Texts: Exodus 20:8-11; John 2: 13-22
If you ever want to see an aurochs, you’ll have to go to a museum. When you do, you’ll be looking at a set of assembled bones.
If you’re extremely fortunate, or have some amazing connections, you could witness depictions of the aurochs on the cave walls of Lascaux, France, a gift from ancient artists, accidently discovered 75 years ago by four teenage boys, preserved for almost 20,000 years.
But hardly anyone’s allowed in there anymore, too much humidity and light. A more likely opportunity would be to watch the stunning documentary from Werner Herzog, “Cave of forgotten dreams,” which gives rare video footage of these kinds of paintings.
The aurochs once had a range across Europe and Asia and North Africa, that stretched from the western most parts of present day Portugal and Spain to the East coast of China and the Koreas. At some point, the story of the aurochs and story of the human intersected and merged. Aurochs became a reliable source of meat for hunters, a source of inspiration for artists. About 8-10,000 years ago, in at least two separate locations, India and the Near East, people began selecting the traits of aurochs that they found most useful, forming an even tighter bond of interdependence with this creature.
The aurochs is the ancestor of domesticated cattle – minor and intentional changes over generations resulting in the different breeds of cows we have now. Open your refrigerator and you’ll likely encounter many products for which you can thank the aurochs. That gallon of milk. All that cheese without which none of our children would have survived toddlerhood. Yogurt, butter, cream, sour cream, and, of course, beef. And, in the freezer, ice cream. Thank you aurochs. Even if you’re a vegan, the ghost of the aurochs still looms large all around you. Drive a few miles outside the metro area and you’ll soon be surrounded by corn fields, about half of the harvest each year going to feed those milder and more economically productive descendants of the aurochs.
The last wild aurochs, a female, died in Poland in 1627, not so long ago. Those minor and intentional changes over generations impacted the world enough that it became a place where more and more space has been made for domesticated cattle, even as there was less and less space for the aurochs. I learned this week that there is a stone monument by the forest in Poland where that last aurochs grazed and chewed her cud.
By the time of the Hebrew slaves’ exodus from Egypt, humans and cattle had been living interdependently for millennia. Key to the Hebrews’ exodus was the giving of the Torah at Mt Sinai – the heart of which we know as the Ten Commandments. All of the Ten Commandments are included in the lectionary reading for today, but we read only one. The Sabbath commandment. It’s one of two commandments that mention cattle. The other being “Do not covet what belongs to your neighbor.” One could argue that a reference to cattle is just below the surface in a third commandment, “Do not make for yourself an idol.” As soon as Moses comes down from the mountain the Israelites have already broken that one, melting their jewelry and forming a golden calf. Of all the things to worship besides the Creator Spirit, I suppose this is a decent candidate, with human life having become so dependent on cattle for sustenance. No cattle, no civilization, at least not in that part of the world. All hail the mighty cow.
The Sabbath Commandment begins: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” It’s a commandment that calls for a regularly observed practice of work stoppage. Every seven days, you must stop working. And not only you, the commandment continues, “You – your son and your daughter, your male and female servants, and your cattle, and the alien resident, the immigrant, who resides in your towns.” That’s where the title of the sermon comes from, by the way. “You…and your cattle.”
How interesting that the Sabbath commandment is extended to how the community relates with its livestock. As the son of a former dairy farmer, I’m aware that milking dairy cows is one of the things from which a modern farmer can’t take a Sabbath. You could take a break yourself and send out your child or your hired hand, but the cows have got to be milked, twice a day, every day, seven days a week, year round. I’ve been told this is one of the reasons I’m the son of a former dairy farmer.
The Ten Commandments are recorded two different times in the Torah, in Exodus 20 and in Deuteronomy 5. They are almost identical, as it seems they should be, but the Sabbath commandment is the one with the biggest difference. The difference comes not in the commandment itself, but the reason for the commandment which directly follows. In Exodus 20 it says, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.” In Deuteronomy 5 it says, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.”
The Sabbath is so important that the people are given not one but two theological foundations for why it must be kept: Creation, and Exodus. God creates the world in six days, and we create the world for six days a week, and so on the seventh we rest to remember that we are not god. You were slaves in Egypt, and now you have been freed, you and your cattle, and so you rest on the Sabbath to remember that you are no longer a slave. There is no Sabbath in Egypt. You make bricks and more bricks every day, seven days a week, and the cattle pull the pallets they’re stacked on.
We exercise god-like power over our environment, shaping raw materials, generations of animals, the whole landscape, around our interests. We are prone to enslaving others and sometimes ourselves, to achieve our intentions. The Sabbath exists to remind us that we are not god, and that we are not slaves.
