Thought for the day
In the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox traditions, faith and reason are not in fundamental contradiction. At the same time, there is something radically irreducible and paradoxical in our faith. It was expressed a long time ago by Bishop Robinson, the scandalous particularity of the incarnation. And we may add, of the crucifixion. The Christian vision, for us, is indeed something wonderful. Nevertheless, let’s not forget that for many today, it is in a way too wonderful, too strange and actually unbelievable. That natural resistance can be part of our faith too!
God, we come to you through the cloud of unknowing, because you are always greater, greater than our minds, greater than our hearts. Help us to stand before the bright darkness of your mysterious Being that we may come to know you as you really are.
John 2:13 Now the Jewish feast of Passover was near, so Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
John 2:14 He found in the temple courts those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers sitting at tables. 15 So he made a whip of cords and drove them all out of the temple courts, with the sheep and the oxen. He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold the doves he said, “Take these things away from here! Do not make my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will devour me.”
John 2:18 So then the Jewish leaders responded, “What sign can you show us, since you are doing these things?” 19 Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again.” 20 Then the Jewish leaders said to him, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and are you going to raise it up in three days?” 21 But Jesus was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 So after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the scripture and the saying that Jesus had spoken.
John 2:23 Now while Jesus was in Jerusalem at the Feast of the Passover, many people believed in his name because they saw the miraculous signs he was doing. 24 But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people. 25 He did not need anyone to testify about man, for he knew what was in man.
This passage is important historically and theologically. The Temple Action (to give it a neutral title — it is more than a “cleansing” — ) was one of the two events that moved the religious authorities in Jerusalem to act against Jesus. Combined with the messianic entry, the Temple Action constituted a threat both religious and political. As a result, scholars usually affirm the historicity of the event, even though it is reported differently in John and in the Synoptic Gospels. It is also important theologically. The moralising tradition usually assumes some kind of abuse or sharp practice in the Temple. But the provision of animals and a currency exchange service were both required for the ordinary functioning of the Temple. Attacking the sellers was attacking the Temple as such and this was well understood by the authorities. Jesus’ action critiqued the Temple as the unique point of access to God. He had already implied this in his ministry and teaching: the kingdom of God is among you.
There is a question regarding the timing of the incident. In the other Gospels, it happens during Jesus’ only visit to Jerusalem. In John, where there are many visits to Jerusalem (historically probable), the incident takes place at the very start (historically improbable).
Kind of writing
Our passage belongs to a familiar type of writing from the Bible, that of “prophetic action.” From time to time, prophetic figures dramatised their teaching by an action, a kind of tableau vivant. Examples in the Hebrew Bible are: Isaiah gives symbolic names to his children (Is 7:3; 8:14); Jeremiah: the waist cloth hidden by the Euphrates (Jer 13:1-11); Ezekiel makes a model of Jerusalem (Ez 4:1-3). Examples in the New Testament are: the calling of the Twelve, open table-fellowship, the entry into Jerusalem, the Temple Action, the Last Supper. The prophecy of Agabus (Acts 21:10-14) illustrates prophetic actions especially well and shows that the tradition was alive and well in the first century.
Old Testament background
(i) The appropriate OT background is the general importance of the Temple right through the biblical period, from Solomon to its destruction in 70 ad. The location of the Temple in Jerusalem placed the cult under the patronage of the king and was thus a political act. When the Temple was destroyed under Nebuchadnezzar, the people were bereft of contact with God. After the Exile in Babylon, the building of the Second Temple greatly preoccupied those who had returned. The rebuilding of that Temple under Herod the Great was the major construction project of his reign. A very high proportion of the economy of Jerusalem depended on the Temple and any disturbance had consequences.
(ii) On that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, “Holy to the Lord.” And the cooking pots in the house of the Lord shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar; and every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord of hosts, so that all who sacrifice may come and use them to boil the flesh of the sacrifice. And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day. (Zech 14:20–21; a messianic text.)
(iii) It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me. (Psa 69:9; a passion text for NT writers, adjusted by the writer.)
New Testament foreground
(i) The Temple Action
In the Synoptic Gospels this story is not only reported at another time but the vocabulary and reaction are different.
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. (Mark 11:15–19)
(ii) The Temple Saying
In Matthew and Mark, the saying is on the lips of false witnesses and is repeated at the crucifixion by those who deride Jesus (Matt 26:61; 27:40; Mark 14:58; 15:29). Luke has no place for the destruction of the Temple because the first disciples continue to pray there; therefore he omits the sentence both at the trial and at the crucifixion. He does, however, know about it: For we have heard him saying that Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us. (Acts 6:14)
(iii) Worship in John
Worship is theme of John 1-4. See John 1:18; 2:21; 3:3; 4:19-26. Jesus’ death (Ps 69) and resurrection (v. 22) are also in the mind of the writer at this point.
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Cor 3:16–17)
Verse 13 There are three Passovers in this Gospel, of which this is the first. Passover was the climax of the worshipping year and the busiest time in Jerusalem.
Verse 14 These were required by the Bible itself for the functioning of the Temple. John has no sense that sellers are robbers. Money changers were necessary because you could not use coins with images of any kind on them, such as Roman denarii or Attic drachmas.
Verse 15 The action itself is exceptional for its vigour and violence.
Verse 16 Not unlike the comment in Psalm 50: “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?” (Psa 50:12–13) The explicit reference is to Zech 14:20-21, a text with messianic overtones at the time.
Verse 17 A first reaction. Remembering under the power of the Spirit is part of the Johannine appropriation of the Jesus tradition. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:26) Psalm 69 is widely referred to in the New Testament but usually in connection with the crucifixion.
Verse 18 A double level of meaning. Authority is the question in the Synoptic Gospels, but John has a “signs Gospel”. It is often thought that John 1-12 is structured around a Signs Source, with the following content: changing water into wine (2:1–11), healing an official’s son (4:46–54) and a lame man (5:2–9), feeding the multitude (6:1–14)—probably together with crossing the sea (6:15–25), giving sight to a blind man (9:1–8), and raising Lazarus (11:1–45). The big sign remains the lifting up on the cross into resurrection.
Verse 19 The Temple saying is here placed on the lips of Jesus himself.
Verse 20 If you took the John version as historical, this would yield a date.
Verse 21 The voice of the writer intrudes, speaking directly to the reader.
Verse 22 A good example of Johannine remembering later. Notice that Jesus’ word is equated with scripture.
Verse 23 Cf. Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” (John 6:26–27)
Verses 24-25 This extra knowledge of Jesus is characteristic of the Johannine Jesus.
Pointers for prayer
1. We all tend to confine God to received traditions (places, images, words) but we know that “God is greater than our conscience.” (1 John 3:20) How do I experience that “more” of God and keep it before my eyes?
2. Jesus himself is the “locus” of God’s presence for us, a presence found in life, through others, in the Word of God and in the sacraments. What have been my own moments of encounter, with him who gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction?
Holy God, the folly of the cross mocks our human wisdom and the weakness of the crucified puts worldly power to shame.
Banish from our hearts every pretence of might and knowledge, that, by the power flowing from Christ’s resurrection, your people may be raised up from the death of sin and fashioned into a living temple of your glory.
Grant this through Christ, our liberator from sin, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, holy and mighty God for ever and ever. Amen.