Monday 5 March 2018

Cleansing the Temple

I was privileged to be asked to lead Morning Prayer in Borrosokane on Sunday 4th March 2018, the 3rd of Lent, but the service was cancelled due to the snow emergency following the collision of Storm Emma with the Beast from the East. This is the address I would have given there.

What an uproar Jesus caused in the Temple that 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 – often known as the Cleansing of the Temple – is also described in slightly different words by the other 3 Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke.

It took place in the Court of the Gentiles, the outermost court of the Temple, just before Passover. Gentiles were forbidden to go beyond this court on pain of death - only Jews were allowed in the inner courts. Passover was the busiest time of the year in Jerusalem, when many thousands of 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 had to use for Temple purposes, because Roman money was considered unclean.

Let’s enter into the scene in our imaginations. People are running in every direction, animals are panicking. Hear the traders yelling, cattle bellowing, sheep bleating, doves cooing. The tables go thump as they hit the floor, and coins chink as they roll underfoot. Smell the pervasive scent 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?

Jesus acts very deliberately. 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 so we should remember that Jesus could well have more than one reason for doing what he does, just as we often do.

John disagrees with Matthew, Mark and Luke about when Jesus cleansed the Temple.
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. How do we resolve this discrepancy?

Some have suggested 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 ass’s roar of the Temple again.

It seems to fit much better at the end of Jesus’s ministry, after his triumphal entry to Jerusalem. It is likely 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. 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 Jews would have recognised as a reference to the Messiah. To show Jesus as Messiah is what matters to John, not chronological accuracy.

As John surely believed, 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.

Perhaps Jesus also 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 day’s pay.

The Temple’s insistence on taking only Jewish money gave the moneychangers a profitable business. The moneychangers grew wealthy by charging a high commission. And no doubt the Temple expected something in return - a licence fee we might call it, charitably.

The animal dealers too were coining it. Pilgrims didn’t have to buy their animals for sacrifice inside the Temple, but they felt obliged to, 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 Jewish 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 us.

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 which God declares he will welcome gentiles who come to him. The second, about the den of robbers, is from Jeremiah (7:11), in which God declares he will destroy the Temple if the people of Judah do not mend 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 what I think Jesus meant by his acted parable and his words:
God welcomes all people, gentiles as well as Jews, to the Temple, his house of prayer. But the clamour of trading and money-changing in the only part of the Temple they may enter makes it unsuitable for the gentiles’ 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.

And I also think that through it Jesus conveys a clear warning to his Church today, to you and to me:
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 the Temple in Jerusalem – it will be brought to destruction.

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