The Cleansing of the Temple

The Cleansing of the Temple, detail

Collect for the Third Sunday in Lent

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen

The Cleansing of the Temple

One of the most intriguing episodes in the Gospels is Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple.  Our Gospel reading for the third Sunday of Lent presents the event from the perspective of John.  Unlike the synoptic accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke (Which tend toward a one year public ministry vs. John’s 3 years), John places the cleansing much earlier in Jesus’ ministry, during the first of three passover celebrations he recounts.  For the synoptic gospels, the cleansing happens at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry and is seen as one of the key factors leading to his crucifixion.  It is clear though, from the similar descriptions, that the gospel writers were remembering the same event.

And what an event it is! We have a tendency today to see Jesus as a sort of retiring figure.   Some might even say boring.  To some he’s the guy who never wants you to do anything fun.   to others he seen as a sort of ambiguous teacher figure, teaching things that no one can understand or live up to.  Alternatively he’s the one who set out to do away with all the oppressive religious expectations.  Jesus, you see, often becomes a mirror for our own expectations and desires. In a lot of ways, we’ve tried our hardest to tame him.  But just as CS Lewis wrote of Aslan, “he’s not a tame lion,” Jesus  is not a tame savior.  No matter how many overly sentimental portraits we see, no matter how many times his name is invoked for things he would have condemned, no matter how often we appeal  to him for justification of things we are at least afraid he doesn’t approve of, we have to know that the Jesus of the Gospels — the only Jesus there is — is not a tame figurehead sitting patiently around to endorse our latest cause.  The Lord that we profess is the same Lord who did and does the most unexpected things.  This Jesus, the one who declared the victory of God by hanging like a criminal upon the cross, is the Lord that we are here to follow.

And so, it shouldn’t come as a great surprise to us Christians that the depiction of Christ and our gospel lesson this morning directly challenges the sort of sanitized and domesticated images of the Savior of the world that our culture likes to see.  Far from the sort of live and let live proto-hippie that we sometimes see depicted, this Jesus is a passion-filled figure, who is not afraid to challenge the most entrenched religious authorities of his day.  And not simply to challenge them in a general way, or to wait until he’s in a place where he has a lot of support, but to challenge them in a specific way in the heart of their authority, in the very confines of the temple in Jerusalem.

This is not to say that talk about Jesus as revealing God’s love isn’t true–the Scriptures attest that God is Love.  But it is important to remember that the understandings of love that are often the most dominant in our day are not as full or three-dimensional.  The love exemplified by Christ is a sacrificial love, to be sure, but it also the sort of love that calls the one who is loved to something greater.  It is a love that stands in judgment over those things or people that falsely claim the allegiance of God’s people.

While some might want to ascribe Jesus’ actions to a sort of surprising and out of character flash of anger, the presentation of the events in the gospels does not allow for that sort of interpretation. Consider the details that were given; Jesus went up to Jerusalem because of the celebration of Passover, and went to the temple. While there he surveys the scene and John tells us “he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money changers sitting there.” Jesus arrives at the temple, takes the time to look around, and sees exactly what is going on.  He sees the different stalls with merchants selling oxen, sheep, and pigeons — all the creatures that one would need to offer sacrifice for sins.  He also sees the money changers, the folks who would change the Roman currency with its images of the Emperor, for Tyrian coins that could be taken and offered in the temple.  And something about the scene makes Jesus angry. But this is not hotheaded anger; we would be making a mistake if we let our surprise at Jesus’ actions lead us to believe that he acted without thought.  His reaction is not random, but calculated.  Consider one of the details that John leaves us with, that after Jesus surveyed the scene and saw all the merchants and moneychangers sitting there he went and made a whip of courts.  Jesus took his time, he formed the tool that he was going to use, he gathered the material and wove it together, making a whip with which he drove away the merchants, the moneychangers, and even the cattle.

I think it’s clear that there was something about the setup and the Temple that Jesus didn’t like.  John tells us that he then went to the people who sold pigeons and told them “take these things away; do not make my father’s house into house of trade.”  And then were told that the disciples remembered that it was written, “zeal for your house will consume me” (Cited from Ps. 69:9).

But the question is, what was it about the money changers, and merchants that angered Jesus?  It seems clear that it was related to at least two things; the first, the day of the Lord that Jesus’ coming inaugurated and the second being the proper reverence one should have toward God and the things of god, particularly in light of the establishment of God’s Kingdom.  Viewed in this way, the cleansing of the temple demonstrates Jesus’ fulfillment of the prophetic faith of Israel.  It had been foretold by prophets such as Isaiah (56:7), Jeremiah (7:11), and Zechariah, as well as Malachi that there would be dramatic changes when the Day of the Lord came–many of which related directly or indirectly to the Temple or the way in which the people of God would worship.  As it says in Zechariah chapter 14:21b: “[…] there shall no longer be traders in the house of the lord of hosts on that day.”

