Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
Jesus Clears the Temple
13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove them all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”
17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
18 Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
In past reflections on this story, we’ve focused on the corruption that had grown up around the practices of selling sacrificial animals and changing money so worshipers could pay their ‘temple tax.’ Just to quickly review, the priests at the temple would only allow the sacrifice of animals that were bought from their ‘approved vendors,’ and since competition was limited, the vendors could jack up the prices. Many scholars believe a part of this sales revenue went to the temple and ultimately to its priests. That mean that worshippers were being gouged and the priests were benefitting, and it was apparently this corrupt arrangement that made Jesus so angry.
But I’d like us to think about a couple of other aspects of this story today.
The story takes place in “the temple courts.” The temple itself was a big building, but it was surrounded by two concentric sets of walls. There was an inner courtyard around the temple building, and Jewish men were allowed to go in there and pray. (Almost no one except the priests and the most important rulers of the people were allowed to enter the temple building itself.) Then there was a second wall around an outer courtyard, where gentiles and Jewish women were allowed to pray. It seems that the outside wall of the temple precinct had a covered colonnade running along the inside of it, and teachers and their students would gather under that colonnade for their lessons, out of the elements.
And according to the historians, it was probably in that outer courtyard that this story took place. That’s where the animal vendors and moneychangers would have been allowed to set up shop.
Most of the time, it was probably fairly quiet in the temple area, similar to the quiet atmosphere of a large church as people are coming in and getting seated for a service of worship. The exception would have been at a few designated times each day, when people would move toward the temple building praying out loud.
It was probably during one of the quiet times when Jesus performed this “cleansing of the temple.” So imagine what a shock would have gone through the crowd in the temple courts when Jesus started shouting and chasing the merchants around with a whip of cords and dumping over the moneychangers’ tables. Imagine how we would react if someone made a fuss like that in the narthex of a church before worship.
Of course, Jesus probably got a different reaction from the temple leadership than from some of the ordinary people who were there. The leadership viewed the temple as the seat of their power and authority, a place they were supposed to keep things under some control – make sure things were done “decently and in order,” as we would say. So Jesus making a commotion would be especially shocking and threatening to them. On the other hand, ordinary people who resented the inflated prices for sacrificial animals and temple coins might have tended to cheer Jesus on. And that would have made the cleansing of the temple a subversive act, one that undermined the authority of the priests and temple leaders.
Not surprisingly, the temple bigshots demanded to know by what authority Jesus was doing these things. They actually demanded a “miraculous sign” to prove that Jesus had that authority. Scholars suggest the temple leaders were thinking that Jesus was presenting himself as a prophet, and that he should be able to perform a miraculous sign as prophets did.
But Jesus gives them an answer that surprises them. He tells them to destroy the temple, and that he’ll rebuild it in three days.
We know – and the passage reminds us – that Jesus was talking about his impending death and resurrection. But the temple leadership had no idea about that. Rebuilding the temple in three days would have seemed ridiculous to them – the Herods had been working on rebuilding and expanding the temple for 46 years!
But Jesus was thinking of the temple in a completely different way than the Jewish leadership. They were thinking of the temple as a building that symbolized the history and traditions of the Hebrew people. But Jesus was thinking of the temple as the place where God and humankind came together.
For a thousand years, God and his people had met at this place in Jerusalem. But now, God and humankind had come together in a very different way – in the person of Jesus himself. Jesus was ‘the new temple.’ We understand this because it’s a part of Christian theology – we’ve been raised with the idea. But of course, to the Jews of Jesus’ day and their leaders, this would have made no sense at all.
This is actually significant to us as Jesus’ followers. If the body of Jesus represented the new temple in his day, and if we are supposed to be the body of Jesus in the world in our day, then the church is to fulfill the same role Jesus played. We are supposed to be the point of contact between God and humankind. With the birth of Jesus, the temple stopped being a building and became a person. With his death and resurrection and ascension to heaven, the temple stopped being one person and became a community of people following Jesus and acting in his name.
It’s pretty challenging, really. Every time a person comes into our church meeting house, we’re meant to meet them as Jesus would – with the love of God. Every time a person meets one of us on the street, we’re meant to be providing a point of contact between that person and the God we serve.
Very few of us can honestly say that we always take that role seriously. But maybe that would be a good discipline during this season of Lent – the practice of reminding ourselves constantly that we’re intended to be the new temple, where people encounter the love of God in a new and transforming way.
Let’s pray. Lord, we invite you to use your Holy Spirit to remind us every day that we are meant to be the point of contact between you and humankind. Help us live in such a way that every contact with another person becomes an opportunity to show them your deep and powerful love for them. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are 34 and 91; Deuteronomy 9:1-12; and Hebrews 3:1-11.)