Two weeks ago I was at a luncheon with some other Columbus clergy where the speaker happened to be our own Yvonne Zimmerman who talked about how we relate with the world through the Economy, with a big “E”. It was hosted at the Weiner Jewish Student Center by OSU and during the discussion time one of the hosts from the Center spoke up and talked about the importance of Sabbath practice in how Jews relate to the economy. When you practice a Sabbath, he said, the days leading up to it are spent preparing for Sabbath. And the days after it are informed and illuminated by Sabbath. So that rather than simply being a day to catch your breath so you can re-enter the world to be an even more productive component of the economy, the Sabbath becomes the purpose around which the rest of life is organized. And it filters its way into relationships and workplaces and the inner life of prayer.
What would an inner economy of the soul, centered around Sabbath, look like? What would an external economy of goods and services, centered around Sabbath, look like?
In Jesus’ time, a major intersection of the inner and outer economy took place in the Jerusalem temple. It was a holy place of prayer and devotion, and it was also a place of economic exchange. The Torah called for animal sacrifices, and because the temple drew in people from different parts of the world, there was a necessary currency exchange in place to purchase the required animals on site since that was easier than everyone bringing their own animals from far away. It was a hub of activity and, because of all the animals involved in the process, it was also a stable, and a slaughterhouse. The priest received the animal, did the official holy work, but the whole thing didn’t just go up in smoke. After the ritual the priest brought the roast beef back for the family to eat in gratitude. So the temple area was also a restaurant. It was not a quiet place to be, and it did not, in all places, smell like flowers and incense.
For those of us who emphasize the nonviolence of Jesus, the story of his clearing out the temple can feel jarring. Nobody gets hurt, as far as we can tell, and no animals were harmed in the clearing of this temple, but still….. John’s version is especially intense, including details not present in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. John is the only gospel to mention Jesus making a whip of chords, and is the only one to mention the presence of sheep and cattle. The others just mention the smaller and gentler doves. John’s version also, surprisingly, takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, while the other gospels record this as happening during the last week of Jesus’ life, the act that pushes the authorities over the edge and leads to Jesus’ death. Although it’s probably more likely this happened at the end of Jesus’ life, we might think of John’s telling the same way a film plays with the order of chronological events in order to shape the way the story unfolds. Rather than building momentum for the end, John cranks up the heat right away and lets us know we’re in for quite a ride.
His story is earlier, louder, smellier, and more aggressive than any other account.
I’m guessing we’re thankful we didn’t have to pass cattle and currency exchanges on our way into worship, but before we count ourselves religiously advanced, we might consider that we’ve simply removed our stables and slaughterhouses away from the realm of the sacred. These things still happen, just mostly out of sight, and now without a sense of it being a holy process. Now the priests in the slaughterhouses get paid only slightly more than minimum wage. And without much drama or involvement on our part, the meat ends up in our refrigerators, right next to the cheese.
The temple was supposed to be the coming together of the sacred and the common – the place where heaven and earth met. It was to be a witness that all of life is holy, even the smelly and bloody parts, a cause for gratitude and humility before the Holy One. There was nothing overtly out of line with what was happening in the temple as John describes it. It was going according to design. But Jesus perceived that it had lost this sense of the holy. The house of prayer had been reduced to a marketplace. Buying and selling and praying and praising need not be mutually exclusive activities, they can dwell together in a beautiful harmony, but they can also become separated. Perhaps slowly, even imperceptibly, over time, generation by generation, the temple had become an entirely different species from its original aspirations. And so Jesus raises his whip of chords and makes a scene in the temple; the humans watching, jarred and bewildered; the cattle celebrating their exodus, running loose in the streets of Jerusalem.
In a world where the temple is no more, and the official sacrifices have ceased, I wonder where are the places – the businesses, the schools, the homes, the souls, where there is the coming together of the holy and the common. I wonder who will be the priests who remind us that the meal, and the animals and vegetables and minerals that make it possible, are sacred, to be received with awe and thanksgiving. I wonder how there might be no divide between our prayers and our purchases.
I wonder if we, who do not cross paths with cattle on a daily basis but are just as, if not more dependent on them as any ancient Hebrew, will ever find a way to observe Sabbath with the animals. To remember that we are not god. And we are not slaves. And neither are they.
I wonder if the artists in the caves were praying with each stroke of their instrument as the image of the aurochs took shape on the stone in front of them. If those caves were just as much their temple. I wonder what they would think if they knew that their prayers would outlive even the aurochs, rediscovered in an age whose landscape they would barely recognize.