Ex 20:1-17 (20:1-3, 7-8, 12-17); 1Cor 1:22-25; John 2:13-25
JESUS AND THE TEMPLE TRADERS
The gospel of today talks about Jesus driving traders out of the temple. Jesus who has been known for his calm, gentle and approachable disposition, got angry to the point of even turning violent. Like the desert (Lent Week 1) and the mountain (Lent Week 2), the Temple is a place of special encounter with God. But today we are not seeing the glorious face of Jesus. Instead, we see his angry face. Jesus is not happy with what he sees precisely because the way the Temple worship was organized no longer reflected God’s original idea of a worshipping community. Jesus confronted the excessive commerce in the temple of his time, where profit replaced authentic temple spirituality. By this, we are reminded that the place of worship needs to be kept holy. Equally, worshippers are in need of cleansing.
- JESUS IS UPSET
The account of Jesus going into the Temple courts, and making a scene of turning over tables in the temple courts, is reported by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This shows the importance which the writers attached to this dramatic and violent act of Jesus. Today, we read the version of John. One may ask the question: “What is it that provoked such a strong response from the Saviour?”
To understand what was happening, we have to understand the Temple complex. To get into the Temple Complex, one would enter a big gate and then there would be a series of courts that surrounded the Temple. It is in these courts that various categories of people were allowed to worship. The Temple itself could only be entered by the priests. The court around the temple was for Israelite MEN to worship. Outside that court was the court of WOMEN. Surrounding these courts was the court of the GENTILES. It was where the gentiles (non-Jews) who wished to worship the God of Israel could go to worship. It was in this court of the Gentiles that the merchants were conducting their business. You could bring Roman money as far as the court of the Gentiles but not into the other four courts. The court of Gentiles was no longer regarded as part and parcel of the house of God. It had become a market place, pure and simple. It was this court of Gentiles that Jesus cleansed. In so doing he was making the point that the Gentile section was just as holy as the Jewish sections. God is God of all and not God of a select group.
- THE MEANING OF JESUS’ BEHAVIOUR
What does this unusual behaviour of Jesus mean?
- a) This incident took place at “the time of the Passover”, that is, the Easter of the Jews. Jerusalem was full of pilgrims from all over Palestine who came to offer sacrifices and to fulfil their religious duty. The population of the city tripled. The pilgrims had worked for years to be able to undertake this “holy journey” at least once in their life time. For the occasion, they did not count costs. It was much more than the commercial frenzy that we find around our cities during Christmas season. The traders know very well that this is a good time to do business. In a few weeks they looked forward to earning more than during all the rest of the year. Prices we kept high; buyers were in great numbers, morning, afternoon, evening. Pilgrims and temple visitors wishing to make money offerings in the temple were expected to go to the “approved bank” to change their money as the denarius was unacceptable for use in the temple since it was engraved with the head of Caesar. (This was also the coin that Christ asked the chief priests to bring him and asked them, “Whose is this image and superscription?” (Matt 22:20–21)) These money-changers were making a fortune out of this transaction. They were profiteering in God’s name. Sacrificial animals: sheep, lambs, and cattle were sold at inflated prices. The exploitation, cheating and corruption that went on in God’s house at that time offended any religious and honest person. Jesus could not stand all this!
- b) With the scene set, Jesus himself explains his anger in two phrases. First, “Take all this out of here and stop using my Father’s house as a market” (Jn 2:16). With these words, Jesus wanted to remind his listeners of the prophecy of Zechariah: In the time of the Messiah “there will be no more traders in the temple of Yahweh Sabbaoth” (Zech 14:21). By purifying the temple of “traders”, Jesus declares that the kingdom of the Messiah has begun, and he clearly and forcibly condemns every combination and confusion between religion and economic interests.
- c) The next lesson is even more important. It comes from these words: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2:19). Jesus is no longer speaking of the trafficking in the temple. He is speaking of a new temple. In fact, John remarks immediately: “He was speaking of the temple that was his body” (Jn 2:21). This is a very important statement because the Jews believed that God lived in the temple of Jerusalem. That is why they always went there to offer him sacrifices. Jesus is declaring that this type of belief is over. God will soon build a new temple where one acceptable sacrifice will be offered. You will recall, in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, he repeats this point: “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father…, true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth; that is the kind of worshipper the father seeks” (Jn 4:21-24). The new and completely different temple (his body) will be built “in three days” (Jn 2:20), to be completed on Easter day.
