Security is very important to most of us. There are things in our lives, some which seem very large, some perhaps insignificant, without which we feel totally adrift. It may be our home or family, or something little, like an old pair of slippers. Most of us love our parishes and churches. If our family has worshipped here for generations, that feeling may be intense. There’s a sense of ownership in our attitude to those windows or pews. To others, new to faith, the church building may be special because in it we celebrated a newfound or restored faith.
To a first-century Jew, all that sentiment and value was centered on one building, the Temple. Whether they lived close to it or far away in Rome or Babylon, the Temple was the magnet that drew them to its splendor.
The Temple Jesus entered was that built by Herod “the Great” in an attempt to curry favor with his subjects. It stood on the site of Solomon’s great building, destroyed centuries before when the Jews were conquered and enslaved. Its restoration symbolized not only religious revival, but the continuity of the nation itself. It was a bit like a combination of the Capitol and the National Cathedral in Washington, but more so.
The destruction of the Temple all those years before Jesus’s time had been a major disaster. Most Jews had been taken off to the East in captivity. Their nation expired. They also came to believe that God had left them, for God was said to dwell in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. Over the centuries, a belief that God had called and chosen Israel to be unique had devolved into nationalism or what we term nowadays “particularism” or “exceptionalism.” Now the point was that Israel was special, specially called by God. Yet that setting apart – the word ‘holy’ has its root in that concept of being separated – was not intended to justify nationalism, but rather to remind Israel of its calling to be the presence of God for the whole world. Holiness was about what we call mission. Nationalism had caused their destruction, and with it, the destruction of the Temple itself.
In the gospel today, John paints a picture of an angry Jesus, entering the symbol of Israel’s security, whip in hand, driving out those who had turned the Temple into the center of a money-making racket. As you know, the Temple was the only place of sacrifice for the Jews. Sacrifice meant the offering to God of that which God created, whether in the form of wheat or grapes, doves or lambs, depending on the purpose of the sacrifice. Sacrifice meant the offering of life on behalf of individuals and families and once a year, on the Day of Atonement, on behalf on the nation itself.
The racket Jesus encountered was rather clever. For instance, a family brought its sacrifice to the Temple. It had to be inspected to make sure that it was of high enough quality to be acceptable. If the object was rejected, there were substitutes available at a price. When the head of the family offered payment, his money was rejected because it was the usual Roman coinage. Yet, guess what? These coins could be exchanged for pure Temple currency, at a price.
Those of us who have traveled abroad know how annoying it is to find our dollars exchanged for a foreign currency and having to pay the exchange rate. So something meant to be holy, special, unique, had been turned into a crooked commercial transaction. Jesus was furious. There’s no “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” in the gospel today. Jesus, whip in hand – imagine a well-aimed flick at a prominent bottom – drives out these crooked merchants, many of whom were priests.
Jesus then goes on to strike at the heart of Jewish security. He shouts that the Temple will be destroyed. To his listeners, that announcement seemed incredible. It struck at national security and national faith. Was God going to absent himself again? Indeed there were some who believed that God’s Presence had never truly returned.
Jesus was speaking about two things at once. His astounding claim to be “God with Us” rivaled that of the Temple. Later Christians would teach that Jesus is truly the new and substitute Temple, the sign of God among us. So John reminds us in this account that Jesus knew he would die and rise again; the Temple of his body would be destroyed and renewed. Yet early Christians hearing these words after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple would hear Jesus saying that God’s covenant was now to be with all who believe in Jesus, the true Temple.
Now this gospel isn’t an excuse of anti-Semitism. It is rather a calling to us all to examine just how genuine our devotion to Jesus is, at this moment, in this place. Buildings are important symbols of the presence of Jesus-Who-Is-God with his people. They exist not to suggest that we are special people, or better than others; but rather that we are “holy” people, called people, people with a mission, God’s mission, to restore all things into Jesus-Who-Is-Lord-of-All.
Perhaps you are annoyed when you hear politicians parading their God in order to win votes. We have to make sure that we are not using our faith as a cover of respectability while ignoring the poor, mistreating those near and dear to us, parading our righteousness, or cheating God and his people by failing to pray, work, and give for the Kingdom. Lent exists for that purpose. We have to make sure that we know which Temple we serve: one which exists for our own selfish benefit, or one which exists for God.
And if we don’t repent? Watch out for that whip!