For today’s gospel
story, about Jesus cleansing the temple, we may have to moderate our criticism
against the religious establishment of his day in the light of our own
experiences. For example, in the vestibule of my boyhood parish church the
ushers would sell chances on a new car, a fund raiser for parish expenses. Here
is a really a strange one: as you entered the church, before you went up the
aisle to your pew, adults had to put a dime on a coin table staffed by an usher
– a pew fee. Customs like that weren’t unique just to my parish church.
Throughout the world, at churches and shrines of all religions, there are people
selling paraphernalia and souvenirs. So, we shouldn’t be too hard on those
merchants and moneychangers at the Temple the day Jesus arrived, when he got
indignant and threw them out. It seems no religion is exempt from people hawking
their goods for profit.
What was all that merchandising activity in the Temple area about? The currency used in daily commercial dealings was the Roman denarius and the Greek drachma. But the coins bore pagan and imperial images and so were not allowed for paying the Temple tax. Hence, money changers were a necessary presence to convert the common coinage to coins that would be acceptable for Temple offerings. Animal merchants were also necessary because people coming from a long distance would want to buy animals to offer in Temple sacrifice.
There is more than Temple cleansing in John’s account. He places the episode at the beginning of his gospel to announce that Jesus is fulfilling Israel’s messianic hopes. The prophet Malachi (3:1-4) said that at the beginning of God’s saving work the Messiah would come to cleanse and purify the Temple. Zechariah had similar expectations, “On that day there shall no longer be any merchant in the house of the Lord of hosts” (14:21). Jesus’ mission is just beginning and John is announcing “that day” has arrived, as the prophets foretold and the people had yearned to see. The Temple cleansing announced the arrival of the new messianic age. As was foretold, the Lord had come to his temple to replace former rituals and systems of worship with himself, the new and living Temple. In Jesus, God’s holy temple, we are invited into the intimate relationship Jesus had with his Father.
Some of Jesus’ contemporaries might also have taken exception to the market atmosphere outside the Temple. If they did, they would have interpreted what Jesus did as a symbolic prophetic action. Recall the prophet Jeremiah’s words about some people’s Temple pieties, “Has this house which bears my name become in your eyes a den of thieves?” (Jeremiah 7:11) Speaking for God Jeremiah criticized those who worshiped in words and gestures, but did not cease oppressing the poor, committing murder, theft and worshiping pagan gods. “This rather is what I command them: Listen to my voice; then I shall be your God and you shall be my people. Walk in all the ways I command you, so that you may prosper” (7:23). Jesus, like the prophet Jeremiah, in words and actions, came to renew worship and bring all people to God. In Jesus, God’s holy temple, we are invited into the intimate relationship Jesus had with his Father.
People would not have to go to the Temple to offer sacrifice any longer, for Jesus’ body is where we meet our God. Jesus the new Temple, by his death on the cross, has cleansed humanity and freed us from sin’s domination. He tells his critics, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” A recurring theme in John is peoples misunderstanding of Jesus’ words, failing to see beyond the material level to the deeper meaning of what he said. Jesus’ reference to “three days” points ahead to his resurrection: His body is the new Temple, and because of Jesus’ sacrifice we are welcomed and accepted into God’s holy presence.
Here is a view those at the altar see at the offertory of Mass. From the back of the congregation representatives of the community bring offerings of bread and wine to the altar. The priests and ministers receive them and place them on the altar. But they are not just bread and wine, are they? They represent the gift of ourselves to God, in all our human limitations and misdirections. Once placed on the altar we pray, with the presider, that the Spirit will change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ – and that our lives, represented by the gifts, will also be transformed into Christ’s body and blood – so that through our words and actions Christ will be truly present to the world.
In the cleansing story Jesus certainly does not fit with the pious paintings and statues I grew up with in that parish church. He seems wildly out of control in today’s gospel. He turns tables over, scatters people and animals. For those who were there his reason for doing what he did would hardly justify the mess he made and the disruption in their lives. “Take these out of here and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”
Who is this Jesus and what difference does he make in our lives? John has presented Jesus having a power given him by God. Previous to today’s account he had just transformed water into wine and now By his authoritative actions in the Temple, he is announcing the fulfillment of Israel’s long wait for a Messiah. He is the ideal Temple and in him God is available to all people.
During Lent we are invited to fasting, prayer and almsgiving. We don’t perform these works to earn God’s pleasure, or admittance into God’s presence. We already have that through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. In Jesus the Temple area is cleansed and ready to admit us. Then, why the recommended Lenten practices? Actually, they are not just for Lent, they are year-round disciplines that should open our hearts to those who: can’t fast, because they have no food; can’t pray because they are pursued, or in danger; can’t give alms because they have no money to give. Lent is a time for intensive reflection on what we should be doing all year round: welcoming into our community and attending to those that our prayer, fasting and almsgiving bring to our consciousness.
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