisitiveness rather than joy and reflection. Gimcracks and widgets are everywhere, filling up the houses of those who don’t need them and getting gifted to those who don’t want them, all the while financed with loans the buyers can’t afford and back-ended with usurious interest arrangements that will eventually put many of the eager purchasers into bankruptcy.

Sorry to be a sourpuss. I’d better let Immanuel Can write our Christmas post this year ...

But the Jewish merchants of Jesus’ day weren’t any more moral than our own class of leeches. They just didn’t have technology and mass advertising to work with.

Satan as a Merchant

Last reflection: did you know Satan is the all-time worst merchant ever — for the human race, that is? Three times in Ezekiel 28, his reputation as the world’s foremost maker of bad deals is touted:

“By your great wisdom in your trade you have increased your wealth, and your heart has become proud in your wealth.”

“In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence in your midst, and you sinned.”

“By the multitude of your iniquities, in the unrighteousness of your trade you profaned your sanctuaries.”

Satan is an abundant deal-maker, a shrewd merchant, and a wicked one to boot. Nobody ever gets one over on him. Everybody pays, and nobody really gets the merchandise they contracted for. If they do, it’s because it’s poison.

Boy, the applications make themselves, don’t they. And if the father of lies himself is in the business of ... business, well, you can bet he has many spiritual children plying the same trade as their father.

What does Babylon the great have in common with the king of Tyre? Merchants profiting at the expense of the poor. ‘The merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.” No wonder the scripture devotes full chapters to their rightful condemnation.

And Yet

And yet ... and yet ... Jesus did not come to dispense social justice, notwithstanding the insistence of some folks today. Merchants will merch, the poor will get parasitized, and will remain just as gullible no matter how many times they lose their shirts. There is not a sucker born every minute; today, there are thousands born every second. That’s how the world works, and the reward of society’s bloodsuckers will come in due course.

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the ill-repute into which their profession has fallen, if the merchants in Jerusalem had just stayed in the marketplace, where they normally plied their trade, rather than seizing the opportunity to profit at the expense of the poor in spirit in the Father’s house, our Lord would have had nothing to say to them. The Gospels contain plenty of barbs to the individual conscience, but no scathing denunciations of entire professions ... unless you want to count the Pharisees and the lawyers, I suppose. That was more John the Baptist’s thing than the Lord’s. But the merchants crossed a boundary they had no right to cross.

Merchants in their place are fine. Profiteers transforming the house of the Lord into yet another marketplace cannot be allowed.

That’s where Jesus drew the line. God is in the business of giving “good and perfect gifts”. Satan makes deals. The kingdom of heaven is full of both wheat and weeds growing together until the harvest. But even now, the children of the devil may be discerned by the approach they take to profit, and the all-fired importance they attach to monetizing everything, including our faith.

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