Why would such a change be desirable?  Perhaps because the merchants and money changers had come between people and God.  By focusing on the exteriors–on the things that were intended to help shape the heart–while not allowing the heart itself to be touched, they found themselves having the “form of godliness without the power thereof.”  Just as Jesus had to remind his hearers that the Sabbath had been made for man, not man for the sabbath, so too was the sacrificial system given to the Israelites as a gift, a means for them to be forgiven their sins, both individually and corporately, and to move with confidence into the future.  But the system had become perverted, a barrier, a focus for people’s religious expression

Fred Craddock tells the story of a church in Georgia “where the chairman of the board proposed at the annual meeting that they have keys made and give each family a key to the church.  They should otherwise keep it locked because, he said ‘You don’t know who can come in the church.’  I mean,” Craddock continues “how are you going to have family if you don’t make it clear who’s not family?  No shoes, no shirt, no service.”

Many religious leaders in our own day, like those in our gospel reading, have missed the point.  There are many churches that find themselves focused on details and form while forgetting the content.  The great irony is that when this begins to happen–in our own day or any other–people begin using the minutiae of a system originally intended to bring people closer to God and to separate people from God.  Again and again in the Old Testament God called the people of Israel to faithfulness, to remember why they had been set apart from their neighbors, to recall their task to witness to and proclaim the truth of the God of Abraham, to remember that the dictates of the law were a means, not an end. We hear such a reminder in the words of Amos:

I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)

and in the psalms (51:17/18)

The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

John, in turn sees this cleansing of the temple as a fulfillment of Malachi 3:1-4, which said:

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.  But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?   For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap;  he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.  Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.

It is also important that when he is challenged by the religious leaders of the day, Jesus demonstrates that his actions are based solely on his own authority as the Word made flesh.  When asked for a sign, he tells them “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up (John 2:19).  This is Jesus not only as prophet, but exercising the fulfillment of prophecy.

St. Irenaues once said that it is one of the characteristics of prophesy that we can only recognize its fulfillment after the fact.  This is exactly what happened with the disciples.  When they looked back at Jesus’ response, to his declaration that he would raise the Temple in three days, in light of the resurrection, they finally understood.  As John says “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (John 2:22).  Looking back at Jesus’ actions, having had the veil lifted from their eyes by the resurrection, they could see exactly what these things meant, even though at the time they were as lost as any of the other observers.

If you find a Temple that needs cleansing, cleanse it!

This is a different picture of Jesus than we are used to seeing, and it is challenging to many of our assumptions.  We’re used to seeing Christ as the good shepherd, perhaps with a lamb around his neck.  Often we wee Jesus depicted with a sort of peaceful expression–sometimes even in depictions of the crucifixion he will be wearing a sort of contented smile.  Christ is certainly the Good Shepherd, and he is surely gentle.  But the events of our gospel reading depict Christ as surely as any other section of scripture, and if we’re to truly seek to follow our Lord, we need to recognize those things that make him angry.

When I was in college, I was president of the student organization and we invited a theologian that you’ve heard me talk about before, Stanley Hauerwas, to come and speak at our university.  Hauerwas gave us two choices for his lecture topic; one was on the concept of the truth in the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the other  was on the subject of Christian nonviolence, of which Hauerwas is a proponent.  While I leanded toward the Bonhoeffer lecture, with it being during the height of protests against the Iraq war, I was outvoted and we asked Hauerwas to speak on Christian non-violence.  During his lecture on the Just War tradition and the tradition of nonviolence within Christianity, he made an off-hand remark that people sometimes want to bring up Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple as a challenge to his ethic of non-violence.  In the course of his talk he never got to the point of saying what his reponse was to that line of questioning, and so I asked him aftereards what he would say to those who brought up Jesus’ actions in the Temple.   “Well, ” he said “I always tell them, ‘if you find a temple that needs cleansing, then cleanse it!'”  Some might find that a flipant answer–in fact a gentleman standing next to me remarked that it wasnt’ much of an answer after Hauerwas turned away.  I have to admit that I felt like it was more than flipant, and that there is a great deal of truth there, whether intentional or unintentional.  “If you find a Temple that needs cleansing, then cleanse it!”  That’s the message that I believe this gospel reading has for us today on this third Sunday of Lent.  As I’ve reflected upon the reading, what stands out to me more and more is the premeditation, the planning, that went into Jesus’ actions.  He was not hotheaded.  He made the whip of cords, he knew exactly what he was doing.  And if we consider the reasons why, the fact that these things were standing in the way of people’s relationship with God, that people had placed themselves and their profit between the people and their God, then we should understand that Christ gets just as angry today.  We should understand the sort of righteous indigation he displayed because it should be our own.  For those places where we see injustice, people placing themselves between others and God, placing stumbling blocks between people and Christ–we should experience the same sort of indignation as our Lord.  And what better time than Lent to begin looking around the Temple of the Holy Spirit that is our own body, our own life, and see where we have set up merchant benches, or allowed people to come in and set up their money changing booths–what, in other words, is separating us from God?  What habits, what desires, what addiction, what anger, what sin.  Now is the time to survey the scene of our hearts, to take stock of the things in our lives that impede our relationship with God and to allow ourselves to become angry.  As one of my mentors would say “Its OK to be angry.”  And it is certianly more than Ok to be angry about those things which drag us down and away from God.  Find them, feel the righteous anger and then follow the example of our Lord and be deliberate in your reaction.

Go and make a whip of cords, find the tools that you need, the support that you need to drive these things out of your heart and out of your life.  Amen.

The Cleansing of the Temple by Giotto di Bondone

The Cleansing of the Temple by Giotto di Bondone