Cleansing the Temple

Third Sunday of Lent Scripture Readings

It’s remarkable what insights we can come away with when examining the gospel texts, especially with just a little bit of background information and by asking the right questions. Consider today’s gospel reading that we know of as “Jesus cleanses the temple.” We hear the story today from Saint John’s Gospel. One might be forgiven for thinking that it was all about Jesus reacting in anger toward thoughtless people who were disrespecting the sacredness of the temple. From that perspective, the story seems to be all about Jesus, and the lesson we might consider taking away from it might be that, like Jesus, we should enforce respect for sacred places and sacred things. Yet, we know that we should never be content to take the gospels at their superficial face value. If we don’t look deeper into them, we risk missing the impact that they might otherwise have on our lives.

Let’s apply those two things I mentioned—some background information and posing the right questions—to today’s gospel passage so that we can go beyond the surface meaning. We’ll start with the background information. We’ll want to examine why the animal sellers and moneychangers were there, and the unique perspective that John gives us on Jesus’s actions. Matthew, Mark, and Luke report that Jesus quoted the Prophet Isaiah [56:7] when he said, “My house shall be a house of prayer,” adding the commentary, “but you have made it a den of thieves.” It seems evident that, according to these evangelists, Jesus is decrying the dishonesty not only of the moneychangers but also of the animal sellers. John reports it differently, and, since the other gospels are earlier versions, it’s very likely that their report is closer to the actual event.

We can see that, in John’s narration of the story, the focus shifts to the entirety of the commerce going on within the temple precincts—both the money changing and the buying and selling of the animals for sacrifice. In this version, Jesus doesn’t quote Isaiah, and he criticizes the transactions going on there for turning the temple into a marketplace. He doesn’t directly speak to the honesty of those doing business there. As the author of the mystical gospel, Saint John’s intent is always to dive below the surface and reveal the hidden, deeper meanings in Jesus’s words and deeds.

So, what was the purpose of the animal sellers and moneychangers in the temple precincts? The animals were there for the faithful to purchase and to give to the priests to be offered as sacrifices, either to fulfill the requirements of the Law or for thanksgiving votive offerings. It’s true that anyone could bring their own animals for sacrifice, but first, they had to be inspected by the temple authorities—for a price—to be sure that they were suitable and “without blemish.” Although they were more expensive, it was much easier for worshipers to purchase the ones for sale there, which were already certified to be blemish-free. The moneychangers were also necessary because the animals could only be bought and the temple tax paid with the temple coinage, the Tyrian half-shekel. Since there were more than twenty different species of coin in circulation, they all had to be exchanged for use in the temple. This arrangement was lucrative for all involved—the animal sellers, the moneychangers, and the priests and temple officials who got a cut of it all.

Understanding this environment allows us to have a much better appreciation of what Jesus did, at least according to John’s Gospel. He expelled all those folks from the temple grounds. His actions were immediately recognizable as a prophetic gesture in the line of Elijah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. It got people’s attention and caused them to question what it meant. That’s why the temple authorities immediately confronted him and asked him for some reason why they should accept him as a prophet. His actions were radical … they not only interrupted the lucrative commerce going on, but they also interrupted the temple sacrifices, and that was a big deal. No wonder it got everyone’s attention. In addition to the worshipers, there must have been hundreds of people employed by the temple who depended on the sacrifices for their livelihood. To make matters worse, all four evangelists tell us that this happened near the time of the Passover when it’s estimated that the population of Jerusalem swelled to over a million people.

Now that we’re more familiar with the background of Jesus’s actions, we can ask some probing questions about this event. Why did Jesus do what he did, and what did it mean? When I pose those questions to myself, I must admit that the answer makes me somewhat uneasy. I consider myself to be somewhat of a liturgist. I understand our liturgy, I appreciate its structure and meaning, and I revere the traditions that came together to create it. Yet, what Jesus did was nothing less than a liturgical disruption. I can only read this as a strike at the heart of empty formalism.

We humans are particularly ritualistic creatures. While all creatures thrive on regularity and predictability in the conduct of their lives, humans are the one species that raises regularity and predictability to the level of ritual. We conduct rituals around getting up in the morning and going to bed at night, on how, what, and when we eat, and innumerable other tasks. In conducting our daily, weekly, and yearly rituals, what we do and say often becomes detached from their purpose. Things are done and said by rote not because they’re in any way effective, but because it’s the way they’re done. Take, for example, the ritual of the military salute. It’s done practically the same way in every country in the world. Yet, the purpose of soldiers lifting their hands to their foreheads was originally for identification. By lifting the visors on their armored helmets, they could be seen and recognized. Nobody’s worn armored helmets for centuries, yet we continue the ritual of raising that non-existent visor!

By his prophetic gesture, Jesus challenges us. He warns us about thinking that merely going through the motions of our devotions—prayer, meditation, and even our liturgy—might be enough. Our rituals in themselves don’t provide us with spiritual life, let alone spiritual growth. Cleansing the temple might mean for us to stop and change things up to remind ourselves of why we do the things we do. What is it about your prayer today that makes it any different from your prayer yesterday? What is it about our liturgy today that makes it any different from our liturgy of last week? What is it that makes this Lenten season any different from last year’s … or the year before that?

If we want to work on our spiritual lives at all this Lent, and if we want to celebrate Easter more meaningfully this year, we’ll need to rise to Jesus’s challenge. We’ll allow Jesus to interrupt the mindless habits of prayer and devotion that we’ve fallen into and treat our soul-sickness with a healthy dose of openness and mindfulness. We can start to pay closer attention to what we’re doing—particularly in our spiritual lives—and why we’re doing it.

When the temple officials asked Jesus for a sign to show his prophetic credentials after bringing the temple worship to a screeching halt, what he told them was, “Destroy this temple … and I will raise it up.” We recognize in this saying of his not only a prediction of his human death and resurrection but also a summons to what we would call “creative destruction.” Take apart the meaningless elements of our own spiritual practices and allow God to raise it up again with renewed mindfulness and significance. Let’s use this Lent to cleanse the temple of our hearts so that they may grow ever stronger in newness of life.

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