John 2: 13-22
The so-called Cleansing of the Temple in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke is recorded towards the end of Jesus’ ministry after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. In John it occurs at the beginning of his ministry. His action is more than just a protest about the commercialisation of, and segregation in, the house of God. It is above all a sign that a radically new state of affairs accompanied the coming and presence of Jesus which showed up the failure of the old Order and indicated that a transformation had come about with the coming of Jesus.
We are impressed very often by all the wrong things. In John 2 everyone was impressed with the magnificence of the Temple. For over four decades it had been undergoing construction and was not even then finished. It reminds me of the Ken Follett novel The Pillars of the Earth that refers to the construction of a European cathedral that literally stretches across generations of construction workers and craftsmen. Some projects in the past were so grand that the person who laid the first stone just knew that he would never live to see the completion of the great project he was engaged in.
How could anyone fail to be impressed by Herod’s Temple? Maybe it did not quite hold a candle to the original splendour of Solomon’s Temple but that building was long gone, and Herod’s edifice was quite something to behold. Elsewhere, in Mark’s Gospel we read of the disciples own jaw-dropping moment upon seeing the Temple in Jerusalem. “As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples exclaimed “Look, Teacher, what huge stones! What fine buildings!” (Mk.13:1).
Maybe Jesus threw out the moneychangers because their ever-expanding emporium was eclipsing the real meaning of the temple. Maybe the temple had started to look like just any old Jerusalem market, and so people were forgetting that to have faith was to believe that God’s house is most definitely not just any old place. The temple was not about nationalism nor about the exclusive appropriation of faith and worship and the exclusion of those whose faces do not fit because they are different. The commercial exploitation, in which people are regarded as a means for profit, and manipulated to preserve the power of the privileged, and the injustice, which still today determines the appalling political practices that too often bedevils many of our leaders, has no place in the house of God.
Had Jesus’ fellow Jews got the wrong focus? Did they regard the magnificent temple as their own accomplishment in which they could do whatever they wanted because it was, after all, their place? They had built it and it was theirs.
Perhaps the ‘lock-down’ has deprived us of those special places where we can gather together to worship God. Those locations where we may well have had significant and meaningful moments, even where we sensed the presence of God, are so important. Often at times such as these we long for them and try to recapture those precious memories and re-live the experiences. As important as those locations are, as magnificent as some of those buildings may be, they can too easily get in the way and become a barrier and a distraction.
John wrote his Gospel after the Romans had desecrated and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus’s words “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up”, was taken to refer to the magnificent building where the encounter occurred. It has taken more than a life-time to build this Temple …. and you are suggesting that you can rebuild it in 3 days? But John was not referring to the building, but to Jesus and to his death and resurrection.
The Temple for the Jewish people symbolised the presence of God. It was there people worshipped God and offered sacrifices to God. But humanity’s selfish arrogance, ambition, pursuit of power, status and wealth conflicted with the purpose of God. John, in referring to Jesus as the temple indicates that God’s presence is located in Jesus. It is in his coming, his humility, his life, his compassion, his love for all and especially for the vulnerable, the weak, the neglected, and in the selfless offering of himself, in death and resurrection. That is where God is encountered. If the temple symbolises the location and presence of God, John’s astounding declaration is that the one standing before those people in the Temple was the Son of God, ‘the word made flesh’, but they were far more impressed by bricks and mortar and the rituals of religion than they were by the actual presence of God. God is right here, right in front of you. Jesus is the revelation of God, the one and only God (John 1:18). That is the testimony John repeatedly reinforced with different sets of images, different characters, different stories, all pointing back to this essential truth. That is why he places this incident at the beginning of his Gospel.
Revd Michael Diffey