Title: Cleansing of the Temple
Date: March 11, 2012
Text: John 2:13-22
Author: Dave Swanson
Preaching is not abstract. Preaching in Lent is certainly not so. A few weeks ago, on Ash Wednesday, Isaac introduced Lent as something positive. I heard him saying it is an invitation to deeper life to which we, as church, respond by preparing for our baptism at Easter. As we listen together to the story in our gospel text today, lets embark on a Lenten voyage together, that we might discover the word of God in the midst of our community. In speaking to you today it is my hope that I can do so as a member of this community of discernment, discovery, and faithfulness.
In John 2 Jesus first goes to a wedding, the one at Cana. At the wedding party, the revelers run out of wine. Jesus, under pressure from his mother, turns the purification water into wine. After this happens, the steward of the banquet, who was in charge of the party, interprets the story for us. Maybe you can hear his elevated voice as he leans over and yells into the ear of the groom, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the second rate wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now” (v 10).
In other words, the party was about to kick into overdrive. In placing this symbolic story right at the beginning of his Gospel, John wanted his readers to understand right from the start that though there has been a long history with God, a new wholeness, a new miraculous wine, a new age was entering, one that only the messiah could inaugurate. Jesus miraculous power signaled his identity as the messiah and the nature of the miracle points to nothing less than a rupture in the space-time continuum, a disturbance in the force. In the prophetic literature of the Old Testament, this was referred to as the Day of the Lord, when God, when messiah would come and God, through her chosen one, would make things right and establish lasting peace. Theologians call this last age the eschaton, which means the final thing.
It is only three verses later that today’s passage begins. Jesus goes up to Jerusalem and enters the temple. In the temple courts, folks are selling animals: cattle, oxen, doves and the moneychangers are changing Roman coins for the currency used in the Temple. Jesus goes wild.
Let’s take a moment to talk about John’s depiction of Jesus behavior here before we move to the larger questions. The cleansing of the Temple happens in all four Gospels, but only here in John does Jesus take the time to braid a whip and then use it. Jesus uses the whip to drive out “all.” What does he drive? Is Jesus whipping people? Most English interpreters are willing to follow the King James, which implies that he is in fact doing violence to people. If John were Mennonite he would have made it much clearer that Jesus was NOT whipping the people but rather the animals. It’s tough to get livestock moving in an area crowded with people, some sort of flail would be just the thing… The NRSV renders it in a way that shows Jesus is not whipping the people and there are good reasons to argue for that reading textually, and even better ones theologically. So perhaps the most honest and hopeful answer we can give to the question of whether Jesus, in John, is doing physical violence to people may be: “Probably not!” This question could take more of our time, but we need to move on.
Our question for today: What was the cleansing of the temple about? Why did Jesus do this?
When Jesus does this daring deed at the temple we have to use analogies just to get a glimpse of the impact it would have had. Imagine a disgruntled lay person kicking the choir out of the Sistine Chapel when the pope is about to celebrate mass and an array of foreign dignitaries is in attendance. Or, maybe a better picture would be streaking the Republican National Convention this summer with “Stop the Killing” painted across your body and dragging a train of thousands of miniature coffins draped in American Flags behind you. Outrage would ensue.
When Jesus tells the dove sellers to take their birdcages and get out, he exclaims, “Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!” Jesus is condemning activities that were, at least on paper, part of an effort to honor the holiness of God. The animal dealers were selling animals that were unblemished and ready for sacrifice as the law required, and the moneychangers were exchanging Roman coins with their blasphemous pictures of Caesar for Tyrian money that had no images on it and was thus suitable for the Temple treasury. The salesmanship in the Temple was designed to help people honor God more appropriately. At least that was the party line of those in power. And Jesus, by his actions and words disrupts the temple cult where it hurts most: Revenue. The system of sacrifice then, like our wars now, was intimately linked with hearts and minds and money.
There are at least two things going on in this scene and both of them look forward and back. First, Jesus pronouncement recalls the last words of the book of the prophet Zechariah. Zech 14:21 reads, “And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of Hosts on that day.” On that day. “That day” is Old Testament-speak for the Day of the Lord that Jesus miracle at Cana was also pointing to. It is the day God, through God’s messiah, makes things right and brings in the new age of justice.
The latter prophets like Zechariah and Malachi talked about the messiah’s coming a lot. Only a few pages later in our bibles Malachi talks more about it. In chapter 3, he writes:
The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? …he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.* 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
The descendents of Levi were those who ran the Temple. They were the ones who oversaw the cultic life of Israel. Malachi goes on to say that this righteousness that Israel will have in the day of the Lord runs in opposition to those who commit adultery, swear falsely, and oppress workers, widows, orphans, and outsiders. The cleansing of the Temple is about the messianic end times, it’s about justice, and it’s about worship.
Jesus was bringing to mind all this in his few words in verse 16: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” Jesus’ holy mayhem in the temple was a prophetic action. Not only because it tapped in to the prophecies of Zechariah and Malachi, but because this is what prophets do: They do crazy things that mess up the system. They run around naked, they bless foreigners, the trick kings into condemning themselves, they burn stuff… they get killed.
The second thing I want to highlight is implied in the first. Jesus’ temple action condemned, not a system that was enabling people to worship God correctly as the sellers would have argued, but a system of usury. In the other three Gospels, Jesus accuses the merchants of making the temple into “a cave of brigands.” This is a reference to the highway robbers who hid in caves and robbed passers by, like in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus is condemning a system that uses religion as an excuse to exploit people. The challenge he issues points the fact that at the heart of the worship practice was a system that charged people too much, for their animals, and squeezed them on the money exchange rate. This would especially impact the poor who would have had an even more difficult time paying up so they could worship God. Jesus is condemning injustice that had its source at the top of the religious system of his time.
Jesus was not doing this as an anti-semitic outsider critiquing Jews, but rather as a Jewish prophet who is also the messiah, who is also, John 1 tells us, God. And this prophet, messiah, God was inaugurating the end times.
What Jesus did in John’s narrative of the temple cleansing set the model. It was the model of what Jesus would do in the rest of John’s story. He was embodying a mode of being that had been defined long before by many prophets who’s job it was to call the people of God to faithfulness. But Jesus also broke the mold. Jesus’ action was announcing something that was indeed new.
Earlier in Zechariah, the prophet painted a picture in which, after the cleansing of God’s judgment on the Day of the Lord (Zech. 14:16), the nations would all come to Jerusalem to worship God. Jesus symbolic action in the temple was the call to embody the type of righteousness, the type of worship that Zechariah envisioned as happening on the Day of the Lord. As Zechariah saw that all nations would come to worship the Lord of Hosts, we are living proof that this is so.
We have been included and brought into God’s people. As Jesus prophetic action in the temple called those who worshipped YHWH to embody the kinds of righteousness that will last on the Day of the Lord, so we are called to embody it. As Jesus and Zechariah and Malachi called the people of God to worship and to life without usury, false swearing, injustice, bad politics, and letting outsiders remain marginalized, so we are called. These practices block people from fellowship with the community and, therefore, from fellowship with God, something antithetical to Jesus’ Gospel.
The last days are not yet over and we are called to live in such a way that Jesus, when he comes again, will recognize in our community beautiful worship that is just and true, and a life lived together under God’s reign.