JESUS CLEANSES THE TEMPLE
EXODUS 20:1-17 1 CORINTHIANS 1:22-25 JOHN 2:13-25
Let’s begin today’s reflection by putting the account of the cleansing of the temple into context.
It was Passover time. Jewish law obliged every adult male who lived within fifteen miles of Jerusalem to attend the feast, so Jerusalem was jammed. In addition to the population around Jerusalem Jewish pilgrims flooded in from the entire empire. An ancient historian wrote that Jerusalem could see as many as two million pilgrims during Passover!
During the festival it was common for individuals to sacrifice animals for the atonement of their sins or for a variety of intentions. These animals had to be approved for purity before the priests would accept them for sacrifice. There was a hefty fee for this approval. Passover was also an opportunity for pilgrims to pay the obligatory temple tax. Secular currency wasn’t permitted in the temple, so all currency had to be changed to the approved temple shekel. Of course, a fee was tacked on to the exchange.
Where was all this happening?
The temple was divided into sections: the court of the Gentiles, the court of the women, the court of the Israelites, the court of the priests and, in the interior of the temple, the Holy of Holies. The activity the gospel describes, people coming and going, buying and selling, haggling over fees, and the ruckus of the animals, took place in the court of the Gentiles. This was the only place where non-Jews were permitted to pray. It was being desecrated and de facto excluded Gentiles from the temple.
What’s the meaning of this event?
Don’t you find it interesting that no one
stopped Jesus when he began knocking over the tables and driving out the money changers. We’re told that his disciples immediately thought of a prophetic verse from Psalm 69:9-10: “I have become an outcast to my kin, a stranger to my mother’s children. Because zeal for your house consumes me, I am scorned by those who scorn you.” The religious leaders were aware of this and other prophecies that said the Messiah would reveal himself by entering the temple and purifying it. Evidently Jesus made just enough trouble to catch their attention. They immediately asked him by what authority he did this: “What sign can you show us for doing this?” They wanted to see a miracle or some powerful event to back up his prophetic actions.
What sign did Jesus show the religious leaders?
He didn’t show them anything…yet. Instead he made a prophecy. “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” At that time the temple was still under construction and had been so for forty-six years. Jesus was referring to the temple of his body; they understood him literally and mocked him for his answer. The evangelist notes that his disciples remembered this statement after he was raised from the dead.
How did the incident end?
Everybody began watching Jesus. Some were impressed with the signs (miracles) he worked and believed in him. Others, like the religious leaders, began to scrutinize his every word and action. The account ends with a comment. “Jesus would not trust himself to any of them because he knew them all and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself knew it well.”
What are some thoughts we can glean from this account of the cleansing of the temple?
First, his actions were a declaration that he was the Messiah. The new time had arrived and the ancient prophecies were being fulfilled.
Second, by cleansing the court of the Gentiles Jesus was opening the doors of the kingdom to everyone. He fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy. “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” (Isaiah 51:9)
Third, he was announcing a new time – a new world. As he would tell the Samaritan woman at the well, “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…The hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”
What does this incident have to do with our Lenten journey?
Jesus’ actions in the temple remind us that we must be open to all people of good faith – people who are searching for God. Our preaching must be that of Jesus. There’s a place for everyone in the kingdom of God. Jesus’ arms are open, and so should ours be. If there are attitudes or prejudices that make us unwelcoming they need to be cleansed from our hearts. Lent is the perfect time to take a personal inventory of our attitudes towards others.
Christianity is perhaps the most challenging of all religions when it comes to acceptance. St. Paul stressed this to the people of Galatia: “All of you who have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
As Christians, Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox, we’ve barely paid lip service to this most basic of Christian principles. Instead, we herald what separates us. I’m Catholic. I’m Greek Orthodox. I’m Presbyterian. I’m Church of Christ. We even use what’s most sacred to us, the Holy Eucharist, as a wedge between us. It’s not so easy to change a Church but each of us can change our hearts. If enough hearts change, the Churches will change.
The cleansing of the temple is a powerful Lenten image. It’s a call to cleanse our hearts, to use the love in our hearts to welcome and embrace, to heal and unite. It’s a call for us to become the new temple – the body of Christ.