- d) Finally, this incident also involved the breaking of God’s commandment. The first commandment of the Law that God gave to Moses (f. 1st Reading of today) was against having any other god beside the Lord alone. The second forbade abuse of the name of the Lord. In essence, those two commandments demand respect for the PERSON and the NAME of God. Both of them actually boil down to the same thing, since in the Hebrew tradition, a person’s name was the same thing as the person himself. Whatever you did to or with the person’s name was deemed done to or with the person him/herself. Now, the respect owed God extends to everything connected with him. That includes his house, the place set aside for the worship of God. Jesus could not stand idle and watch this violation of God.
- JESUS “DROVE THEM OUT”
It may seem that Jesus is doing something very impulsive. It looks like Jesus had lost control but that is not really the case. Remember, in Mark’s account of this incident (Mark 11:11), we are told that just the day before, Jesus had “entered Jerusalem and went to the temple, looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve”. Jesus was at the temple and observed all this same corruption in the temple, but did not do anything then. This leads one to believe that the actions of Jesus on the next day were calculated. They were not the actions of a man who had lost his temper instantly; they were deliberate actions designed to make a point. Jesus wanted the people to see (and remember) that the worship of the people had become corrupt. The temple was no longer a house of prayer; it was a place of corruption.
The Greek verb used here, in this gospel text, is the same verb used in exorcism to drive out demons and demonic forces. It means to expel, to throw out, and to drive out violently. This shows how enraged Jesus was. He felt that there was demonic activity going on in the temple. He confronted these people as if they were demonic forces. This commercialization of the temple is the same as demon-possession. This demonic possession took the form of trading and cheating in God’s name. Jesus is fighting to liberate the sacred from the strangulation of unholy commerce.
It should be noted that Jesus did not condemn commercial activities. The only problem was that his contemporaries were apparently doing the right thing in the wrong place and in an exaggerated way. The things he threw out were good things. These good things had come into a place that only God had a right to be. The “good things” had come into the centre and usurped the place of worship. That is why they had to be thrown out. Jesus cleansed the temple of any distraction from the pure and exclusive focus on God.
- HOUSE OF PRAYER
We have focused on the abuse. Let us not miss the positive thing Jesus says about the temple. In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus says that the Scripture (or God) declares that “His house should be a house of prayer”. In John’s version, today, he calls it “My Father’s house”. The place of worship is a place where people should be able to come in, sense the presence of God and meet with him. Many of our Church building are wonderfully conducive to this. Sometimes, walking into a beautiful church, one cannot help feeling a sense of awe. As soon as you enter the sanctuary you instinctively talked in a whisper (if you talked at all). One can easily sense the presence of God. Such a feeling would be completely ruined if one were to see a little stand that said, “buy your souvenirs here!” On the other hand, the trend today is to build sanctuaries like auditoriums or concert halls. We enter these halls like we would any other concert hall. These may be beautiful but they often lack that sense of awe. God says that he wants His house to be “a house of prayer”. He wants us to be quiet. It is a place where we listen and share the deepest part of who we are with the God who knows us better than we know ourselves. The real test of worship is not: “DID YOU ENJOY WORSHIP?” It is not even, “DID YOU LEARN SOMETHING?” The real test of worship is this: “DID YOU ENTER INTO THE PRESENCE OF THE ALMIGHTY?”
- THE PRINCIPLE BEHIND THIS ACCOUNT
The overturning of the tables of the Money Changers has been a source of great debate in churches across the world. “What is the principle behind this account?” Is the principle that nothing should ever be sold in the church? Are church fund-raisers, bazaars, concerts, selling books, wrong? Certainly, the Lord was not angry that money was being exchanged. It was WHERE and HOW that was the problem. Here, one can highlight five points:
- a) First, the church is not a business.
One cannot deny the fact that money is something important for the survival of the Church and every Christian religious organism. There is also no doubt that all of us need it. Actually, without money, the church cannot survive in a world where money is the medium of exchange. But St. Paul warns: “But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1Timothy 6:9-10). The church is meant to be a place of prayer. In other words, it should be a place where people are seeking the Lord! Anything that distracts from that should be evaluated as to whether it is turning the house of God into something it was never meant to be.
