Although today’s gospel is very familiar to us, like much of Saint John/s gospel, its meaning can be quite complex. First, to make sense of it all, we need to be clear about the situation in which we find ourselves.
The temple in Jerusalem – Herod’s temple – had been under construction for over a generation: 46 years to be exact. It would take another twenty years to complete it. It was built along the general lines of a Canaanite temple: a series of courtyards, each one inside another. The first and largest courtyard was the Court of the Gentiles, where anyone, Jew and non-Jew alike, were permitted to come pray and worship. In the center of this courtyard and built against the western wall of the compound was a complex of buildings restricted exclusively for Jewish people. This complex surrounded three more courtyards. The first of these was the Court of the Women, which was as far as women were allowed to enter. The second was the Court of Israel where any adult Jewish male could enter to worship. Beyond that was the Court of the Priests which was restricted to priests and Levites only. The Altar of Sacrifice was in the center of that courtyard.
Beyond that was the Holy place, A large building which housed the 12-branched candlestick and the altar of incense. At the rear of that was the Holy of Holies, a room 20 cubits wide, long, and high. It was closed off by a double curtain. The high priest alone could enter this room and only once a year on the Day of Atonement. In Solomon’s temple, the Ark of the Covenant had been housed there, but since 586 BC when the Babylonians destroyed that temple, the Ark had been missing. So, in Herod’s temple, the Holy of Holies was entirely empty.
The gospel tells us that the event described today happened at the Passover time. It was required for every adult male Jew who lived within fifteen miles of Jerusalem to come to the festival. We can imagine that the scene was similar to the Hajj at Mecca when believers from all over the world come for the celebration. Every Jewish family would need to procure a lamb for the Passover supper. Those lambs would be sacrificed on the Altar of Sacrifice and returned to the family offering it. The lamb had to be without a blemish and there were temple officials on hand whose job it was to examine and approve each one.
In the court of the Gentiles, there were set up stands where approved animal vendors offered oxen, goats, lambs, and doves for sacrifice. Needless to say, if you brought your own animal rather than purchasing it from an approved vendor, your chances of getting your animal approved by the authorities was slim to none.
In addition, there was an annual temple tax to be paid that amounted to about two days’ wages. This tax paid for the operation of the temple and support of the priests and Levites. Since there was no such thing as an official currency outside the temple, whatever coins you came in with were considered unclean and had to be exchanged for the temple currency. In other words, the selling of animals for sacrifice and the coin exchanges were essential for the functioning of the temple.
This system had several obvious problems. First, the approved animal vendors and money-changers had a monopoly. Although they were permitted by the Talmud to make a profit, there was almost universal price-fixing and gouging. Some of these entrepreneurs were becoming quite wealthy on the backs of poor worshipers. Besides that, the courtyard was packed with vendors to service the crowds that came for the festival. Apparently, it resembled an open-air market rather than a sacred space where non-Jews could come and pray. It’s simply human nature that the vendors and money-changers and their clients would become more focused on their transactions than on their surroundings. It must have been anything but peaceful and serene.
What was the purpose of Jesus’s actions when he drove the businessmen out of the temple precincts? Certainly, one obvious reason was to restore a sense of decorum and sanctity to the space. Although the gospel says he fashioned a whip out of cords, I can’t imagine him beating people with it. My thought is that he used it to chase the animals out.
What Jesus accomplished was much more than just “cleansing” the temple of commerce. Remember that this was in the middle of the Passover season – the biggest festival of the Jewish year. What he did was to make it impossible for the temple to continue functioning. Without animals, all the offerings on the Altar of Sacrifice ceased. Everyone – from the bystanders to the disciples to the Jewish authorities – understood that this was a prophetic gesture in the line of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The disciples recognized that, and more. It made them think of Psalm 69 – “Zeal for your house will consume me” – a Psalm generally recognized to be referring to the Messiah. For the disciples, it was a clear confirmation of Jesus’s identity; but it was a direct challenge to the Jewish authorities who asked for a sign. In other words, they demanded to see Jesus’s prophetic credentials.
And Jesus’s response to them was a truly prophetic reply – an enigmatic statement about destroying and rebuilding the temple – that would only be fully understood after the Resurrection.
From the beginning, El, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had been an ancestral God. In Moses’s time, Yahweh sojourned with the children of Israel, enthroned upon the Ark of the Covenant. In Solomon’s time, God’s presence was installed with the Ark in the Holy of Holies in the first temple. Herod tried to re-establish that Presence in the temple he rebuilt to be the center of Jewish worship. Now, in this one prophetic act, Jesus broke open the confines of the Holy of Holies. It was truly a prophetic gesture that began here but ended only when the curtain in the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom, exposing its emptiness.
The worship of God is no longer in a place, but in Spirit and truth in the hearts of believers. Every Eucharist like this one, then, is a reminder that the God we worship lives within us, consuming us as we consume the Body and Blood of Christ.