No, I did not make a mistake when looking up the Gospel set for today. But surely, you may be thinking, this account of the Cleansing of the Temple should come after the Triumphal Entry, in other words, immediately following on the readings for Palm Sunday, in three weeks’ time? Aren’t we getting a little ahead of ourselves here?
But noticing the fact that this reading comes from John’s Gospel may set us on the right track. The timing of events in this Gospel always has a good reason behind it. John is wanting his readers to view everything that happens in his Gospel through the prism of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, and the final part of this reading points us in that direction. If we bear that in mind, then we will begin to see everything in a different light than if we were solely concerned with reading the gospel as a chronological record of Jesus’ life.
In fact, where the other Gospels report only one visit to Jerusalem by Jesus, and that at the end of his life, John tells us that he went there on several occasions in order, as a pious Jew, to observe the Jewish Festivals in the symbolic heart of the faith – the Temple. John mentions 3 Passovers, which accords with the traditional view that Jesus’ ministry lasted 3 years.
So John’s Gospel, after the very familiar opening moves through the Baptism of Jesus, the calling of his disciples, and the wedding at Cana, to —- the Temple in Jerusalem and its cleansing by Jesus. This Temple was begun in 20 BC, and it was still not complete when Jesus was alive. It was only finished in 63 AD. And only 7 years after that — it was razed to the ground, as the Romans quelled
once and for all the restlessness and rebellion of the Jewish people. A plough was dragged across the ground, and as we know, only the western, Wailing Wall, remains. This is not a wall of the actual Temple, but is part of the base, the plinth, of the enlarged Temple Mount, on which the Temple was built.
However, returning to the 3 eventful years which are beginning at this point in the Gospel, the Temple was to be the scene of several important confrontations between the authorities and Jesus. So why did John apparently change the timing of the Cleansing of the Temple, and also why did he change some of the details of the account? It is not so much that he adds references to Jesus making a whip, and that there were sheep and oxen there, which the other Gospels don’t mention. It is more that there is a change of emphasis through the different OT prophecies he uses, and there is the concluding episode as Jesus speaks of the destruction of “this Temple.”
We are often told that the reason for his anger, and the strength of Jesus’ reaction on this occasion, was because of the commercialism and dishonesty which was being practised within the Temple precincts. But John gives us a different slant on this.
For what Jesus does here in John’s Gospel, is to remove from the Temple the symbols of exclusivity which had been built into it. The other Gospels in recording this event, speak of Jesus quoting a verse from Isaiah, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” Unfortunately, the Jews had limited access to the Temple so that the Gentiles could only enter the first court and could go no further.
One of the accusations which could be laid at the door of the Jewish people was that they had, as it were, hugged their faith to themselves. They had maintained a superior attitude towards the Gentiles and failed to share their knowledge of the One True God with all other nations.
So John points us towards a coming change in the order of things. The old order is about to be replaced with the new. For those who have eyes to see, the Lord has come; the OT prophecies are fulfilled in the person of Jesus. As the prophets of OT times prophesied in the Temple and against the practices of the worship there, so Jesus begins the establishment of the new order with a similar condemnation. The people then ask him for a sign. They have recognised his prophetic authority, and as the OT prophets had accompanied their words with actions, or signs, to give emphasis and clarity to their message, so the people now ask Jesus for just such a sign. But Jesus takes no action which would provide the asked-for sign. Instead, he tells them a riddle: “Destroy this Temple and in 3 days I will raise it up.” Which, predictably, the people interpret literally, and think he is talking about their surroundings.
They should have been able to make the connection between Jesus’ words, and those of the prophet Hosea, “After 2 days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” He is not speaking about a building; he really is talking about a body. His body, as John points out.
The narrow nationalist and exclusive worship of the Jews will be replaced by the inclusive universal Gospel after the resurrection. There will be no need for the oxen and sheep, the doves, and all the other rigmarole in the Temple forecourts. The worship of God will have moved on from the constant offering of sacrifices, to the spiritual worship through one who made a complete sacrifice of himself once and for all.
The Temple which symbolised the majesty and transcendence of God is replaced by the temple of the Body of Jesus, as God becomes clearly present among us. Sharing the pilgrimage of his followers then, and now, we recognise his presence among us, and seek to make it more evident in our community and beyond. There are always things which need clearing out of our own particular temples, our bodies in which God dwells. Lent is a good time for spring-cleaning our inner selves of the collected rubbish and dust of previous ideas, and erroneous concepts. Then we will be able to move on with clarity and simplicity, as God is enthroned again in our hearts with love and with joy.
Rev’d Christine Barrow