- b) Anything that draws attention away from the Lord and from worship is detrimental. This can be anything. Here are some things that can overtake the worship of the church: i) Endless fund-raising, ii) The personality of the Pastor, iii) Marketing of the Church, iv) Isolationism. ‘Isolationism’ is the belief that we are the only ones who hold to the truth. When a church becomes obsessed with such things there is trouble! It has lost sight of who it was created to be.
- c) Watch out against the “Begging Church” syndrome: We are aware of the fact that many of our parishes in Africa are handicapped by money and are often HANDCUFFED by the rich and well-to-do. This makes our church “a begging church”and the temptation to love money more than the ministry is ever present. Sometimes, this begging is done almost on the knees, indicating what an unpleasant exercise it can be for church officials earning through this humiliating process. Now and then, this lack of money forces the African Church to go to Europe and America to source for money, where the church enjoys affluence and abundance.
Alternatively, this Church has to turn to the people, as poor and as wretched as many of them are. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, Christians have a sacred duty to support their Church. This is part of what it entails to be a member of the Christian church. It is a sharing community. Here, the Christian is reminded that God loves a cheerful giver. In this respect, our Christians in the Ecclesiastical Province of Bamenda (and in Cameroon in general) need to be congratulated for the generosity with which they give to the church.
- d) Watch out else money becomes a status symbol for the anointed man of God. The great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, once told his contemporaries that “virtue stands in the middle.” This means: whatever is too much, is too much. When things become TOO MUCH in the domain of collecting money in Church, the Sunday celebrationis reduced to “SUNDAY COLLECTION”. The money-talk now replaces the God-talk. There is now an unwritten “fifth gospel”: The gospel of money, which seems to be gaining the upper hand. Because of this commercialization of worship, some people have now come to two unfortunate conclusions: “The church has money.” “The clergy also has money.” This is partly what fuels the proliferation of NEW CHURCHES in our day. Instead of identifying the church minister with spirituality, such a person is now identified with money, with materialism, with wealth. Money has also become a status symbol for the anointed man of God. In this way, the temple exploitation continues in the “shrines” of Christianity. Here we recall the words of Jeremiah to his contemporaries who had the temple problem of their own: “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’” (Jeremiah 7:4).
- e) We must deal fairly with all people. To take advantage of a people’s situation is wrong. For instance, when there is a breakdown of a transport bus in a neighbourhood and locals sell a bottle of water for 1.000 francs each to the thirsty passengers that is wicked. To exclude people from worship simply because they are different or gentiles is to turn the church into something it was never meant to be. The Lord shows us that all people should be welcome at his house; especially broken people. When we start setting up requirements meant to “weed undesirables out”, just as the Jewish leaders treated gentiles, we have become a corrupt church. We have deserted the gospel message of grace.
- A CALL TO A TRUE CHRISTIAN AND LENTEN SPIRIT
In his homily on February 20, 2015 in Rome, Pope Francis commented on the exploitation and profiteering that was taking place in the temple. He said that the whole exercise was like “using God as a cover for injustice,” which is still the case in many churches today. He castigated “the actions of those who give to the Church, but at the same time exploit and mistreat others.” The Pope asks: “at your home, within your own Church, are you generous and are you fair with those who are your dependents – be they your children, your grandparents, your employees?” Indeed, the Pope used the example of those who go to Mass every Sunday and receive communion, but questioned whether, when these people go home, they pay their employees in cash under the table, giving them a salary lower than the legal rate and without making the necessary social security contributions. Accordingly, he said: “You cannot make offerings to the Church on the shoulders of the injustice that you practice towards your dependents. This is a very serious sin: using God as a cover for injustice” This was what was going on in the temple of God, where the poor and the helpless were milked in God’s name. All kinds of injustices were perpetuated against temple worshippers.
CONCLUSION: Today, as part of our Lenten observance, we are called upon to fight injustice no matter wherever it exists. In this way, we would prevent Jesus from taking up his whip once more and whipping the demons out of us as a way of cleansing us.