The Passover...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 out of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the moneychangers 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 marketplace!"
In this week that will soon celebrate all things Irish, I have a confession to make: I've kissed the Blarney Stone. In 1996, the Cornhusker Marching Band traveled to Ireland to march in the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Dublin. The trip is one of my fondest college memories, but in the years since I've learned that kissing the stone is one of the most touristy, manufactured traditions in the world. Local legend suggests that the good people of Cork drive up to Blarney Castle and piss on the rock every now and again to take a swipe at those of us gullible enough to believe that kissing a rock might make us just a little bit Irish.
These things are hardly original to County Cork, however. In the early 1500s an Augustinian monk named Luther walked from Saxony to Rome on an errand for his order. In his time as a monk Luther had eagerly anticipated a journey to Rome, but he found it less than spectacular. One could purchase all manner of religious services in Rome, where a coin and a recitation of the Lord's Prayer on each step of a staircase purported to be the steps Jesus climbed in Jerusalem on the way to the cross would release the soul of someone you loved from purgatory. This trip fed Luther's growing disillusion with the church and its suggested practice of the faith.
There is a real danger in these things, a danger Jesus saw in the temple that day in Jerusalem. When houses of prayer engage in the business of providing services for a fee, faith is commodified and God becomes just another good which may be bought and sold. Climbing the castle steps in Blarney and kissing a rock cannot make you Irish. Purchasing an indulgence cannot make you Christian. Buying a sheep at the temple to be sacrificed on your behalf cannot make you a child of Israel. That's not how it works, and anyone who suggests otherwise is likely making a profit and commodifying the life God has intended us to live and the faith God has intended us to practice.
There are things in this world which may, and perhaps even should, be commodified. It is no sin for a person to earn a living providing goods and services which assist us in the business of daily life. But access to God is not one of those services to be bartered. The body of Christ is called into the business of giving itself away, free of charge, to a broken world in need of healing and mercy; selling that mercy, even at a bargain, is blasphemy. (Yes, I mean to use the word - this is serious business).
Commodified faith is no faith at all: faith is the gift of God to a world in need, the pearl of great price for which people would give everything but for which we charge nothing. Nothing but our lives, that is. God's interest is in the absolute bottom line: the realization that we are merely stewards of all that God has created. We are not "middle men," who take a cut as we distribute religious goods. No, we are distributors in the truest sense of the word, lavishing what God has given us on the world in which we live.
In his book The Way of the Wolf, Martin Bell wrote a story entitled "Barrington Bunny." Barrington was a rabbit who lived all alone in the forest, until he realized that every animal was a member of his family. So he spent one wintry night distributing gifts, each accompanied by a note: "A free gift, from a member of your family." So should our practice be. There are no commodities in the house of God: only gifts, and people who receive them in thanksgiving.