Last week we talked about grumpy Jesus and his exchange with Peter. Today in John's gospel, we see Jesus and he is beyond grumpy, he's downright angry and aggressive. Last week it seemed like he needed an attitude adjustment. This week, Jesus needs an intervention in anger management. Did Jesus let his emotions get the best of him? Is Jesus overreacting? Is John's purpose of including this story to emphasize Jesus' humanity? There are lots of questions we should be asking about this passage of scripture.
One very important question is, why would Jesus do this? What is Jesus really up to?"...in the temple he found people selling" (v. 14). No wonder Jesus reacted in the way he did. Can you imagine what it would be like if we found our sanctuary full of loud people, smelly animals and merchants making a profit off of those who came to worship? Wouldn't we be incensed at such inappropriate behavior?
But things are rarely as they seem when it comes to Jesus. He is not meek and mild or tame and definitely doesn't like staying inside the boxes we like to put him into.
First of all, what the gospel calls "the temple" was a part of the temple complex, but it was not the part where sacrifices were made and worship took place. Rather, the merchants would have been in the Court of the Gentiles which was outside of the temple proper. Jesus just turned over a few tables in one section of the area surrounding the temple--an area specifically designed for the sort of commerce that was being conducted there.
The merchants were there because the feast of Passover was one of the great pilgrimage feasts bringing people from far and wide to Jerusalem's temple. The pilgrims would need animals for the sacrifice, but it would be difficult to bring animals along from great distances. So, the merchants were providing a service for the throngs who needed an animal to bring for a sacrifice.
What about the moneychangers? They too performed a service for those making the pilgrimage to the temple. Worshippers were required to pay a half shekel temple tax. However, when people arrived at the temple, the only currency they would have would be Roman currency. The problem with that is Roman currency was not allowed to be used to pay the temple tax because it bore portraits of the imperial rulers who were worshipped as gods by the Romans. The image on the coins was considered idolatrous. For a small fee, the money changers would exchange the Roman currency for the temple currency.
Scholars have espoused several different theories for why Jesus turned the temple system upside down that day. The lifting up of Jesus' humanity is believed by some to be the issue John is writing about. Others believe the temple system at Jesus' time within agrarian social structures was oppressive and perceived by many (especially peasants) as "highway robbery." They suggest that Jesus didn't reject the temple, but the redistributive institution benefiting only the few.
However, the most common and believable theory in my opinion,is that Jesus' act was staged as a symbolic demonstration. It symbolized destruction. Cleansing was not enough. The temple needed to be destroyed. Jesus was challenging the very essence and continual existence of the temple, issuing a challenge to the purity of the temple that literally shook its foundations. Jesus disrupted the temple system during one of the most significant feasts of the year so that neither sacrifices nor tithes could be offered that day. Was it any wonder that the Jewish leaders asked for a sign to warrant his actions? After all, what gives this man the right to derail their whole system of worship?
The Jewish leaders evidently understood the claims Jesus was making by his actions with the merchants and money changers, so they asked him for proof of the authority he claimed to have.
How did Jesus respond? He declared, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (v. 19). The force of Jesus' response is more than "if you destroy," but is more like the challenge, "Go ahead, I double dog dare you and do this and see what happens."
Jesus speaks what is true and the religious leaders hear what is apparent.The Jewish leaders were thinking in strictly human physical terms, so Jesus' words went over their heads. The temple had been under construction for 46 years and may well have not yet been completed. Jesus was speaking about a completely different plane of existence, a spiritual one which leaves us with the message of his coming crucifixion.
For Judaism, the temple was the center of God's presence on earth. For John, the temple is more than just a building, it is the resurrected body of Jesus, the new focal point of God's presence. In Revelation we are told that the New Jerusalem will not have a temple because the Lord and the Lamb are its temple. As the place where people go to meet God, the temple has been supplanted and replaced by Jesus himself, in whose resurrected person we may now encounter God.
For John, the point of the story of Jesus' actions in the temple complex was that this was a Passover story, meaning it relates to the death and resurrection of Jesus. It's also a story of a conflict of values between what Jesus really means and those values espoused by the structures of religion with which Jesus contended. They asked for a sign and Jesus gives them the ultimate and final sign, his death and resurrection.
Finally, this is a story directed to us as the church. We have to be careful of allowing even good acts and intentions to intrude on the space that belongs to God alone. It's not the big things like murder, robbery etc. that are problems for most Christians. It is the good things that can keep us from the best God has for us.
Doubtless we have all known people who were faithful and devoted, but when there was a change in the building, the pastor or the style of worship; they packed up their toys and left. We want to be in charge of our lives and manage all our relationships, even those with God. Why is it so difficult for us to first bow our hearts before God and listen before we proceed with action, before building our altars and framing our liturgies and falling on our swords? Knowing Christ as our sanctuary allows us to know what the church building is and is not.
What encroaches on the holy space in our lives, that which belongs to God alone? Lent is a time to look at our lives, to examine ourselves in the light of God's word and will, in the shadow of the cross. Throughout the gospels, Jesus' presence and actions challenge those around him to make a decision about who Jesus is. The disciples identified Jesus positively, while his enemies question Jesus' action. How do we identify Jesus? Positively or negatively?
Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year B
Beverly Gaventa, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year B
K. C. Hanson and Douglas E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts, Second Edition
Mark Allan Powell, Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee.