Lent 3: 8 March John 2:13-22
According to the first three gospels this incident played a major role in the events leading up to Jesus’ execution. In the fourth gospel it is portrayed as taking place three years earlier. Yet it is also seen as being a cause for Jesus’ death. We see this in the citation of Psalm 69:10, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The choice of the future tense rather than the past of the original underlines this. Elsewhere John seems to have transferred traditions which pertained to Jesus’ last days back into his ministry. The Jewish trial, for instance, takes place throughout the ministry! So the place of the temple clearing near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is probably a deliberate rearrangement.
Whichever gospel we follow, we find that this action is highly controversial. In the case of the fourth gospel we now have two parts to the account: the event itself (2:14-17) and the controversy about it (2:18-22). The latter section includes Jesus’ prediction that the temple will be destroyed and be rebuilt in three days. It also begins with the Jews questioning Jesus’ right to act the way he did. Both elements echo Mark’s story. In Mark the chief priests question Jesus’ right to do such things and Jesus replies by linking his authority to John the Baptist’s (11:27-33) and by telling the parable of the wicked tenants (12:1-12). In Mark words about destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days appear in the trial before the high priest (14:58). There they are on the lips of false witnesses, although the main thing that is false is the claim that Jesus, himself, will destroy the temple. Everything else is true. Only John links the saying with the temple episode. Both the event and the saying have obviously been a rich source for reflection.
To imagine anything like the original event, we need to appreciate the scene. It takes place in the outer court of the temple, a huge area, big enough to house a few football fields. It does not take place in the sanctuary, itself. At Passover time there would have been crowds of people. People needed to change their money into the currency acceptable in the temple and needed to be able to buy birds or animals for sacrifices. The area was usually closely guarded by soldiers. A major commotion would immediately attract attention and arrests. Assuming the story has historical roots, Jesus’ action must have been swift and limited, sufficient not to lead to his immediate arrest. It must have been a symbolic action. But what did it mean?
The account in Mark draws on Isaiah and Jeremiah to portray what Jesus might have said. ‘Den of thieves’ has led people to believe that Jesus was objecting to unfair commercial practices, whereas it may well have intended something more like: den of brigands. Here in John the trading is objected to in itself. Yet everyone knew that the money exchange and the sale of sacrificial animals was essential. Is the problem the activity or the location? Did Jesus have such high respect for sacred space? John certainly has him speak of his father’s house and uses the passage from the psalm to speak of Jesus’ zeal for it. Is Jesus stepping up as a temple reformer, demanding greater respect for the sanctity of its precincts? Then he would be outdoing the Pharisees and many others in zeal for what for practical reasons had to be able to encompass the comings and goings of thousands of people at a time.
We may never know what the action was meant to signify. To state only the likely conclusions from the kind of complex detailed analysis which I cannot undertake here, it is likely that Jesus objected to what the temple had come to represent: power and exploitation. The otherwise innocent structures of exchange and sale were part of a system which he and many others of the day (such as those who wrote many of the Dead Sea Scrolls) saw as corrupt and fit only for destruction. He is no more to be seen as opposing the temple in itself than is Jeremiah. It is likely then that his action expressed both disapproval of what the temple had become and signified also what God’s response would be: judgement. I think it quite possible that in this context he spoke words about a new temple to replace the old, an act of God (in three days, a favourite ‘short time’ in scripture), but they may have been spoken at another time.
The Bible based religious system of the day had lost its way. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a not so subtle commentary on why and how. Such traditions about Jesus and the temple have a boomerang quality: they have a habit of coming back and landing – on us! In a way Mark sets this up well. He has a new community become the new temple built on the new foundation stone which the builders rejected, a temple not built with hands. In John we find something which only indirectly leads in this direction.
John is quite ‘up front’ about acknowledging that it was only well after the event that people began to interpret what was going on. Twice (2:17 and 2:22) he mentions the delay. In between he employs typically Johannine playfulness in which Jesus’ opponents remain dense and preoccupied with surface features (46 years of building). Instead, we are told, Jesus was speaking about his own body (2:21). This should not be confused with Paul’s image of the church as the body of Christ. It means Jesus, himself, his embodied person which after three days will be raised from the dead after his zeal for God’s house destroys him.
John is really saying: God’s temple will be no more. Instead we will have Jesus as the one in whom we find God. 4:19-26 effectively says the same thing: only one sacred site: Jesus. The rest of John, and especially the farewell discourses, will explain that this Jesus is known through faith and especially through the community of faith and love. John never says, as does Mark, that the community is the temple. Nevertheless the boomerang still lands. For John the community is so centred on Jesus that it cannot help but invite comparison with the temple community. Is the community good news for the poor or is it chaplain to the rich who oppress? Mark with telling irony contrasts the widow and her poverty with the oppression of the temple authorities who exploit widows (12:38-44). Lent is also a time for the church to take a good look at itself.
Epistle: Lent 3: 8 March 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
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