The Cleansing of the Temple

Cleansing of the Temple  Lent 3 : 4 March 2018    Madingley  

  Exodus 20:1-17          1 Cor. 1: 18-25   John 2: 13-22


I am always disconcerted and rather resentful when the Church seems to allocate readings on,  as it were, the wrong day. I feel as if any attempt I am making at a reflective and considered approach to the Church season, has been unjustifiably tampered with. And any of you who share that response, may have been as surprised as I was to find that here, less than half way through Lent, the Gospel set for the day is the account of the Cleansing of the Temple. Surely that 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 the fact that the reading set for today comes from John’s Gospel may set us on the right track. Saint John has placed this event in Jesus’ life close to the beginning of his ministry, rather than at the start of his last week of earthly life, as it is in the other Gospels. There is always a good reason for the timing of events in this Gospel.


It is not a questionable distorting of the facts that has John placing the Cleansing of the Temple so early in Jesus’ ministry. He 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 all that happens at even greater depth, and with a perspective which is different than if we were solely concerned with trying to work out a chronological record of Jesus’ life.


In fact, where the other Gospels record 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 at the symbolic heart of the faith – the Temple. John mentions 3 Passovers, which accords with the traditional view that Jesus’ ministry lasted 3 years. And he is careful to record all the times and seasons, which would have held a huge importance for Jesus.


So John’s Gospel, after the very familiar opening which we use, rightly, every Christmas, 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 after 46 years of building, it was still not complete in the time of Jesus. It was only finished in 63 AD, 37 years later. And only 7 years after that — it was razed to the ground, as the Romans quelled once and for all the rebellion of the Jewish people. A plough was dragged across the ground, and as we know, only the western edge of the great retaining wall on which it stood, remains.


However, during the 3 eventful years which are beginning at this point in the Gospel, the Temple will 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.” Placed near the beginning of the Gospel, the timing and the wording combine to show us that, from the beginning, the shadow of the Cross lay across Jesus’ ministry.

We are often led to believe 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 part, but go no further. The need for money changers was because they deemed it unacceptable for the sacrifices to be bought with Gentile money, so that had to be exchanged for a Temple coinage.  One accusation which could be laid at the door of the Jewish people was that they had, as it were, hugged their faith to themselves, in contravention of the will of God. They had maintained a superior attitude towards the Gentiles, failing to share their knowledge of the One True God with all other nations.


So John points us towards a resultant change in the order of things. The old order is about to be replaced with the new. The Lord has come; Jesus is the fulfilment of the OT prophecies. As the prophets of OT times prophesied in the Temple and against the practices of the worship there, so Jesus, a new and greater prophet, 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. The demand for a sign, the seeking of physical proof, is a characteristic of the matter-of-fact Jews, as Paul points out in our epistle, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom.”


But Jesus makes 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.


Given that they have just acknowledged him as a prophet by asking for a sign, as a people well-versed in their Scriptures, 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.  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.


This cleansing of the Temple, the clearing out of erroneous elements which had crept into the thinking of the Jews over the centuries, gives us a pointer for our own reflections this Lent. As we consider the things which may have got in the way of our own relationship with God, and for which we may wish to express our contrition, we can at the same time, give thanks for the impact of Jesus’ death and resurrection.


Lent is not just a time of penitence and self-denial, but a time to re-balance our lives, so that our contrition springs from thanksgiving for all that God has done for us. That gives us the map for the way in which we should spend the rest of our lives, not just Lent.