Jesus in the temple

Lent 3 2009
John 2:13-22
Marian Free

In the name of God who, in Jesus, overturned all our expectations. Amen.

Jesus might just as well have said: “I have come to overturn all your expectations.” He was so different from what anyone expected, his teaching so radical and his death so undignified, so ungodly, that it is no surprise at all that people found him disturbing and unsettling. Here, at the start of John’s gospel he shows his true colours and demonstrates that he is not going to conform to the accepted norm. From the start, he demonstrates that he will be unable to tolerate the trivializing of faith, the desecration of the temple and the misuse of the law. All of this is made obvious in the incident in the temple. Incensed by what he sees as a blatant disregard for the holiness of the space, Jesus fashions a whip and uses it to drive the animals and the money-changers out of the temple thereby creating mayhem, inviting the disapproval of those in authority and causing confusion among the faithful.

This version of events is very different from the other gospel writers who place Jesus’ actions in the temple much later in their story. According to the Synoptic writers, the incident in the temple occurs towards the end of the story after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. (His only visit compared with the three he makes in John.) Their account is much less dramatic. Matthew, Mark and Luke do not mention the larger animals – the oxen and the sheep and Jesus does not go to the trouble of fashioning a whip. Jesus quotes Jeremiah: “You have made my Father’s house a den of thieves” whereas, John’s Jesus accuses them of making his Father’s house a market place” (merchants will not be found in temple on the day of the Lord according to Zechariah).

It is only in John that the reference to destroying and rebuilding the temple occurs in connection with the driving out of the money-changers and the salesmen.

Despite the difference, there is considerable consistency across all four gospel accounts. This includes Jesus’ indignation, the overthrowing of the tables of the money changers and driving the animals out of the temple. Jesus’ action must be seen against a background in which there is increasing dissatisfaction with temple worship and suspicion of the priests. Not that this is new. In the writings of the prophets and in the Psalms there are protests against the profaning of the temple and the abuses of Levitical worship which will lead to the destruction of the temple.

At the time of Jesus, the concern about the temple and temple has become so strong that groups such as the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls have completely dissociated themselves from the Temple and Temple worship believing it to be too corrupt to be of any use to their relationship with God. For people such as those at Qumran their removal from Jerusalem was in part a protest against the abuses that they observed and also an attempt to create the purity of life and worship which they felt was missing in Jerusalem. They focused on a future heavenly temple created by God and it was for this temple that they were preparing themselves. For them the Temple in Jerusalem had become an anathema.

We can see then that Jesus’ anger was not formed in a vacuum, but against a background of discontent and a desire for a purity of worship, that represented faithful hearts turned towards God rather than cynical adherents hoping that sacrifices and other such practices would encourage God to look favourably towards them.

In some ways, Jesus was a man of his times, but his anger in the temple is also perfectly consistent with his charges of hypocrisy against the Pharisees, chief priests and scribes. Just as Jesus sees through the offering of beasts for sacrifice to the market forces beneath, so too Jesus sees through the Pharisees outward displays of piety to their shallow hearts below. Like the prophets, Jesus challenges the believers of his time, to rethink their relationship with God, to examine their self-deception, to reconsider the connection between their behaviour and their true attitude to God and to examine whether what they do reflects their desire for a relationship with God or a desire to be seen in a good light by their peers.

The gospels present a picture of a religious situation in which self-satisfaction has taken the place of self-examination, in which adherence to a system of laws has replaced a relationship with the living God, in which there is a certain smugness and complacency about one’s position before God, instead of an attitude of humility. Jesus wants to cut through this outward show to bring people back into a relationship with God which is based on a realistic view of sinfulness and a deep understanding of one’s dependence on God’s goodness and mercy. He is encouraging honesty and sincerity rather than self-deception and pretence.

In the light of today’s gospel, it is interesting to reflect on what Jesus might see were he to come to our churches today. Would he be critical that our concern for survival eclipses our concern for the gospel? Would he wonder that whether our focus is on our individual piety rather than on the needs of those around us? Would we feel the sting of the whip and feel the lash of his tongue because the state of our hearts belies our outward appearance?

The gospels record the life of Jesus, but they do so to inform and challenge us, to confront us with our own humanity and to force us to question whether we are really true to the gospel. How would Jesus respond to our practice of the faith he taught? How do we compare to the Pharisees and scribes of his time?

These are questions worth asking from time to time lest we find ourselves guilty of the same double-standards and complacency.

Let us not hide behind false piety, empty service or good works. Let it not be said that we show style not substance, but that, having a true sense of who we are and a true understanding of the gospel, we seek to build a relationship with God that is open and sincere with no false piety and no pretensions to be anything but who we really are.

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