We have just heard an account of Jesus performing a symbolic act known as The Cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem (John 2:13-25).
The reconstructed Temple was world renowned at the time, making Jerusalem, as the Roman historian Pliny wrote, by far the most distinguished city of the East. It was thronged, especially at the time of great pilgrimage feasts, with visitors from all over the known world.
The principal activity in the Temple consisted of priests sacrificing animals in atonement for people’s sins. These animals were kept in the precincts of the Temple where people would purchase them and then hand them over for ritual slaughter. To acquire an animal for atonement of one’ sins, the Roman coinage – which bore pagan or imperial portraits – could not be used. Only Hebrew coinage was acceptable in the Temple. So money changers, operating at a profit, had stalls in the building for changing currency.
There is no evidence to suggest that the money changers were corrupt or that the animal traders were unnecessary to the working of the Temple. Jesus’ anger is not about them personally but about the whole system of Judaism which they represent. He rejects it, declares it must go and says he will replace it with a new system or ‘temple’ to be founded on him.
When he declares “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up’, he is referring to himself as a ‘temple’ or new system of worship which will be created when he is resurrected three days after being put to death. The authorities misunderstand and think he is referring to destroying the magnificent building. He is speaking instead of destroying the system the building it represents and that it will be through his risen Body that people will encounter God. The offering of animals in the Temple will be superseded by the single offering he will make of himself. He, the soon-to-be slaughtered Lamb of God – and not the Jewish priesthood operating in the Temple – will take on himself the sins of the world.
None of this was understood, even by his disciples, at the time Jesus said it. It became evident to his followers only after his resurrection. Then they came to see that their new community, also known as the Body of Christ on earth, was the new ‘temple’ Jesus spoke about. He now was the new centre of worship, not old Judaism; he was the place or presence of God dwelling in humanity. Worshipping God was focused no longer on the old Temple but on Christ and his Church.
This declaration and symbolic act of Jesus – overturning the stalls, turning loose the animals and rejecting of the system of Judaism – caused outrage to every priest and official in Judaism. They saw him as nothing more than an itinerant preacher from the countryside, an outsider, challenging and denouncing their system which had existed for centuries. For them this was the last straw and they had enough: soon they would have him killed. But that was not the end of him – he would, as he predicted, rise again.
Interestingly, Our Lord’s prediction was realised just 40 year later when the Temple was destroyed, following a rebellion against the Romans, and the Jewish priesthood came to an end … it has never been revived.
Since then the new community centred on Jesus has mushroomed into a worldwide Church. It is a Church for sinners where young and old, married, single or divorced, and whatever their gender or sexuality, can be in communion with Jesus and, through him, with God the Father.
In the Church this now is the penitential season when we reflect on the Cross of Jesus and how we might respond better to his sacrificial love. During this time we are invited to look inwardly at ourselves, to see where we need cleansing and changing our ways.
So we might ask: what does the Christ who overturned the tables in the Temple want overturned and changed for the better in our lives? As he cleansed the Temple, so may he grant us the grace to cleanse the temple of our own hearts.
Holy Name, Jesmond
7 March 2021