Sunday 11 March 2012

Cleansing the Temple

Address preached in Templederry and Killodiernan on Sunday 11th February 2012, the 3rd Sunday of Lent.

What an uproar Jesus caused in the Temple on the day John describes in today’s NT reading (John 2:13-22)!
‘Making a whip of cords, (Jesus) drove all of them out of the Temple’. All the ‘people selling cattle, sheep, and doves’, together with their animals. ‘And the moneychangers’ too - Jesus overturned their tables, and poured their coins out on the floor.

This incident – known as the Cleansing of the Temple – is also described in slightly different words by the other 3 Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke.

The place is the Court of the Gentiles, the outermost court of the Temple, beyond which gentiles were forbidden to go on pain of death- only Jews were allowed in the inner courts. The time is just before Passover, the busiest time of the year in Jerusalem, when many hundred thousand pilgrims would be in Jerusalem. The animals are there for pilgrims to buy to make the ritual animal sacrifices required by Jewish law at that time. The moneychangers are there to change ordinary Roman money into the special Jewish money, which pilgrims were required to use for Temple purposes because Roman money was considered unclean.

Let’s enter into the scene in our imaginations. You can see people running in every direction, animals panicking. Listen to the traders yelling, cattle bellowing, sheep bleating, doves cooing. Hear tables go thump as they hit the floor, and coins chink as they roll underfoot. Smell the pervasive smell of the animals. And at the centre of it all strides Jesus, wielding a whip, incandescent with righteous anger, quite awe inspiring. It’s not how we usually think of Jesus, is it?

What Jesus does is done very deliberately - it took time and planning to make the whip of cords. It is a kind of acted parable – but what does Jesus mean by it? Let’s look at it a bit more closely. And as we do we should remember that Jesus would have more than one reason for doing what he does, just as we typically do.

John disagrees with Matthew, Mark and Luke about when the incident happened.
John places it right at the start of Jesus’s ministry. But Matthew, Mark and Luke put it right at the end, just after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Who is right?

Some people in order to resolve this discrepancy suggest that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice – once at the start of his ministry and again at the end. But I don't buy that - I can’t believe that having done it once Jesus could ever have got within an asses roar of the Temple again.

The incident seems to fit much better at the end of Jesus’s ministry, after his triumphal entry to Jerusalem, as one of the reasons the Temple authorities were so keen to do away with him. If I had to choose between John’s timing and that of the other three, I would go for the three.

But that doesn’t mean John is altogether wrong. He is simply writing from a different point of view to the others. He is writing not an historical account of Jesus’s life, but a Gospel designed to demonstrate the significance of Jesus. At this point in it he combines together events which could well have happened at different times in a different order, but which mark Jesus as the expected Messiah. The words his disciples remember, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’, are a quotation from Psalm 69, which would have been recognised as a reference to the Messiah. And the Jews too implicitly recognise this by asking Jesus for a Messianic sign, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ To show Jesus as Messiah is what is important for John, not chronological accuracy.

As John sees it, Jesus demonstrates by his acted parable that he is the Messiah, both to those who were there, and to those who read John’s words, including us in John's far future.

Then again, perhaps Jesus intended to show up the corruption of the Temple system.
The Temple had grown immensely rich on the Temple tax, which every Jew over 19 had to pay to support Temple sacrifices and Temple ritual – one half-shekel a year, around 2 days pay.

The Temple’s insistence on taking only Jewish money gave the moneychangers a profitable business, and no doubt the Temple expected something in return - a licence fee we might call it charitably. The moneychangers grew wealthy by charging excessive commission. Their practice was to charge a commission for every half-shekel changed, and a second commission on every half-shekel of change if a larger coin was tendered.

The animal dealers were coining it too. Pilgrims felt obliged to buy their animals for sacrifice inside the Temple, even though they cost more than animals outside. The Temple authorities appointed inspectors to check that animals offered for sacrifice were perfect and unblemished, as the Law required. In addition to charging a fee, the inspectors were believed to take backhanders from Temple dealers - anyway, they always seemed inclined to find fault with animals not bought in the Temple.

The fact is that ordinary pious Jews and pilgrims were being fleeced by the Temple system. It was a public scandal. This would surely have enraged Jesus. Just as it would if our own Church were to make unreasonable financial demands on its members.

But there is a deeper reason why Jesus acted as he did, I think.
To understand it we need to reconstruct what Jesus actually says.

Each of the Gospel writers recalls Jesus’s words slightly differently. John has him saying, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market place’. But Mark has him say this, ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”? But you have made it a den of robbers’. Matthew and Luke have something similar, but miss out ‘all the nations’.

I think Mark’s words are closest to what Jesus actually said. Jesus knew his Hebrew scripture – our OT – very well. The first part, about the house of prayer, is a direct quotation from Isaiah (56:7): in it the Lord God declares he will welcome gentiles who come to him. The second, about the den of robbers, is from Jeremiah (7:11): in it the Lord declares he will destroy the Temple if the people of Judah do not amend their ways. Mark’s words and the texts they reference make perfect sense on Jesus’s lips in the context of the Cleansing of the Temple.

This is how I interpret Jesus's actions and words:

God welcomes all people, gentiles as well as Jews, to the Temple, his house of prayer. The only part of the Temple gentiles are allowed to enter is the Court of the Gentiles. But the clamour there of trading and the changing of money makes it unsuitable for prayer and worship. People who abuse the Temple by depriving gentiles of a place to pray and worship must amend their ways, or the whole Temple system will be destroyed.
This, I think, is what Jesus meant to convey to those present by his acted parable.

And I also think that through it Jesus conveys a clear warning to his Church today:

Unless our Church is inclusive, unless our Church welcomes all people and makes a space for them in which they can worship and pray, our Church will go the way of Temple in Jerusalem – it will be brought to destruction.

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